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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!