I Am by John Clare

John Clare lived from 1793 to 1864. He was the son of a farmer and came to be known as the “peasant poet”. Most of his work is not particularly accessible to young people, but the following poem could provoke an interesting discussion with able Year 5 or 6 students, and certainly for Key Stage Three students.

Clare suffered from mental health problems for much of his life and this poem, I Am, was written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. There is some background about the poem here. It deals with a sense of alienation and ends with a longing for a better place, perhaps in another life. This is how it begins:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live

You can read the full text of the poem here.

There is a brilliant performance of the poem here:
Possible activities
– Present the whole poem to groups of three. Ask them questions such as:
1. When was this written?
2. Is it written by a man or a woman?
3. How are they feeling and how do you know? (do not accept basic words such as happy or sad)
4. Can you guess where this poem was written?
5. Are they ultimately optimistic or pessimistic? (or similar vocabulary)
– Then reveal the background of the poem.
– Dish out phrases from the poem such as “the self- consumer of my woes”. Ask pairs to look up all the difficult words and come up with alternative phrases. Put these together in a class soliloquy. Compare this modern version with the original.
– Challenge groups to perform the original poem. Watch various video performances and assess them, compared with the class versions.
– Research the story of John Clare, his love of nature, his mental health problems, and look at other poems he has written.
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Whatif by Shel Silverstein

Everyone has secret fears, often hidden inside – and children are no exception. This poem, Whatif by Shel Silverstein, articulates the anxieties of a young person. The fears range from not doing well in a school test, to a late bus, to parents breaking up, and even to death itself.

Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) was an American poet, singer-songwriter and cartoonist. Here is how the poem opens:

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?

Read the full text of the poem here.

This is a really fun version of the poem (note: it begins with flashing images).

Suggested activities
This poem could be really useful in a PSHE context, especially if there are particular children in your class suffering from anxieties.

Read the poem out to the children and work towards a class performance. Share lines out to individuals, pairs and groups and get the children really familiar with the feel of the poem and its meaning.

Then, the children could work in groups, with large pieces of card, listing their own anxieties from the trivial (losing their ruler) to the serious things they are worried about. Perhaps there could be a scale across the top of the sheet from 1 to 10 and they could write their worries in the appropriate places.

Children could then start taking these fears and working them into a poem, similar to Silverstein’s. You will note that Silverstein rhymes pairs of lines, but I would not advise this approach with children, until some are very keen to give it a go.

You can read more poems by Shel Silverstein at Poetry Soup.

 

Citizen of the World by Dave Calder

There has never been a more important time to address issues of refugees, alienation and racism. With feelings running high in many countries of the world – especially the UK – thirefugeess is an important subject to raise in classrooms. Many of our primary schools have welcomed children from other countries, some refugees, some seeking asylum. This poem, Citizen of the World by Dave Calder, will get the class thinking about how children must feel when they arrive in a new place, perhaps not of their own choosing. It begins:

when you are very small
maybe not quite born
your parents move
for some reason you may never understand they move
from their own town
from their own land
and you grow up in a place
that is never quite your home

The full text of the poem can be found here, along with other poems by Dave Calder. It is hard to find much information about Dave Calder, other than he edited The Usborne Book of Funny Poems.

Possible activities

Start the lesson by asking children what the word ‘home’ means to them. Make a list of class responses and some typical vocabulary.

Then show them a picture, such as the one above. Here are some possible discussion questions:
Who are these people?
Where are they going?
How are they feeling? Look at their faces.
Why do people have to leave one country and go to another?
What does the word ‘home’ mean to them? How does this compare to your idea of ‘home’ discussed earlier?

Perhaps someone in your class could share a story from personal experience of moving from one place to another. Perhaps someone has had to move to another country, not of their own choosing.

Then read, and experience, the poem. Ask children what they like about it, and what puzzles them about it. What does the line ‘with a smile or a fist‘ mean?

More poems about refugees

Other poems about refugees include We Refugees by Benjamin Zephaniah, though the reading is not by him.

This video is of a poem by a 12-year-old girl called Reema who had to flee Syria after her school was bombed. It was made by Oxfam America.

If you have suggestions of other poems about refugees, I would be pleased to receive them.

Tackling loneliness: poems and songs you could use

I often use song lyrics in poetry lessons. Usually I would examine the text first and only play the song to the children at the end of the lesson. A really interesting session on loneliness can be had by using a couple of popular songs and linking them to poems on the same theme.

You could begin with a picture portraying loneliness or solitude, such as this. Ask the children to talk about what is going on. Ask them to come up with three adjectives describing how the man is feeling. Make a list of this vocabulary on the board. Discuss why this man is begging, what might have happened in his life. Ask the children if they have seen homeless people on the streets, especially in busy towns or cities.

lonely

Then hand out the lyrics of The Streets of London, a folk song written and performed by Ralph McTell. Here’s the first verse:

Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hand held loosely at his side
Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news

You can find the full lyrics here.

Read through all of the lyrics. Use the Questions Cards for a Poem approach if that helps. Ask pairs to come up with ideas why these people are homeless. Ask them about their favourite phrases in the song, such as “Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news”. Can you add any more vocabulary to the list on the board?

Then play the children the video of the song (written in 1970). This includes an interesting interview with Ralph McTell explaining why he wrote the song and why it has lasted so long.

At this stage, children could be thinking about their own poem, based on a character feeling alone. An old person who is bereaved? A homeless young person in a city? A child in a new school without friends? Their poem could begin: Have you seen…?

If you want to develop this further, look at The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby, (written in 1966) and its refrain:

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Find the full lyrics here. Who was Eleanor Rigby? Why was Father McKenzie also alone? How did their stories come together? Who is lonely in society today? What can we do to help them? The song is seen as a lament for lonely people and a comment on post-war society.

There is a brilliant cover version of the song by Ray Charles here:

Children could compare the two songs. Which is most effective? Which is your favourite line in either song? Why were the songs so popular?

If you wish to bring in a poem which looks at the issue of loneliness, you could look at Alone in the Grange by Gregory Harrison. I have a separate page looking at how you could use this page.

Preludes by TS Eliot

This was, perhaps, my biggest gamble as a poetry teacher but it really paid off. I noticed that part of T S Eliot’s Preludes was included in the excellent poetry collection, Sensational, edited by Roger McGough. It also appeared in a transition unit for use between Years 6 and 7. Preludes is a four-verse poem in which a hidden observer describes dusk on a winter’s evening in a poor part of the city. We don’t know exactly where, or necessarily when, though the poem was written in 1920.

In a sense, we do not need to know anymore because we want children to use the language to imagine where we are and what is going on. For this lesson, I just used Preludes Part I. There is enough in here to support a whole week of literacy. (Please note that the other parts do contain themes unsuitable for primary age children). It begins like this:

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

(TS Eliot, 1888–1965)

I read the full Part I to the class and then displayed a series of pictures, partly suggested by the text. Which picture would they choose and why? These are a couple of the images I found:

Prelude 1prelude 2

The last two lines of Part I are:

And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

I asked the children to discuss this cab-horse. Who is inside? Where have they come from? Who are they meeting? Why is the cab-horse lonely? Why is it stamping? Is it anxious to get somewhere?
From these questions, children can begin to construct a mood and a scenario. You might wish to begin writing an alternative version with the children’s own vocabulary. You might wish to turn this into prose and construct a story around this bleak image.
Here is an example of one poem written by a Year 5 pupil:

The Station (inspired by Preludes by TS Eliot)

The veil of mist shrouds all
As the girl glances back.
Gears grinding.
The train heaves down its track
And now the veil of mist is back.
The girl on the train
Fiddles with her feet.

The train chugs away from the strife,
Brought on by her life.
She orders from the trolley
And readies her brolley
For outside, the rain is reluctant
To cease its fire at the earth.
But she likes the rain.

(Max Crossland)

I think you will agree that this is a pretty impressive effort. It was highly commended in the John Betjeman Poetry Competition.

You can read the full text of Preludes here.

Words and images from Preludes have, of course, been used in the production of TS Eliot’s Cats poems for the stage, particularly in the song Memory. Here is a video of the song, sung by Elaine Paige, which could also be used as a stimulus for writing. Children could also try to spot which parts of the poem appear in the song.

 

 

An example lesson of getting pupils to write poems

This is another extract from my dissertation. It describes just one poetry lesson, based on a wonderful poem, Alone in the Grange, by Gregory Harrison which can be found in Pyott, L (ed), (1985), The Possum Tree: 161 poems for children. London: A&C Black. 

7.1 On my final year placement, I managed to negotiate a lesson to try to put into practice some of the approaches I had learnt about during my dissertation. I was teaching a mixed Year 5/6 class. In the end, I was left with one lesson for poetry so I decided to use one of my favourite poems, ‘Alone in the Grange’ by Gregory Harrison, about a mysterious old man who lives in an old shuttered house. It has a distinctive pattern beginning:

Strange,
Strange,
Is the little old man
Who lives in the Grange.
Old,
Old;
And they say that he keeps
A box full of gold.

I began by asking the children simply to read it through. I then invited four children to the front to read a verse each. I wanted the children to become familiar with the text before they started to discuss its meaning, so I continued by asking them to come up with different ways of saying the key words such as strange, old and soft. I encouraged them to use different voices and emphases.

7.2 I then asked children to work in pairs to consider: If the poet were to walk in the room now, what would you ask him? The responses were written on post-it notes and I read these out to the whole class. Many children wanted to know whether the old man was real, who it was based on, and whether he was really a magician. Others wished to know why he was lonely. I collected the notes together and stuck them on the board – and later referred to them as possible answers to the questions emerged from the lesson. I then asked children to work in groups to come up with a description of the old man using their own words. This produced some interesting and imaginative answers. One group thought the man looked like Gollum from ‘Lord of the Rings’, and another said he was more like Yoda from the ‘Star Wars’ films, so I asked one of the Year 6 pupils to find pictures on the internet and display them on the whiteboard.

7.3 We discussed the different ideas and I made a spidergram on the board of vocabulary to describe the old man. In literacy, I like to use children’s suggestions to make a visible wordbank. This particularly helps children of lower ability to get started, and I make a point of saying I do not mind anyone ‘stealing’ words from the board. I then modelled an opening to my poem, staying close to the structure used by Gregory Harrison. I wrote my own first verse, explaining my thought processes and making alterations and improvements as I progressed. I then asked the class to offer comments or suggestions to make it better, and made further changes. I wished to emphasise the importance of writing a first draft and then changing and improving it.

7.4 I then asked children to use their rough books to construct their own opening verses. Given the short time limit for the lesson, I suggested they keep to Harrison’s structure: in a longer series of lessons, I would have given children more freedom. I also made it clear I did not expect the poem to rhyme, although some still insisted on trying.

7.5 I was very impressed by many of the contributions. A very low ability girl, after a short one-to-one discussion with me, came up with:

Grumpy
Grumpy
Is the worthless old man
Who lives in the grey empty school house.

One of the most pleasing pieces of work was from a lower ability Year 5 boy who began his poem:

Scary
Scary
Is the manky man
In the mysterious house.

His poem went on to talk about the man’s grumpy dog, and his mad wife ‘who he killed with a knife’. This boy rarely completes work in literacy, but he had finished four verses of his poem and gone on to illustrate the work.

A higher ability Year 6 came up began with some fairly deep characterisation which posed plenty of questions for the reader:

Homeless
Homeless
Is the troubled man
Who never stops to say hello.

One of my favourite poems came from a lower ability Year 5 boy who often struggled with writing but was often able to come up with unusual ideas and images. He called his poem ‘The Curse’:

Fat
Fat
Is the man
Who eats marshmallows.
Blood red,
Blood red,
Is the colour of his burning eyes.
Heartless,
Heartless,
Is his glare which haunts his victims.
Strange,
Strange,
Is his curse that comes when the moon is full.
Hairy,
Hairy,
Is his dark fur which is stained with blood.
Cure,
Cure,
Is what he’s been looking for, ever since it happened.

7.6 Considering there was only an hour for this topic, I was very impressed with the overall quality of the poems written. I was particularly pleased that many of the most interesting images came from lower ability children, not known for the quality of their writing, or for completing tasks in normal lesson time. I could have improved the lesson by giving more time to immersing children in poetry – perhaps sharing with them several poems on the same theme, before moving on to Harrison’s. I could also have begun the lesson with an arresting image of a strange old man and asked children to brainstorm ideas before introducing the poem. I did manage to find time later in the week for children to make final copies of their poems. By this stage, I had been able to give written feedback to them on their first drafts. The final versions were free from crossings out and would have been suitable to put into a class anthology.