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Sunday 23 February 2014

Special Poem For Barnes Farm Infant School, Chelmsford

My website states that, if a school books me to run a day on a specific theme, then I will write that school a special poem on that theme. Next week I am visiting Barnes Farm Infant School in Chelmsford, Essex, whose Literacy Week focuses on the theme of 'jungle'. Behold, then, this poem, written especially for them.

My Neighbour Owns a Lion

My neighbour owns a lion
It lives out in his shed
I sometimes hear it roaring
When I’m lying in my bed
It roams among the flowers
It paces up and down
My neighbour’s lion surely is
The only one in town
Sometimes he plays fetch with it
But not with sticks, with logs
He doesn’t feed it from a tin
He feeds it cats and dogs
The lion’s always hungry
It prowls in search of prey
In fact my neighbour’s lion
Caught a burglar yesterday
My neighbour owns a lion
It’s ready to attack
But my ball is in his garden –
Will you help me get it back?

Tuesday 18 February 2014

'Miss Creedle Teaches Creative Writing' - Some Thoughts

It has been a while since a poem has made me think as much as did Gareth Owen's 'Miss Creedle Teaches Creative Writing' when I happened upon it in an anthology this morning (you can read it here). A cursory bit of research subsequently informed me that the poem is actually quite well-known, and has been mentioned in various academic texts as a satire on the 'Creative Writing Movement' of the 60s and 70s. Owen's poem is seen by many as articulating some of the flaws in this approach to developing pupils' writing.

I got something slightly different from the poem. I am largely neutral as to the benefits or otherwise of the general type of approach adopted by Miss Creedle, in which she basically encourages her pupils to close their eyes and use their imaginations in order to stimulate writing. I know for a fact that this approach can work very well, especially with Gifted and Talented writers with whom I have, like Miss Creedle, used Beethoven as a writing stimulus. I have also, on occasion, adopted a similar approach with mixed ability classes, where I have asked pupils to describe emotions using a 'show don't tell' technique involving each of their five senses. I have seen it work, but I very much appreciate that some children find this sort of exercise extraordinarily difficult and frustrating, and on one or two unhappy occasions children have even been reduced to tears because the ideas wouldn't flow. I see at least two possible ways of rectifying this. The first would be to emphasise very clearly that there are no right or wrong answers or approaches, and not to be in any way prescriptive about the kinds of things the children should write. The second would be to go in the opposite direction and provide some very clear modelling and scaffolding, so the children are left in no doubt what is expected of them. Perhaps these two approaches can each benefit different pupils, and perhaps they can be used in conjunction so that all pupils are given clear parameters within which to exercise their imaginations.

The humour in Owen's poem is derived from the fact that Miss Creedle flounders in the middle of these two possibilities, adopting neither one approach nor t'other. There is an uneasy juxtaposition: on the one hand Miss Creedle is encouraging the free roaming of the imagination (so free, indeed, that it is not even stated what they are supposed to be imagining in the first place), but in the next breath she undermines this with sporadic and haphazard interjections as to the kinds of things she wants her pupils to write. It is notable that the very first verb attributed to Miss Creedle is "cries"; she doesn't 'suggest' or even 'announce' that the children will be using their imaginations, she 'cries'. Miss Creedle is anxious, and is not fully signed up to the ethos she is purporting to put into practice. She is not ready to let go and entrust her pupils with their own imaginations, but paradoxically she wants to do this too badly to be able to provide a clear template for them. In her floundering Miss Creedle has transferred her own anxiety onto her pupils, leaving them longing for a time of certainty when the expectations of teachers were at least explicit, when "hours passed like a dream/ Filled with ordering and measuring and tests".

Speaking from my own experience, I can completely relate to Miss Creedle's anxiety. I hope my approach is less ham-fisted and obviously hypocritical as hers, but I am always wanting to plant ideas in pupils' heads, to inform them of what I think would be good adjectives or interesting things to say, and frequently these ideas come to me in a spontaneous, Creedlesque manner. In part this may stem from a lack of trust in my pupils and a fear that they will end up with nothing to show for their time with me, and in part it stems from a simple desire to impart my knowledge and vocabulary onto them. But I am conscious that these are all (hopefully very much surmountable) weaknesses of mine, not of the exercises I am asking my pupils to do. The real object of Owen's satire, it seems to me, is not a pedagogy in which teachers stimulate pupils to write from their imaginations, but those practitioners who, whether for personal or systemic reasons, are not equipped to give order to this and to follow it where it leads.

Tuesday 11 February 2014


A couple of years ago my brother founded a tech startup. It is through listening to conversations between him and his co-founder that I first heard the term 'gamification'. I thought at first that this might refer to the process a limb goes through on the way to becoming gangrenous or something (i.e. gammy) - what can I say, I love playing with words. Anyway, 'gamification' does not refer to this at all, but rather to the application of game-based principles in ostensibly non-gaming contexts. Such an approach can often be beneficial in the context of running writing workshops.

It is far from a revelation that younger children especially can be fired up by the notion that the task they are about to undertake will have a 'winner', and that there will be prizes. Thus, framing a writing task as a competition can be useful in sparking off an initial impetus to write, and in sustaining that motivation. What is also true is that such an approach can work to inspire reluctant older students to get writing. Earlier this week I ran a poetry workshop with a group of Year 9 students whom I had met on two previous occasions. On each of these occasions several of them were unwilling to get involved, expressing the view that poetry and writing were 'not for them', and a few wrote nothing at all. Our third meeting differed from the previous two in that the content was designed with a view to encouraging imaginative flights of fancy rather than developing emotional literacy - something which the class were not going for in our previous sessions - and also in that it involved gamification: the exercises were framed as competitions. Here is what I did:
  • Yucky food lists, with an edible prize for the student who comes up with the most original, imaginative item of vile 'food'. 
  • Food metaphors. Students had to describe an aspect of themselves or someone they know (appearance, personality, specific incident, etc) using a food-based metaphor. Cliches were banned, and an edible prize was given for the most imaginative, original metaphor (or simile).
  • 5-line poems. Students had to take either an item yucky food from their list, or a food metaphor, and use it in a 5-line poem. This time, the prize was given for sharing their poem with the class, something that had previously been extremely unwilling to do. 
I think that the gamification, and the fact I didn't encourage them to delve deeply into potentially painful or difficult aspects of their personal lives. helped to foster a willingness both to write and to share with the group. However, I am conscious of various limitations with these strategies.

Firstly, whilst in this instance the emphasis on slight silliness helped galvanise the group, I would, in the long term, want to use this as a springboard to explore deeper issues. I do not believe that poetry has to be deep or emotional - anyone who has heard me shout the nonsense word Yab with a roomful of 5-year-olds will attest to this! - but I would hope, once trust and willingness has been built up in the ways adumbrated above, to open up a space whereby this becomes possible. In other words, I would not want to play silly games, give out sweets, and simply leave it at that!

Secondly, gamification is probably not necessary, or even appropriate, with some groups. I took the decision to gamify the Year 9 session on the back of two sessions that, in my eyes, weren't quite meeting the students' needs. With a less reluctant group I probably wouldn't have taken that course. For me, the gamification of writing is the exception rather than the rule: I appreciate its benefit in certain instances with certain groups, but I would probably avoid it otherwise: it can feel contrived to a group who are perfectly willing to write anyway, and I'm not really a big fan of competition within the sphere of writing anyway - with younger children especially, focusing on winning, and who gets the sticker and whether it was deserved, can detract from the real focus of producing really good work. (Possible issue: but how can one establish in the first place whether a group are willing to write?)

My purpose here has been to highly some of the benefits and limitations of gamification. First three people to comment get a Malteser. 

Sunday 9 February 2014

Visit To Martock Primary School, Somerset

The week before last I drove from London to Somerset, to spend the day at Martock Primary School. News of the flooding made me feel like I was venturing forth on some kind of mission, but I needn't have worried - to my mum's relief the journey there was not especially eventful.

What was eventful, however, was the day I spent at the school. I ran workshops with four KS2 classes, covering different themes and techniques in each of the sessions. I was especially delighted that Class 8 (AKA Year 5/6) spent their literacy lesson, which took place directly after my workshop, compiling a lovely pamphlet of their poems, which they gave me to take away. I have that pamphlet in my hand now, and I'd like to share some of their wonderful poems on my blog.

Class 8 wrote poems on the theme of Fear. After a warm-up exercise in which I asked them to describe fear using their five senses. I shared a poem, 'Not A Care In The World', detailing some of the things that I myself used to worry about when I was in school. Pupils then wrote their own poems, using ideas generated in the warm up and through having listened to my poem. I was especially impressed with the range of the work generated, from humorous poems about shopping to serious, dark poems about death. The poems I'm about to share demonstrate this range, which is partly why I have chosen them (another reason being that I think they each contain some really interesting ideas and responses to the topic). I suppose it is one of my primary aims when I conduct workshops to allow room for a wide variety of responses to different stimuli; I want to provide a space in which ideas can be taken in a variety of directions. I do not believe there are right of wrong ways to write a poem, or right or wrong things to write about.

Anyway. Let's crack on with the poems!

Fear Is (by Melissa)

Fear is darkness creeping up to me like a tiger on its prey,
You hear people's echoes and screams calling for help as fear
sinks into the mind,
Fear is a phantom, a demon of darkness, a shadow, faceless
but forever watching you,
The smell of rotting flesh blocks the nose,
I see frost and ice from dark coldness
I'm walking on a beach of black sand, every grain is a fear,
The taste of sour fierce fear spreads on the tip of my tongue,
Fear is the end of pain, it ends all pain with death.

My Fear Of Shopping (By Callum)

Bags rustling
Pets squealing
Mums moaning
Dads grumbling
Babies screaming
Break baking
Getting lost
Clothes aisles
Slimy Meat
Cheese like feet
Stinky fish
Smelly dog food
Manky cat food
Little boys groan
Mums still moan
Tesco's prices
Asda's spices
Morrison's slices
Sainsbury's rices
Mouldy jam
Revolting spam
Spicy chickens
Chicken tikka
Uncle Ben's
Bad meal deals
Horse meat burgers
DVDs from the 1940s
Cheap games
Broken consoles
Bad bargains
Terrible fizzy pop
Never shop!

Fear (By Charlotte)

The smell of Fear isn't very nice, it smells of burnt
bacon in the pan.

The taste of Fear tastes like Salt and Vinegar Crisps without the salt.

The sight of Fear looks like a black cloud creeping past you.

The tough of Fear is like a dry desert where it hasn't
rained for years.

The sound of Fear is the sound of a woman screaming
loudly at the sight of a dark shadow creeping towards

All the things to do with Fear are in your head.

Fear (By Josie)

Fear tastes like a plain chip
Death is hopeless it is evil it has broken lots of
hearts and falling tears falling down my face thinking
about her every day and how
she loved me and my dogs

An honourable mention must also go to Jordan, who used what was DEFINITELY the most intriguing metaphor: "Fear tastes like bitter otter bear." Please Lord, don't ever let me taste a bitter otter bear!!!