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.