I once was a primary school teacher.
But I wasn’t a poetry preacher!
I didn’t have a clue about what to teach.
I was stuck in the mud, a whale on a beach…
As a young primary school teacher, I had little idea about delivering ‘inspiring’ poetry lessons. I’d shove ‘poetry’ into the summer term, a month before we finished. In those prehistoric days, before our good friend ‘Google’ arrived like a new sharpshooter galloping into a Wild West town, I had little resources at my disposal.
In those days, if somebody asked me to write a poem with my class, I’d choose Kit Wright’s classic ‘The magic box’ poem, the children writing their own…
In my magic box is a gold plated, rare Dragon’s feather.
In my magic box is King Arthur’s silver sword, Excalibur, etc…
Or, I might have even used a boring ‘acrostic’ poem, its title scrawled down the left-hand side of the children’s pages: ‘Special people’ or whatever our topic was.
I might have used a ‘Kenning’ too, once the latest craze in primary schools…
(Super) Football player
(Delicious) Pizza maker
(Sports) Car driver
Or perhaps a Japanese Haiku, such as Basho’s ‘Old pond’
Frog leaps in
How times change. Just look at what I do now.
Writing poetry is a wonderful way for struggling writers to produce an imaginative piece of English work, work to be proud of. It’s also a great way to introduce children to or develop their understanding of personification, similes and metaphors, powerful writing features to be inserted into other genres of writing, ‘up-levelling’ their work.
I’ve witnessed many ‘miracles’ during my poetry workshops, often from boys whose idea of a good piece of writing is scrawling out the ‘WALT’ and date. Some ‘reluctant writers’ produce their very own imaginative poem, their teachers amazed at their achievements. Words can do that, fused with interest, energy and enthusiasm.
Powerful stuff indeed. So, if you’re struggling to deliver poetry to a class, here are my top 10 tips:
- Find a classic poetry book
Choose quality poems to read to the children as great examples. Before Google, a friend suggested Brian Patten’s >Gargling with jelly<. I used this little book countless times in my classroom. >I’ve never heard the Queen sneeze< is one of my own personal favourites.
The >Oxford Anthology of Children’s Poetry< was another book I used. Within its pages, I discovered Charles Causley’s >Colonel Fazakerley Butterworth-Toast<, along with Adrian Mitchell’s >Stufferation< and Shel Silverstein’s classic >Sick< poem.
- Write for a purpose
My art is performance poetry, so tell the children they’re going to perform their poetry at the end of the week, perhaps at an assembly or for the school’s website.
Young poets who represent their school in my Poetry Buzz! festivals are always excited, knowing they’ll ultimately end up on stage performing their work in front of an audience.
Manchester communication academy or MCA, one of my ‘writer in residence’ schools, have a regular performance slot, called >Talk of the Town<. Y7-9 children perform their English work in front of an audience of teachers and proud parents. It’s an informal event and a super self-esteem booster for students.
- Let’s get age-related
Choose age related themes, which the children will enjoy writing about. For examples, for reception pupils I like to use my own >Just pretend!< poem, moving around the hall:
Pretend you’re a dinosaur, Rah, rah, rah!
Stomp around the hall! Rah, rah, rah!
Reach for the sky! Rah, rah, rah!
Strong and tall! Rah! Rah! Rah!
And here’s one I use with Y2/3 and they love creating their own:
I don’t like salad sandwiches and I don’t like garden peas.
I don’t like sticky honey – who cares if it’s made by bees?
I don’t like mummy’s face, when she’s searching for her keys.
I only like chocolate!
- Fabulous frameworks
Provide a framework for your children, unless the writing is free, which I normally avoid during my workshops, as often, only high ability children produce acceptable results. Children need a framework. Here’s an example, which I use with Y6/7:
Sometimes, I feel brave,
as brave as a gladiator in a crowded theatre ring,
fighting off a lion, for what could freedom bring?
Sometimes I feel weak,
as weak as a warrior in a blood-soaked battlefield,
clutching still his silver sword and a tarnished, broken shield.
This is easy to reproduce, using the above as a framework and obviously, it’s also a great way to develop children’s understanding of similes:
Sometimes, I feel lonely,
as lonely as an iPhone 3 sitting in a dusty charity shop window,
wishing he was the new kid on the block, everybody’s favourite, the iPhone X.
- To rhyme or not to rhyme?
Many of my examples are rhyming poem but the children’s versions are then non-rhyming. And it works. I only work with rhymes from Y5 onwards. That ‘top’ table in Y4 will be able to write rhyming poetry, however, in my experience, the rest of the class will struggle, often ‘inventing’ words.
Here’s what I always demonstrate:
My brother and I love Tropicana orange (4 beat rhythm)
and after our tea… (Let’s finish this off…)
Nothing rhymes with ’orange’ of course! I also use ‘rugby’ and write nonsense words, which the children often come up with, such as ‘shugby’ and ‘Bugbee’ or whatever. Then I write ‘school’ on the board and we find out which words rhyme with school – dozens.
This is a great lesson in itself, as below, you can see how many words rhyme with school, along with different spelling strands…
I’m sure you get the idea.
Here’s another example, my >There is nothing finer than…< poem, which I use in Y5/6:
There is nothing finer than…
Melting butter on a piece of toast.
Carving up a Sunday roast.
Friday afternoon, the last day of school.
Applying your hair gel, trendy and cool.
- Nobody’s wrong
Writing poetry is an ideal activity as nobody’s poem is strictly wrong. There are no set rules, even if children stray away from the framework, which high ability children often do. Poetry is like art – very subjective.
07: Start from scratch
Sometimes, I go into a classroom and I’m all ready to go and a teacher asks, “Oh, we’re doing such and such a topic, have you any poems about that?” More than likely, I’ll say no and so, we’ll start from scratch, using a simple structure to get the children started on their own. We start by writing a class version, and then each write our own.
08: Work, rest, play…
Time is precious in the primary classroom, but it’s well worth re-drafting your pupils’ initial poem, often revisiting work days, even weeks later. Reading your poetry aloud helps. Or ask their classmates to read it. Enquire, how do the words feel when they hear their work? What’s the rhythm like? Does one word need to be cut or inserted into a line?
- Subtle differentiation
If you’re getting observed – you may worry about differentiation – your higher ability students will always produce imaginative poems, which far exceed your expectations. Of course, somebody can sit with your lower ability group, perhaps writing a collaborative poem together or a shortened version of the task in hand. Why not?
In effect, the children are all working on the same task, with little tweaks. Here’s an example of ‘subtle’ differentiation:
In trouble! Poem from Hedgehogs 1 Big trucks
This is an activity for Y3/4, showing 3 subtlety different versions:
You can kick a ball but kick a hedgehog and you’re in trouble!
You can kick a premiership football but kick a wild, spiky hedgehog and you’re in trouble!
You can kick a premiership football in a famous stadium but kick a wild, spiky hedgehog at the side of the road and you’re in trouble!
- We’re gonna have some fun
Writing poetry should be seen as a fun even playful activity, children enjoying messing around with words and language, enjoying just writing, without a creativity-stifling checklist of criteria so often sitting in front of children in UK classrooms.
For many children (and teachers) writing a poem can seem to be a daunting task as we’re not sure about structure, rhyming scheme, how many lines, stanzas, etc. But have fun and go with the flow and see what happens.
Great fun can be found playing around with the words, language, structure, ideas and music inside poetry. Here’s one I’ve just written right now – simple idea.
Hot summer fayre.
Soft rabbit fur.
Tall Balsam fir.
Cheap bus fare.
It’s not fair!
I don’t care!
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to let your class loose on poetry and see where the rhythm takes you.
For more from Paul Delaney visit: pdelaney.co.uk