The Magic Box by Kit Wright

The Magic Box by Kit Wright is a fairly well-known and used poem, popular in many classrooms. It is frequently used for a simple reason – it is good! We are asked to imagine a box into which we will put a series of items which can either by objects, memories, thoughts or hopes. Here is an extract:

I will put in the box

the swish of a silk sari on a summer night,
fire from the nostrils of a Chinese dragon,
the tip of a tongue touching a tooth.

Suggested activities

I don’t need to say too much about this poem, other than to refer you to the excellent lesson suggestions put together by The Poetry Society. The full text of the poem can be found here, together with lesson ideas. The ideas suggest activities for use with children all the way from Reception to Year 6. It is a very flexible poem which can be used at a number of levels.

In this clip, the poet reads his own poem to a group of children.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/clips/zkpmhyc

In this short film, a group of children perform the poem, with illustrations from their own artwork. Maybe your class could make a film of a performance.

Other information

The Magic Box by Kit Wright appears in A Poem For Every Day of the Year, chosen by Gaby Morgan (10th Anniversary Edition). There is a biography of the poet here plus the chance to read and hear other examples of his poetry.

A companion piece to look at would be My Box by Gillian Clarke (an article on this will follow shortly).

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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.

Five simple rules for writing a poem

These are five simple rules for writing a poem. You could give these to children before they put pen to paper. I am indebted to Dunn, Styles and Warburton (1987, p.32) for these ideas.

1. It doesn’t have to rhyme

2. Start a new line when you pause

3. Say something fresh

4. Ordinary things make good poetry

5. Every word must count.

 

I might add the following:

Tell the children that their poem must NOT rhyme today! Tell them to ignore every rule they have been taught about writing prose (forget punctuation, capital letters, the need for full sentences). Write from the heart. Write about what matters to you. Be angry or funny or mysterious. Make up words if you wish to!

As a teacher you could then follow this pattern:

The first draft is then discussed in pairs.

Some poems are read out.

The teacher gives spoken feedback to each child.

The class talks about how to improve their poems.

Pupils have a chance to write a second draft.

Reference: Dunn, J., Styles, M., Warburton, N., (1987) In tune with yourself: children writing poetry – a handbook for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

25 things to do with a poem

Things to do with a poem

  1. Start with a prose version.
  2. Turn the poem into dialogue and act it out.
  3. Turn written ballads into songs.
  4. Watch videos of poet performing it or listen to a recording.
  5. Add sound effects and instruments, movement or dance.
  6. Turn it into a class performance – create a powerful, dramatic reading.
  7. Find out if pop songs make good poetry. Try When I Was A Youngster by Rizzle Kicks.
  8. Record a group reading of a poem.
  9. Turn it into animation or create some art.
  10. Make cross curricular links – such as history, science or ICT.
  11. Research the poet’s life with ICT and present in groups.
  12. Start with pictures or photos rather than the poem itself, eg a powerful picture of The Charge of the Light Brigade.
  13. Get children to annotate a big copy of the poem.
  14. Read it aloud to the children with their eyes shut.
  15. Read it once a day for a week, but only discuss it on Friday.
  16. Imagine a photograph or film of the poem.
  17. Cut it up and get the children to re-arrange it in order. Or cut three poems up, on a similar theme, and ask the children to find others in the class with parts of their poem.
  18. Create illustrations – then add words to the pictures.
  19. Start with a line drawing then create a calligram.
  20. Give children lots of words and ask children to put them in a drawing.
  21. Read it aloud – in pairs, in groups, with actions, with freezeframes or video stills where the film can move forward or back.
  22. Write a class poem – with teacher as scribe. Use dictionaries and a thesaurus.
  23. Continue the poem in the same style.
  24. Tackle the punctuation by only stopping reading when punctuation is reached.
  25. The teacher could start reading the poem in a whisper and invite children to join in with parts.

Some ideas taken from Morgan, M, (2001), How to teach poetry writing at Key Stage 2. London: David Fulton, Catt, R., (2000), ‘Jolly good I said’: using poetry with older children in Fisher, R and Williams, M (ed) (2000), Unlocking Literacy: A Guide for Teachers. London: David Fulton.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

 This poem intrigued my primary school class. We studied it just before Christmas and the ‘harness bells’ prompted quite a discussion about whether this might refer to Father Christmas! The mysterious nature of the visitor adds to the strangeness of the poem and could provide an interesting stimulus for further writing or even drama.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost 1922 (Frost lived from 1874 to 1963. He was an American poet and his life had many personal tragedies. His work also includes The Road Not Taken. Read his biography here.)

Questions for discussion:

What time of year is it? How do you know?

What do we know about this stranger?

What promises does he have to keep?

Where is he heading? Why?

What happens next in the story?

Other activities:

Try drawing the scene.

Show children a winter’s picture with a strange figure on a horse. Brainstorm vocabulary first. Get them to tell the story to each other. Only then read the poem to them at the end of that activity.

Ask the children to perform the poem in groups. Each group could be given one verse to learn and dramatise. You will end up with a complete class performance.

Notes from my own teaching diary

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. I printed the poem out and cut it up, giving one line to each child (some were in pairs). Each child had to learn the line, put the paper behind their backs then go round the room and recite the poem to another child. Could they find someone who has a linked idea? I asked the children to stand in groups of four – and then arrange themselves into some kind of order. Then I asked them to recite their lines in order and see if it is anything like the real poem. This was a good opportunity for children to learn a brief line and recite it. They enjoyed finding partners and eventually noticed there were rhyming patterns which could help them arrange the poem into verses. We followed this with a discussion about the meaning of the poem, and whether it could refer to Father Christmas.