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Wednesday 11 December 2013

Farewell To St Antony's Year 2 class! Special Poem

This term I have been working every Friday morning with Year 2 at St Antony's School, Newham. I've been sharing my poems with them and using poetry to help develop their literacy skills (and, I hope, their confidence and enthusiasm for literacy). This Friday will be my final session with them. I hope I don't sound too mawkish or saccharine when I say that I will genuinely miss them.

Working on this project has given me the opportunity to write some bespoke poems. Here is my final one, dedicated to Year 2. (Warning: contains a couple of 'in jokes', especially in the penultimate stanza.)

Goodbye Poem For Year 2

Farewell, then, to St Antonys
We’ve had a lovely time,
With onomatopoeia, metaphor,
Rhythm and rhyme

And repetition, repetition,
Repetition too –
I hope I've helped you realise
The things that you can do.

In eight short weeks we all have seen
The joy that words can bring,
And every single one of you
Has done amazing things

And everybody tried their hardest –
Every single one.
The work was sometimes difficult
But mostly it was fun.

We’ve shouted LHASA (APSO!)
And we’ve screamed OOSHUS (MAGOOSHUS!),
Our time together went so fast
It’s like it blew straight threw us

And I will really miss you
Fridays will not be the same,
And hopefully, before too long,
I’ll see you all again!

Tuesday 10 December 2013

'Poetry Is'... Workshop Idea For KS2 & KS3 (and maybe KS1!)

You know a lesson plan is fairly successful when almost every member of a badly behaved and disengaged Year 8 class comes up with a genuinely interesting poem. This happened to me yesterday, complete with soul-destroying groan when I informed them that they would not be having the end-of-term video session they had been expecting, but would be writing poems instead. I'd like to share the lesson plan that I used. I think it can be adapted, if not simply replicated, for KS2 classes (and potentially KS1, as will be explored at the end of this post).

Warm Up Exercise

Pupils write as many examples as they can think of in each of the following categories:

  • Something funny
  • Something beautiful
  • Something important (to them)
  • Something interesting
  • Something weird
It is crucial to impress upon them that there are no right or wrong answers, and that anything they write down will not be judged, condemned or criticised. They don't know it yet, but the things they write at this stage will form the raw material for their poems!

Sharing and Discussing Poetry

Have a discussion about what poetry is. Can anything be a poem? Simon and Garfunkel wrote that the four letters on the underground wall constitute a poem. Were they correct?

Share my poem 'Redefine' with the class (it is posted at the very end of this article). Have a discussion about any lines the pupils find especially interesting, or do not understand (once again: no right or wrong answers!). Pupils can underline any parts they found interesting.

Writing The Poem!

Having done the warm up exercise, and shared my poem, this bit is really simple. The warm up exercise has provided the raw material for a poem on the theme of 'Poetry Is...'. Nobody can say "WAAH! I CAN'T THINK OF ANYTHING" because they have already written down their ideas! It could be as simple as taking the things they wrote in the warm up and prefacing them with the phrase 'poetry is' - less confident pupils can do this if they wish. More confident pupils can elaborate and develop the ideas, infusing them with interesting vocabulary and embellishing them in the light of my poem. Remember to leave time for pupils to share their work. Here are some of the lines that were generated by Year 8 yesterday:

"Poetry is the way my baby brother laughs"
"Poetry flows unexpectedly like a waterfall"
Poetry is that warm cup of cocoa you get when it's winter"

Benefits Of This Workshop
  • This workshop marries the conceptual with the concrete in a way that is easy for pupils to engage with. 
  • Differentiation is built into it - the warm up exercise has provided the raw material for everyone to work with in whichever ways they choose.
  • Pupils are able to go as deep as they like. The ideas can be humorous and silly, deep and meaningful, or both. Pupils are given the space to explore meaningful, personal issues but are not forced to do so.
  • I reckon this workshop could even work with KS1 pupils. For KS1 perhaps given each table the task of coming up with an example in each of the categories mentioned above in the 'Warm Up' section. Then stick 'poetry is' at the beginning of each of them, and join them up to make a group poem! I'd bet that this will be an impressive piece of work from such young pupils!

Redefine By Joshua Seigal

Poetry is a one-eyed dog howling ceaselessly
at a moon of cats, and a turtle sleeping softly
in the silence of her shell.

Poetry is the dance of a twisting flame, flirting
with the match; it’s the four letters on the inside wall
of the train station cubicle.

Poetry lies in the frantic laugh of the playground
and in the throat of your nine-year-old cousin
finally able to talk.

Poetry is the picture on the back of the cornflakes box
after a long, hungry night; it’s your name in lights
on your school football shirt.

Poetry is standing on a street corner, spitting
your voice at the wind. Poetry lives unheard
in the pores of your skin.

Friday 6 December 2013

Please, Sir, Can I Make Things Up?

Since September I have been training to be a Spoken Word Educator at Goldsmiths College. The training involves running poetry workshops with secondary school pupils, a demographic with whom I have not previously done much work at all. I am finding it challenging; not unrewarding but sometimes lacking the spark of what I like to think of as mildly eccentric spontaneity that I bring to the primary school classroom. This is a corollary both of the age group with whom I am working - elephant impressions, audience participation, the shouting of nonsense words and other such elements of my work as a children's entertainer just will not fly - but also of the fact that I am a member of staff rather than merely a fun visiting poet. The students are expected to call me 'Sir' and 'Mr Seigal', and, I, for my part, am expected to wear a shirt.

The ethos of the Spoken Word Educator programme is providing students with a space, and helping them find a voice, to express issues and ideas that are important to them. It seems to be expected that students will write about their own lives, views and experiences, and they are encouraged to be as open as they feel able to be. What seems less expected is that some pupils would rather 'make stuff up'. And as keen as I am on finding out about the lives and concerns of my pupils, it is a key tenet of my ideology, my 'poetics', that poetry can be made up: during school assemblies I usually stress that one of the great things about poems and stories  is that they are in fact the only times in our whole lives when we are allowed to do so. I have often found that simply making this point is the catalyst for some wonderfully imaginative writing. Admittedly, however, all this applies to my primary school work, which reveals, I think, an important difference between the mentality of younger and older pupils: younger pupils are more keen on making things up.

I have replicated some of the work I have been doing as a Spoken Word Educator in the primary classroom, and it has mostly gone very well. For example, a prompt I have been working with is 'Welcome To My Family' - I wrote a poem with this title (which is too long, and not yet good enough, to post on this blog!) which is used as a springboard to spark ideas in the students. Older pupils seem to take it for granted that they are expected to be as 'truthful' as possible, and as such to talk about the reality of their family lives, but younger pupils seem keener to indulge in wild flights of fancy: making up family members, pretending they live among a family of wolves, pretending they have a two-headed sister, etc.

I have been impressed with such dexterity in imagination, but it has made me think hard about the purpose of the writing exercise: what is it exactly that I want the students to do? I want them to feel that they can express important issues that might otherwise lack an outlet, but I also want them to have fun and and indulge their creativity. At the same time, I don't want the former to intrude upon the latter, or the latter upon the former. It might be as simple as encouraging 'making stuff up' with primary school kids but discouraging it with secondary school kids, but why should this be the case? If older pupils want to write fun, silly poems about having an alien for a dad, if they want to express themselves in that way (as they very occasionally do), and if younger pupils want to tell us what life is really like in their family (as they often do) then why shouldn't they? I think a better solution would be to provide both age groups with a range of models, and inform the students that either of two valuable opportunities is available to them - telling us about their lives and indulging in make-believe. Both, I think, are valuable and neither are opportunities which are readily available outside of this context.

Some very important issues are under the surface here, and I think the immediacy and intimacy of the Spoken Word artform renders the issues of 'truth' and 'honesty' more pertinent than they might be in poetry generally. But I do not think the fact that a poem is being spoken precludes its being silly, fun, whimsical and fictional, and quite frankly a lot of the Spoken Word I have been encountering - by the professionals, not by the students, I should add - I find rather po-faced and overly earnest. This of course has a place, and some issues demand this kind of treatment, but I would hate students to go away thinking this constitutes the entirety of Spoken Word. Or maybe it does, and what I've been doing all along is 'Performance Poetry' rather than 'Spoken Word'. I just don't know, but I value the opportunity to explore the issues.