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Saturday 26 October 2013

Halloween-Based Workshop Idea

I have been busy over the last week, visiting primary schools in Camden, Bracknell, Hackney and Newham. As it is approaching Halloween, and as I have a thing about monsters anyway, I have been running some Halloween-based poetry workshops. I have refined it over the course of my schools visits, and I'd like to share it now. The thing I like about it is that it enables a lot to get done in a relatively short space of time, whilst still remaining fun. It develops skills such as listening, recollection, drawing, writing, collaboration and performance all in a single session!

  • Start off by playing children my poem OOSHUS MAGOOSHUS, available on YouTube: Test the children's recollection skills by asking them if they remember (a) what Ooshus Magooshus eats, (b) where Ooshus Magooshus lives, and (c) what you should do if you encounter Ooshus Magooshus.
  • Ask the children what sorts of things I didn't tell them about Ooshus Magooshus. The most important piece of information that is missing is what Ooshus Magooshus looks like. Ask the children to take a minute or so to close their eyes and imagine their own monsters, focusing specifically on what it looks like.
  • Children go to their tables and ILLUSTRATE their monsters. They do not do any writing at this stage; they focus instead on doing the most colourful, fun, imaginative drawings they can. Tell them to imagine things such as the monster's legs, arms, eyes, face, teeth, etc, as well as what colour(s) it is. 
  • Now comes a bit of a curveball. Go round the class and collect in the monster pictures, and go round redistributing them so that everyone has someone else's monster. The task now if to DESCRIBE the monsters they can see in front of them. This can either be done in books, or on the space around the monster. Depending on age, the description could be either a single sentence or a detailed paragraph. To ensure that interesting language is used, a couple of sentences can be MODELLED on the board. 
  • Now comes the TEAMWORK. Hand out big sheets of paper, one per table. The children need to work together to turn their individual monster descriptions into a group poem. Ask each child to choose a sentence from the descriptions they have just written. Try and ensure that each child on the table is describing a different part or aspect of their monster. They then need to arrange their descriptions into a group poem, to be written up on the large sheet of paper (for younger children this could be scribed by the teacher; otherwise they need to work together to decide who is going to do it). They need to decide the order in which they want their lines to go. 
  • Each group needs to REHEARSE the poems they have just written. They need to decide how they would like to perform it. Will one person do the reading, or will they take it in turns? Will people do actions? Will they add a chorus in between each line or couple of lines (for an example of a monster poem with a chorus, see my Zombie Poem).
  • Lastly, it's the PERFORMANCE. Each group performs their poem to the rest of the class. If you like you can add a light element of COMPETITION by awarding a prize to the best group. (This doesn't have to be for the best performance; it could be for the group who works best together, or who tried the hardest to overcome some initial conflict. I always like to acknowledge this.)
I hope you've found this helpful. It should work well with primary children of all ages. I recommend that each child gets to keep the monster they illustrated, rather than the one they described. This is both because they are usually more emotionally attached to these critters, and because it will be useful for them to see how someone else has interpreted their work.

Have fun, and may Ooshus be with you!

Sunday 20 October 2013

New Model Poems

I have just started an MA in Writing/Education Studies at Goldsmiths College, University Of London. Assuming I complete it this will be my third degree. As part of the MA I am training to be a 'Spoken Word Educator', which will involve teaching teens about Spoken Word poetry. As someone who works primarily with younger children, and as someone who is only fairly peripherally involved in the London Spoken Word scene (the odd gig here and there, but usually I'm too knackered after performing for up to six hours in schools), this will be an interesting challenge for me. To use a slab of the kind of corporate jargon that I loathe, I am looking forward to 'diversifying'.

The Spoken Word Educator programme was piloted last year by an American educator called Peter Kahn. Last week myself and my fellow MA students read a couple of poems by him, entitled 'What It's Like To Be Nervous (For Those Of You Who Aren't)', and 'What It's Like To Be A Chicagoan In London' (For Those Of You Who Aren't)'. Peter uses these as model poems in class, encouraging students to write their own poems using the format 'What It's Like To Be X (For Those Of You Who Are Not-X'. I have written a couple such poems. Here they are. (WARNING: The second one contains swearing. I have not done this frivolously. I would obviously have to check with teachers before doing it in school.)

What It’s Like Starting Your First Day Of School (For Those Who Don’t Remember)

It’s being wrapped up like a polar bear
in your fluffy blue coat, protecting you
in your new adventure.

It’s Honey Nut Loops in a Tupperware box
at snack time, and a Marmite sandwich
for lunch.

It’s your new teacher telling you
you’re grown up now, and Sarah crying
all day long.

It’s trying not to have an accident,
and a red beach-ball of pride in your chest
when you don’t.

It’s air rushing out of a balloon
at the end of the day, and a new balloon


What It’s Like To Get Out Of Bed When You’re Depressed

It’s the weight of the room
pressing down on your chest, and heaviness
holding hostages in your throat.
It’s light charging under your blinds
like an invading army, occupying you,
and birds cursing the day
with their cynical songs.
It’s vomit in your stomach and shit in your brain.
It’s bullying voices telling you to get up,
and a set of leaden limbs
unable to obey.
It’s your mum crying outside your room, wondering
what she’s done wrong; your dad slamming
the door on his way to work.
It’s hot acid shampoo in the shower,
searing into your head and shoulders;
old clothes hung like sackcloth
across your scarecrow bones.
It’s standing in a field with
the day an open chasm before you.
It’s having arms with no joints,
so you can’t get the fallen fruit. 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Yucky Food List Poems - Fun, Quick Workshop Idea For All Ages

Yesterday I ran some workshops with Year 4 classes at Gospel Oak Primary in London. The writing exercise I set was over quicker than expected, so I had 10 minutes or so to play with. I asked the children to write list poems - a very easy thing for anyone to do - involving the most disgusting culinary concoctions they could think of. Some examples included:

 - owl soup
 - felt and chips
 - fizzy moose brains
 - warts with jelly
 - paper omelette

This is a very fun exercise, which stretches the imagination. It can be made as long or as short as you like, and engages even the most reluctant writers. The class were in uproarious laughter when a selection of children read out their poems. I thoroughly recommend giving it a go!

(PS, it might be an idea to specify no poo, wee or sick...)

Friday 11 October 2013

Catching Words - Literacy Project With Discover Children's Story Centre

I have just completed the first of eight sessions as part of the 'Catching Words' project, in association with Discover Children's Story Centre in Stratford, East London. I am working to produce poetry with Year 2 at St Antony's RC Primary School, in Newham.

I normally get a feel for a school quite quickly, and St Antony's is lovely - the teachers are dedicated, and the children enthusiastic and boisterous. Year 2 have always been one of my favourite ages to perform for, as they are old enough to understand things (and to join in during the correct parts of my poems!) but young enough that they were willing to get involved without any of the cynicism that occasionally creeps in in later years. However, sometimes with children of this age it can be a struggle to get them to be focused and productive in workshops. This was not the case today. I was impressed with the work that each child produced, and the fun they seemed to have along the way.

Today's workshop involved creating animal-based similes, which the children turned into group poems. In preparation for the workshop I wrote the children their very own poem. Here it is:

I’m Like

I’m like a cheeky monkey
When I’m standing on my head

I’m like a stubborn mule
Because I will not go to bed

I’m like a messy pig
Because my room is like a sty

I’m like a grumpy elephant
Because I sometimes cry

I’m like a dashing cheetah
When I’m darting home from school

I’m like a graceful dolphin
When I’m swimming in the pool

I’m like a lazy lion
When I’m lying in the sun

And being like an animal
Is such a lot of fun!

Monday 7 October 2013

How Do I Be A Success Like You?

Outside the classroom, the other day,
a little boy came up to me, and tugging
at the hem of my garment, asked
How do I be a success like you?

And I didn’t know what to say.
You see, I’ve never thought of myself that way.
Because after private school and two degrees
society does not tend to see reading poetry
to kids as a natural progression.
And sometimes it feels like I’m not listening in the lesson;
like this isn’t ‘real work’ or the kind of thing
a man should do.
My parents tell me that I’m better than that,
that this isn’t a real job,
that of course giving kids the joy of words
is no bad thing, but to leave it to someone else
and to go out there and be someone.
Wear a suit, son.
Commute, son.
Be what we expect of you, son.
And of course we read poems and books to you, son,
but this wasn’t an end in itself.
At no point did we dream that one day
you’d be doing such a thing for anyone
other than your own kids.
What are you, a glorified bloody babysitter?

And so the bitter taste at the back of my throat
when the boy asked
How do I be a success like you?
arose from not believing it to be true.
It arose from skulking in the shadows
of people my age already on 50k a year,
of people my age with their own flats and cars,
and even of the bloke at the bar who,
upon being told that I work with children,
drunkenly snorts paedophile, as though that
could be the only explanation for a man
wanting to do such a thing.

It arose from having memorised
the lines of a play
in which I play no part.
But no: through that boy’s eyes
I saw myself anew.
So to the boy who asked me
How do I be a success like you?
I say this:
Believe that what you’re doing is worthwhile.
Believe that anyone who doubts you is mistaken.
Tell yourself every day that you can be what you want to be.
Tell yourself that success is not just reading
from someone else’s script,
but believing what you say,
or, even better, writing the words yourself.
And know that what counts is not whether
you’ve spelt them correctly, or whether
they’re in the right order,
but that they. Are. Yours.

Success does not come in manuals.
Success is not flat-pack furniture,
and – you know what?
Success certainly doesn’t come from listening to poems
about what success is.
So, son, do it your way.
Don’t listen to what I say.  

Saturday 5 October 2013

A Poem By Ruby, From Heathside School

I have had a very busy week, visiting lots of schools for National Poetry Day. On Tuesday I visited Parkgate House School in Clapham; on Wednesday I visited Mandeville Primary School in Hackney, and on Thursday I visited Heathside School in Hampstead. I had a wonderful time at each of these schools, and was delighted to be made to feel so welcome.

I am especially delighted to say that my visit to Heathside inspired Ruby Kingsley Jones to write a great poem, which she sent me yesterday. I especially like this poem because it speaks to my slightly silly sense of humour. It is a poem which I would have been proud to call my own! Here is Ruby's poem:

I Think My Cat's A Dog

I think my  cats a dog,
I really,really do,
He's eaten up a catalog,
And attacked my mums best shoes!

I think my cats a dog,
I promise you i do!
He tried to chew a log,
And licked a bowl clean of stew,

I think my cats a dog,
This is completely true,
He followed my friend to synagogue cat is jumping up and he a kangaroo