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Monday 18 March 2013

On Reading A (Very) Poor Quality Children's Book By A (Very) Famous Author

I wrote not so long ago about why teachers should invite a non-famous author (i.e. me) into their schools. You might therefore think that I have something of a chip on my shoulder. Should you think this, this blog post will do nothing to assuage your suspicions.

I recently read a bedtime story to my three-year-old cousin. She has a shelf in her room positively laden with books, and the book I picked out seemed like a safe bet, written as it was by a famous children's author. And I'm not talking 'well, you may have heard of him/her'; I'm talking full-on 'you have DEFINITELY heard of this person'.

And what a disappointment it was. Facile, platitudinous, sanctimonious and deeply, deeply boring. It is, to my mind, almost certain that this book was not published on merit. It is, to my mind, almost certain that the book saw the light of day purely because the publishers knew that the famous name on the cover would shift copies. And they were surely right: after all, this name was what seduced me into reading the book to my cousin in the first place.

Now, I've no problem per se with famous names being used to market books. I think it can sometimes be a good thing, as I have written about here. The problem arises when famous names become an excuse to publish manifestly rubbish material. In a market that seems very much to have been cornered by a handful of big players, to see those big players produce lazy nonsense is hard for the aspiring author.

But perhaps my tastes and sensibilities are not calibrated properly. Perhaps it is a really good book after all, and I am just a philistine. It is certainly true that my cousin seemed totally uninterested, but this could have been for any number of reasons. I am not going to mention the author by name, as he (there! that's your clue!) is someone I otherwise very much admire. I would merely hazard a guess that I am not the first person to have formed the view that sometimes - dare I say 'often' - lionised children's authors fail miserably to live up to their reputations.

(PS I'm very pleased to have used the word 'lionised'. It is a great word. It always makes me think of someone transmogrifying into a lion.) (And 'transmogrify' is a fantastic word too.)

Friday 15 March 2013

Performing Poetry To Older Children

When it comes to performing poetry, different age groups present different challenges. With younger children - Reception and KS1 -  it is generally very easy to get them laughing, enthused and having a good time. What is much, much harder is getting them to be quiet, settle down and listen to you, after having geed them up with exhortations to actively participate as an audience. On one or two occasions the children have become so wild during my performance that a teacher has had to step in. I need to work hard on encouraging fun and involvement whilst setting clear boundaries.

Older children - KS2 - present a very different challenge. I have found that children in Year 3 enjoy mostly the same types of things as children in KS1, but the same emphatically cannot be said, for example, of Years 5 and 6. I was alerted to this fact in an extremely uncomfortable way during one of my first ever school performances, where I attempted to perform my poem 'Come Yab With Me' (complete with audience participation and silly dancing) to a group of visibly disgusted Year 6 pupils. This, it turned out, was not a suitable piece for that age group, and I discovered this the hard way. The challenge, then, is this: engaging Years 3, 4, 5 and 6, all at the same time, during a KS2 performance. There is, after all, a very large difference in taste, sensibility and outlook between 7-year-olds and 11-year-olds.

Part of the challenge stems from the fact that older children often do not want to be seen enjoying something that a younger child is visibly enjoying. Another part of the challenge stems from the fact that I am fairly big on audience participation, which some of the more self-conscious (usually male) members of the older classes do not go in for. I'm afraid that, with me, at least some level of audience participation is pretty much non-negotiable, but I do try to temper this by performing poems on themes that some of the older children will be able to relate to, such as my own school experiences.

I think that I have a tendency, during a performance, to home in on any members of the audience perceived by me as not having a good time, and to let these few individuals cloud my judgment of the success of the performance as a whole. It may simply be that you can never please everyone, and that I am thus misconstruing the whole thing as a challenge, rather than simply as something that has to be accepted. Or it may be that I have to work very hard at engaging everyone. How might one do this? Well, I would rather some of the younger children not quite understand every word I say than that some of the older children feel patronised (patronising children is one of the worst things you can do during a performance, in my opinion). Given this, and with the aforementioned proviso about audience participation being non-negotiable in mind, I think it is safest to ensure that the older children are engaged; the younger ones will tend to look after themselves - I remember frequently not understanding some of the words to songs and poems when I was younger, and enjoying them none the less for this.

I just want to finish up by telling a quick story, in order to highlight some of what I have been trying to get at in this article. When I was in Year 6 we went on a week-long school trip. In the evenings we would usually play games or watch a movie. One evening we watched what we thought was a particularly rubbish movie. We spent the whole time sniggering and feeling incredulous that anyone could possibly think we would enjoy this garbage - a bit like the Year 6 children watching me do my Yab poem! I cannot remember the details of the movie (other than that it had some silly songs in it), and my friends and I were probably unusually precocious and cynical at that age anyway, but I passionately want to avoid this sort of thing ever happening again in one of my performances.

Having said all this: if only older children would realise that silliness can be fantastic and liberating! In this respect, I think, adults can be more childlike than children...

Thursday 14 March 2013

Poetry Workshop Ideas, Part Two (Key Stage Two)

I have been fairly busy over the last couple of weeks, doing poetry performances and running poetry workshops as part of the events surrounding World Book Day. In my last post I looked at some activities that I have found to be successful when working with children in Key Stage One (and Reception). In this post I'd like briefly to outline some activities that I have been doing with Key Stage Two. Once again, my hope is that teachers, and fellow practitioners, will find these interesting and useful. Also, instead of doing a copy-and-paste job from Microsoft Word, I am typing these words directly onto the blog, so I hope that, unlike the last blog post, the format doesn't go undesirably funky.

Love Poems For Food

I begin by telling the class that they are going to be writing love poems. This usually elicits something between a collective groan and an embarrassed giggle. I then hit them with a curveball: they are going to write love poems addressed to their favourite item of food. I being by performing a poem addressed to a lychee (holding a lychee in the palm of my hand as I wax lyrical):

Oh, lychee! I love you so!
Your spiky skin hides the wonderful, sweet flesh within,
Like a mysterious cloak covering many secrets.
When I put you in my mouth I taste laughter and joy.
Oh, lychee! You smell like a little piece of heaven!
I want to roll in a bath with you, and to sleep in a bed
Made out of your devilish delightful deliciousness.
When I'm with you I feel like the world is a place
Of rainbows and honey;
All other fruit is nothing compared to you!
I love every inch of you,
Except the horrible stone in the middle.

I then display this poem on the board, asking the children to identify the points at which I have used adjectives, simile, metaphor and alliteration. I suggest that the children may like to use some of these devices in their own poems (suggest, rather than demand, as my aim is always for the pupils to find their own voice rather than blindly follow what I tell them to do). Having done this, I let the children loose on their own poems, giving them the following further suggestions:

 - think of the five senses when talking about your food.
 - you CANNOT write about burgers, chicken, chips or pizza. (This is a rule; it helps foster variety among the class, as well as encouraging imagination and healthy eating!
 - address the food directly, as you would a lover.

In performance I encourage melodrama and comedy, and the pupils normally have a very good time.

Weird Jobs

I go round the class, asking pupils to name jobs. They come up with things like 'policeman', 'builder', 'teacher', 'lawyer', etc. I then ask them to think instead of really weird jobs; jobs which nobody actually has but which would be really cool and strange. I give them some example of my own:

 - Iguana Chaser
 - Sheep Burglar
 - The person who puts the jam in doughnuts
 - The World Champion at throwing grapes into the air and catching them in my mouth
 - Eyeball Licker
 - Tongue Sticker-Outer

I ask the pupils each to invent their own wacky job. Then I ask what they might like to talk about were they to write poems from the perspective of someone who does this job, compiling a list of suggestions on the board. This list typically includes things such as:

 - do you enjoy your job?
 - what is the first thing you do in the morning?
 - would you rather have a different job?
 - what is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you?

Having spent some time compiling the list, I then let the children loose on their poems, emphasising that what I have put on the board are suggestions, rather than tick-boxes. But I do set a firm rule: they are not allowed to talk about anything to do with toilet functions. I realised that I needed to set this rule after leading a workshop where a lot of the children decided that they were going to be things like a Poo Thrower or a Wee Drinker. They found this funny and had a good time, but the work they produced was infantile and, well, not very good. I think a very simple prohibition on such things would go some way to rectifying this.

Wishing On A Star

I begin by reading my poem Wishing On A Star. I then ask the children what they would wish for, were they to wish upon a star. I stress that these could be serious or frivolous things (my own poem incorporates both). I model a poem on the board, taking their ideas and rendering them in interesting, imaginative language. I then let the children loose on their own poems.


This is a fantastic exercise to run in a short space of time, and I usually start all Key Stage Two workshops by doing it. I didn't invent it; it is apparently a very popular exercise among poets, and I learnt about it in a Professional Development workshop with Apples and Snakes. But I do bring my own twist to the exercise. I read out a couple of my own poems, usually a happy, silly one like Pig and a sad, reflective one like Bad Day, and I ask the children for some 'emotion words' in response to these poems - words like 'jolly', 'miserable', 'depressed', 'anxious', 'bored', 'ecstatic'. I write these words up on the board, and tell the children that they each must choose a word, and keep it a secret. I then set a series of short, timed exercises: they need to use their imaginations to describe what their emotion tastes, feels, sounds, smells and looks like. They must not use the word for their emotion. I direct them to write in full sentences (I started doing this after being confronted with long, boring lists), and I tell them to begin a new line each time they talk about a new sense. Finally, I ask them, each time they begin thinking about a new sense, to try to use a new sentence opener. What they have at the end is basically a poem, and they are always shocked and excited to be informed that they have just written poems without being explicitly told at the beginning that this is what they'd be doing! In the plenary some of the children then read their poems to the class, and everyone else has to guess which emotion is being talked about.

General Ideas

What exactly is a poem? I've no idea really; it's a bit like asking 'what is Art?'. But when running poetry workshops I suppose it is a good idea to impart some suggestions as to what distinguishes a poem from, say, a story or a mere description of something. It is also a good idea to challenge some assumptions about what poems are. With this in mind I always tell children the following before they begin their poems:

 (1) Poems DO NOT have to rhyme. Unlike some poets I never set prohibitions on rhyming (I want each child to find his/her own voice and to have fun writing in their own way), but I do always emphasise that it is easier not to rhyme, and that they will probably write better, more imaginative pieces if they choose not to. Most children do not attempt to rhyme in my workshops.
(2) Start a new line whenever you get a new idea. If you look at poems on the page they do not look like stories or other pieces of writing. This is because the lines often do not go to the end of the page. It seems trivial but this is in my view one of the crucial demarcating factors of a poem.
(3) You have a lot of freedom. You can tell a story in your poem if you want, or it could be just a list of thoughts. It's up to you!

I hope you find some of these exercises and ideas helpful. They are designed, I hope, to allow for a lot of freedom whilst at the same time providing direction for less confident pupils. They are also explicitly designed with fun in mind! I generally don't have much time for talking about boring things like flowers or sunsets!

Sunday 10 March 2013

Poetry Workshop Ideas, Part One (Key Stage One)

(NB for some reason my blog likes to monkey around with the format of my writing. I've no idea how to fix it, and it's most annoying. If you can, please try to ignore it)

The life of an itinerant, freelance performance poet can be extremely precarious, so I am grateful for every busy period I get. Thankfully, due in large part to World Book Day on March 8th, I have had a very busy couple of weeks performing my poems and running workshops in primary schools throughout London and Hertfordshire.

I thought I’d share some of the ideas I have been using in my workshops. My hope is that teachers, and people who work in schools generally, will find these ideas interesting and useful. In this post we’ll have a look at a couple of workshop ideas which I have successfully (I think) executed with KS1 and Reception classes.  The next post will, all being well, have a look at some workshop ideas for KS2.

Rhyming Couplets!

With Reception and Year 1 I tend not to get the children doing their own writing. Rather, the class constructs a ‘group poem’ whilst I act as a scribe, writing their ideas up on the board as the class sits on the carpet. One of my favourite activities to do with this age-group involves constructing lists of rhyming couplets. For example, I ask if anyone watched the Olympics over the summer, and in particular if anyone saw the running races where the athletes jumped over hurdles. I then tell the class that I like running in really weird races, where the hurdles are made out of very strange items. I read this poem to the class:

I was running a race
And the hurdles I faced were...
Yesterday’s lunch
A bowl of punch
Some smelly socks
A brown cardboard box
A pair of bright pink pants
A jar of yucky grey ants [etc]

I then tell the class that we are going to have a go at writing a poem about our very own, totally weird running race. I ask someone in the class to think of a word – any word, so long as it is a concrete noun (I personally encourage wackiness and imagination, whilst drawing the line at overt toilet humour). Having done this, I ask if anyone can think of a word that rhymes with the original word. Once I have elicited a suitable pair of rhyming words, I ask the class to think of interesting adjectives, and I try to pair each of the rhyming words with a couple of adjectives, each garnered from different children so as to maximise the group’s input. I then write up each adjective/noun grouping as a rhyming couplet on the board, beginning the whole poem with ‘I was running a race and the hurdles I faced were...’

Once five or six pairs of rhyming couplets have been put on the board, I deem the poem to have been ‘finished’, and the class have a go at performing it. I encourage everyone to stand, take a couple of deep breaths up and read the poem together, emphasising (i.e. shouting) powerful adjectives like ‘massive’ and understating (i.e. whispering) diminutive ones like ‘tiny’. I also encourage the class to ‘act out’ stepping over each of the hurdles, taking big steps for the big items and little steps for the little ones.

This workshop ideally lasts around 30 minutes, and uses fun and silliness as a tool through which children can be:

·          - Shown what a rhyming couplet is;
·          - Encouraged to use interesting language by being introduced to adjective/noun constructions;
·          - Encouraged to collaborate and participate as a group;
·         -  Introduced to effective performance techniques;
·          - Given something tangible of which they, as a group, can be proud: their very own class poem!


One of my most popular performances pieces involves a monster called Ooshus Magooshus. This poem was written in a spirit of frivolousness, but it has ended up really capturing children’s imaginations. I don’t do this poem with Reception – they have been known to find it a bit too scary! – but it is a winner with Years 1 and 2. Once I have performed the poem, I tell the class that they are going to be writing their very poem ‘monster poem’. I ask them what they can remember about Ooshus Magooshus and, based on this, I extract from the class various ideas about what to include in their monster poem, such as:

·         -  The name of the monster (very important)
·          - Where the monster lives
·          - What the monster eats
·          - What the monster looks like
·          - What the monster likes to do
·          - Whether the monster is friendly or evil
·          - What you should do if you see the monster.

Using these ideas I model a poem, encouraging use of interesting vocabulary along the way. The poem I model, unlike Ooshus Magooshus, does not usually rhyme. This is because (a) it is incredibly hard to construct an effective rhyming poem in the short space of time allowed by the workshop, and (b) it is important in any case to demonstrate that poems do not have to rhyme.

As with the Rhyming Couplet workshop, I then get the children, as a group, to stand up and perform the poem, emphasising the fact that, whilst I may have done the writing, this is very much their poem, and not mine. With Year 2 I might then get the children each to write and illustrate their own monster poems, but this will depend on how long the workshop lasts; it is perhaps best done as a follow-up activity.

This success of this workshop seems to me in large part to hinge on the fact that children find monsters very interesting and fun to think about! I like to encourage them to perform the poem in a spooky, creep way, which they tend to enjoy.