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.


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
– 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.

The Sea by James Reeves

The Sea by James ReevesDSCF1767


‘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)

How to teach personification

  1. Read a variety of poems to the class. Some will include personification but do not draw the pupils’ attention to this.
  2. Choose a poem that includes personification. Split it into parts. Divide the children into groups and give each a verse which they must learn, rehearse and perform to the class with actions and sound effects. Put all these together into a class performance.
  3. Discuss the poem using open-ended questions, such as those suggested by Michael Rosen.
  4. Then allow the children to choose a favourite poem and read it to their partners. Then combine pairs into fours and have them read out their poems again, discussing why they chose them. Some could also read them out to the whole class.
  5. Read out some short personification poems, asking the children to guess what they describe.
  6. Challenge the children to write personification poems in pairs and to perform them to the rest of the class who must say what they are about.
  1. Show the children a dramatic picture of, for instance, the sea, such as Turner’s Snow Storm – Steamboat off a harbour’s mouth, or show them a video clip of an angry sea, such as from the film The Perfect Storm or Titanic. Play them some sea sound effects or music inspired by the sea. Ask them to brainstorm how the sea is feeling, and then how a lone ship might be feeling. Make a list of key vocabulary.
  2. The teacher models the writing of the first verse of a poem about the angry sea. This includes reading, correcting and improving. He/ she then acts as scribe to create a second verse through shared writing.
  3. Children then move to independent writing of poetry. The teacher tells the children they will write a first draft today. Writing frames should be avoided except, perhaps, for lower ability children or those with special needs. The teacher could mention the five simple rules for writing a poem, suggested by Dunn, Styles and Warburton (1987, p.32) – it doesn’t have to rhyme, start a new line when you pause, say something fresh, ordinary things make good poetry, and every word must count. The first draft is then discussed in pairs. Some are read out. The teacher gives written feedback to each child. The class talks about how to improve their poems and pupils have a chance to write a second draft.
  4. After further feedback, the children use ICT to type up a final version of their poems, locating dramatic sea pictures on the internet. The completed poems are placed in either a class poetry anthology or on a school website for parents to read. A selection of the poems is read out at assembly.