What is Orange? by Mary O’Neill

This is a really fun poem which can inspire children of all abilities to think and write creatively. In a way, this is one of the easiest poetry lessons to teach – and the results can be wonderful and varied.

It is based on a poem by the American poet Mary O-Neill. She was born and raised in Ohio and later lived in New York City. Her best-known works were inspired by colours. She died in 1990.

This poem is called ‘What is Orange?‘ and is a list, very skilfully done, of things that are orange. Here is how it opens:

Orange is a tiger lily,
A carrot,
A feather from
A parrot,
A flame,
The wildest colour you can name.
Saying good-bye
In a sunset that
Shocks the sky.

The full text of the poem can be found here. Here is an American school presenting a sung version of the poem (in a different order, slightly, from the written version).

Suggested activities
1. Show the children a Powerpoint slide either of things that are orange, a just a plain, bright orange background. An alternative is to present some objects and ask them what they have in common, eg a carrot, a tiger lily, a fox. What could possibly link these together?
2. Read the poem to them and work towards a class performance, either in groups or together.
3. Ask the children to work in groups to choose their own colour. Then brainstorm on a big sheet as many things as they can think of which are that colour.
4. Encourage children to think not in words but in phrases. Model them on some in the poem such as Saying good-bye/ In a sunset that/ Shocks the sky. If they chose blue, they could come up with The feeling you have when it rains on a Saturday or When clouds disappear and the sun shines on the sea.
5. Challenge the children to use all of their senses – not just sight.
6. Ask the children then to fit the images together in a coherent order. Why have they chosen to start with that? How does it link to the next word or phrase? Suggest to them that every word should count and have a reason for being there?
7. Children could work in pairs or groups to perform their poems. They could also produce Powerpoint presentations to illustrate their poems.

The British by Benjamin Zephaniah

Are children prejudiced? Do they carry around racial hatred with them? Well, in my experience, the answer is almost always ‘no’. Children do not see the colour of others, they just see them as other children – friends or otherwise. However, it is really important to reinforce tolerance and understanding at a young age. Never has this poem been more relevant than now. It would be all too easy for children to grow up reflecting the prejudices of their parents.

So this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah is excellent for classroom use, probably in Year 5 or 6. It looks at the British people as a recipe and goes back over our history to look at all the different influences which have gone into the mix we have today. Here is how the poem begins. (Silures by the way were a warlike tribe in Ancient Britain):

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

The full text of the poem can be found here. There is an excellent YouTube video of this poem which features young people sitting round a table, sharing a meal, and reciting this poem. Even Benjamin Zephaniah himself appears at the end!

Possible activities

Reflect on the make-up of your own class. How many children in the class have come from different countries? What can they tell us about these countries? Why is it important that we live together in “justice and equality”?

What does the poet mean by “justice”? Where might there not be justice in our society?
Why has the poet gone with a cooking theme? Why is it important to get all of the ingredients correct?

Look at all the detail in this poem. Write out all the different races mentioned and the dates when they came to this country. (You have about 2,000 years of history to research here!) This could lead to artwork or classroom posters or a timeline. The different ingredients could be handed out to pairs of children to research. This is what you have in the poem (you might wish to discuss if anyone is missing!):

Picts
Celts
Silures
Romans
Normans
Angles
Saxons
Jutes
Vikings
Chileans
Jamaicans
Dominicans
Trinidadians
Bajans
Ethiopians
Chinese
Vietnamese
Sudanese
Somalians
Sri Lankans
Nigerians
Pakistanis
Guyanese
Indians
Malaysians
Bosnians
Iraqis
Bangladeshis
Afghans
Spanish
Turkish
Kurdish
Japanese
Palestinians

Further reading

More mature children, possibly Key Stage Three, might like to reflect on What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us, also by Benjamin Zephaniah which argues that this dream of justice and equality in Britain is still some way off being realised.

Challenge your class to write a poem containing five devices

I wanted to revise poetic devices with my class, so I challenged them to write a poem about their favourite place. It had to contain:

a simile
a metaphor
alliteration
personification
– an idiom

I asked them to label them in different colours and be prepared to share them with the rest of the class. This was rather a false situation and was unlikely to produce great poetry, but I just wanted them to think about different devices and varying their approach to writing.

To get the class going, I showed them a picture of my lounge, along with this poem, written by me. Not great, but containing everything I wished to highlight:

My favourite place

I am going to the place
Where I feel safe,
Rows of books like teeth in a big smile,
The red sofas a huge hug waiting for me,
Crazy cushions cover every corner,
The coffee table complains under the
Weight of paper, pens, toys and cups;
A place of peace, a window on the world.
When I’ve got the blues I return to
My favourite room.

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.

 

 

The Sea by James Reeves

The Sea by James ReevesDSCF1767

EXTRACT

‘The sea is a hungry dog,
Giant and grey.
He rolls on the beach all day.’

This poem is excellent for developing personification and metaphor. You can read the full text of this poem here.

There is a really good analysis of this poem, with biographical details about James Reeves here.

Listen to the poet reading it here.

This video has been produced with simple pictures to illustrate the words.

Classroom activities and questions:

Rehearse a class performance of the poem, with different groups working on different verses. Think about using different voices, speaking together, actions, different volume, speaking in sympathy with the words.

Draw a picture based on the words you have heard.

Look for examples of personification and metaphor in the poem.

Try replacing them with examples of your own.

Brainstorm words matching the different moods of the sea. Write your own poem about the sea.

 

James Reeves (1909-1978)