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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.