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Wednesday 30 April 2014

Lemurs - workshop idea and poem for Foundation and KS1


Lively lemur leaping
in the branches of the tree

Lazy lemur lying
down and sleeping happily

Lucky lemur licking
at a luscious little leaf

Loving lemur latching
to her mother underneath

Little lemur laughing
having lots of fun today

Lonely lemur longing
for a friend to come and play. 

This poem can be used to model both alliteration and adjective-noun-verb constructions for very little children. After performing the poem a couple of times, perhaps encouraging the children to perform the appropriate actions, children can think of their own imaginative animal based alliterative constructions based on those in the poem. For example:

tiny tiger trembling
gigantic giraffe juggling
wacky wombat whistling
colourful crocodile crunching

You can either collect a list of these to form a poem in itself, or you can take a few and add an object in the manner of the poem above. The activity can be done as shared writing or individual writing (or both). Have fun!

Sunday 27 April 2014

'Goshoowa Seigal'

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of working with Year 2 children at Whitmore Primary School in Hackney, which I have now visited three times. We wrote poems about monsters and other strange creatures. I shared my poem Brontosaurus Rap, in order to demonstrate use of onomatopoeia and chorus within a poem. A while after the visit I bumped into one of their teachers, who passed on to me a note that some of the children had written. They seem to have absorbed the notion of onomatopoeia well, although I was primarily struck by the inventive and charming spelling of my name. Behold:

The poem (or 'song', as the children called it) was accompanied by a lovely thank you note, imploring 'Mr. Gosh' to visit their school again. 

This is why I get up in the morning. 

Tuesday 22 April 2014

On Being Specific

The American poet/educator Peter Kahn identifies specificity as a key ingredient that can help to elevate a poem, to breathe life into it. (He also places great emphasis on the avoidance of cliches, so would probably not take too kindly to that last metaphor, but we shall let that pass). It often happens, in my experience at least, that a students' poem feels a little flat, and referring to a specific incident, or giving an incident mentioned in the poem a greater degree of specificity, can help combat this. Kahn invites students to consider the following three sentences:

  1. My grandma is a bad driver
  2. My grandma crashed her car the other day
  3. Last Tuesday, my grandma crashed her Toyota into Ronald McDonald
I think most of us can agree that these sentences get progressively more interesting, and it is the increasing levels of detail that draws us in. Students will often content themselves with sentences along the lines of (1), whereas sentences like (3) are what really capture the reader's attention. 

I have found Peter Kahn's advice extremely helpful in guiding children and young adults through the poetry writing process. The claim that 'most people don't care about poetry because most poetry doesn't care about people' is something of an old chestnut, and I think part of its truth lies in the fact that poetry can be ethereal to the point of nebulousness; specificity can help root it in the reality of our lived experiences. A poem rich with allusion and figurative language but entirely lacking in specific details will inevitably try the patience of many people, and leave them wondering how poetry relates to them and their lives. (It should be noted that Kahn himself encourages a mixture of specificity and figurative language; I think that, broadly speaking, this is good advice.)

However, things are not so simple. The author and creative writing tutor Ardashir Vakil has talked of 'the power arc', whereby ostensibly less 'powerful' words (e.g. 'walk') can in fact be imbued with a greater power than their more showy cousins (e.g. 'dash', 'stride') by dint of their very understatedness. This point was famously made by Chekhov:

"It is comprehensible when I write: "The man sat on the grass," because it is clear and does not detain one's attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: "The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully."

Is there a conflict here between Kahn's push towards specificity and Chekhov's apparent recommendation against it? Surely the answer is that in some circumstances specificity can help and in others it can hinder. I do not know exactly what these circumstances are (perhaps they have in part to do with the difference between poetry and other types of writing, but I doubt it: (3) does seem more interesting than (1) in many contexts other than poetry). I think we can get an intuitive grasp on when specificity is and isn't appropriate by considering an author whose writing is archetypally rubbish - Sue Townsend's fantastic creation Adrian Mole. Examples of Mole's hilariously execrable prose and poetry are dotted throughout Townsend's novels, and part of what makes Mole's writing so bad is the fact that he provides specific details that are utterly tangential to the thrust of what he is attempting to convey. Thus a sex scene will make reference to a 'Gossard Wonderbra', as though that specific brand and model were somehow relevant. Similarly, an opening line from one of Mole's 'novels' reads "Jake sat in front of his state of the art Amstrad and pressed the glittery knobs". The fact that the computer is an Amstrad is utterly irrelevant to any point that Mole is trying to make. Thus, unneccessary specificity is used by Townsend as a comic device.

The point that emerges, then, is this: specificity can help when it is relevant to the point that is being made. In a poem about the idiosyncracies of one's grandmother, sentences like (3) will be more interesting than sentences like (1), but in a poem about something else it might, in Chekhov's words, "detain one's attention." Similarly, were Mole concerned with the consumer choices of his lover or of Jake then Gossard Wonderbras and Amstrads might well be elucidatory, but he isn't and they are not.

I do not pretend that any of what I have said is especially enlightening. In many ways I am just trying to work things out in my own mind. The lesson that I have drawn from these meanderings is that specificity, when focused on the crucial points of a piece of writing, can heighten them, but when focused away from the crucial points can obscure them. 

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Poetry Lesson Plan/Idea (upper KS2/KS3) - EMBARRASSMENT

Here is poetry-based lesson plan that I have run with a degree of success for groups from Year 5 to Year 9. Like a lot of my other workshops it focuses on an emotion, in this case one which provides a way into some fun, light-hearted comic poetry, as well as leaving room for poignancy too - embarrassment. Again like some of my other workshops, there is also ample room for gamification; some of the exercises can be framed in mildly competitive terms, which I've found can be useful for some of the more reluctant KS3 classes.

Warm Up

Perhaps inspired by the opening minute and a half of this viral video by poet Shane Koyczan, or a personal anecdote from the teacher, students write down a list of their most embarrassing moments, aiming for at least three each. Encourage pupils to keep in mind things such as school, sports, family, holidays, etc.

Discussion and Competition

  • Share with the students my poem 'The Most Embarrassing Moment Ever' (shown at the bottom of this blog entry). 
  • In the poem I use two SIMILES to describe how I felt. Test the students' memory of these similes, and perhaps have a brief discussion about whether they are any good.
  • Students then pick one of their own embarrassing moments from their list, and write a simile to describe an aspect of the situation. They key here is to avoid cliche (anything to do with the ground swallowing something up is banned!). In order to spark the imagination, these examples can be shared and discussed:
           - "I felt like I'd been slapped in the face with a damp, rolled up newspaper"
           - "the trees looked like giant fingers, pointing and laughing at me"
           - "I felt like my skin was glass, and everyone could see my hearth thumping"
  • You can now have a COMPETITION, in which the most interesting/imaginative simile is rewarded with a prize!
Poem Writing

Students now write a poem about their own most embarrassing moments, which has to include the simile they have generated. As with my poem, try to encourage students to think of a powerful ending. Here are some potential sentence-starters that less confident students may find helpful:

            - "The most embarrassing moment ever was when..."
            - "I felt like..."
            - "Everyone said..."
            - "I decided that..."


In order to encourage students to share their poems with the class, it might be helpful to contrive a second competition, in which a prize is awarded either for the most embarrassing moment, or the greatest display of honesty, or the best poem, or whatever else you can think of!

I think that this workshop provides a nice way into life-writing. Embarrassment can be funny to talk and think about, but students may also confront difficult feelings too. With this in mind, my poem 'The Most Embarrassing Moment Ever' is both funny (I hope) and a little bit sad:

The Most Embarrassing Moment Ever (published in My Grandpa's Beard)

the most embarrassing moment ever
was at the beach
I ran up to my mum
wrapped my arms around her legs
and cuddled her tight shouting
mummy! mummy!
but then I looked into the distance
and saw my mum
and my dad
and my sister
and they were pointing at me
and giggling
and the lady I’d been cuddling
starting laughing too and said
“I think you’ve got the wrong lady”
and I wanted the sea
to wash over me
like a little sandcastle
like a shallow rockpool
and I decided
that I’d never
cuddle anyone again

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Poetry Lesson Plan (upper KS2/KS3) - JEALOUSY

Much of what I do in schools focuses on emotional literacy - writing about feelings and emotions, and describing sometimes difficult experiences. The following workshop idea concerns one of the most pernicious and pervasive of negative emotions, and one which I myself often struggle with: jealousy. It is designed to encourage students to be open with their feelings and experiences, and at the same time to explore some extremely rich poetic imagery.

Warm Up

Students each write a list of at least three people they are, or have been, jealous of. It is important that they know that they will not have to share this list, and that they are not writing a poem yet. In order to spark off some ideas, the teacher can encourage students to think of friends, brothers, sisters, bullies, etc. I have in the past included 'celebrities' in this list, but I have found that this can lead to some fairly facile work, so I'd encourage pupils to stick to people they know, or are acquainted with, personally. The teacher can also share with students their own list (mine consists of my brother, my sister, and 'other poets'!)

Competition Time

The poem 'The Jealous Ones' by Jacob Sam-La Rose - reproduced at the end of this post - contains some wonderfully rich figurative language. Read the poem out, then supply students with copies of it, one between two. Students need to work in pairs to identify all the metaphors and similes in the poem. There are loads - I think I counted seventeen! The pair to identify the most are the 'winners' and as such are entitled to universal acclaim, adoration, and maybe a small prize.

Metaphor & Simile Creation

After the competition, a complete list of Jacob Sam-La Rose's metaphors and similes can be displayed on the board, followed by a discussion about which ones the students like best, and why. The students are then challenged to come up with their own similes and metaphors - at least one of each, ideally - to describe JEALOUSY. These sentences starters may be helpful:

Jealousy feels like...
Jealousy looks like...
Jealousy is like...
Jealousy is...

Poem Time

Using the ideas generated thus far, students write poems on the theme of Jealousy. They could either write about a TIME they got jealous, or a PERSON they are jealous of. They should aim to include at least one of the metaphors/similes they have generated. In class I would normally model this activity by sharing a poem of mine with the students. (If anyone is particularly interested in seeing this poem they can get in touch.)
The following sentence starters may prove helpful in sparking off ideas in the students:

It felt like...
I hate it when...
Why are you...
I couldn't tell anyone that...
Nobody knows that...
Everyone always...

Students do not have to mention the person by name. In fact, depending on the dynamic within the class, they could even be requested not to. The result of the session, hopefully, will be some heartfelt and revealing poetry with a nice dose of interesting figurative language. Which brings me to the great poem 'The Jealous Ones' mentioned earlier:

The Jealous Ones by Jacob Sam-La Rose (published in Michael Rosen's A-Z: The Best Children's Poetry From Agard To Zephaniah (Puffin 2009))

Don’t look over your shoulder. We’re coming soon
with hungry hands that reach and snap like jaws,
fingers like sharp teeth. We want what’s yours

and will not stop until we’ve pulled it down,
until it’s stung by sticks or stones, until it’s useless
as a juicy toffee apple stamped into the dirt.

And all because we can. Because your happiness itches
under our skins. And when we have it, teathered, leashed,
we’ll roll over ourselves, each of us wanting to be the one

to burst your bright red bubble. But for now we’ll wait
in shadows, watching. You’ll feel our eyes on your back.
And when we come for you, you’ll hear us,

baying at your pride and joy – the way it floats
beyond us – we’ll howl across the distance
as if it were a fat, red, candied moon. 

Monday 7 April 2014

The Future - Poem + Idea For Fun Writing Activity

First off, here's a poem:

In The Air

The air you breathe has a use-by date.
Don’t drink it in too deeply; don’t allow
your lungs to get used to it –
it’s on the shelf at Poundland.

You see, new air is coming out soon,
available at all good retail outlets.
People will camp out on street corners
hoping to be first in line,
to catch the very first breath.
Schoolkids will become obsessed,
fighting over it in the playground.
Teachers will ban it.
Students will get jacked for it –
oi gimme your air man!
Grandparents will unwittingly buy their grandkids
knock-off versions for Christmas,
which they’ll accept with a grudging smile,
then sell on eBay.

The air you breathe has a use-by date.
It seems fine now but you don’t know
what you’re missing. It’s heading
the way of Myspace, CD players and the Nokia 3310 –
it’s nothing but a fossil
in the museum of life.

New air is coming out soon. 
But take my advice:
don’t get in the queue.
Don’t save up for it.
Don’t pre-order it on Amazon.
You see, soon you won’t need air at all.
You won’t need your nose.
You won’t need your mouth.
Your heart will become totally useless
as your veins are dug up and replaced with wires.
Your bones will become the laughing-stock
of all your friends.
Your friends will become holograms.
The holograms will become echoes.

Yes, change is coming.

I can feel it in the air. 


Now, it's not exactly revelatory to note that technology is progressing quickly. I have heard it said that an infinite acceleration is mathematically impossible, which means that at some point the whole process will grind to a halt. Cue myriad dystopian fantasies. At any rate, it might be an idea for a fun, imagination-stretching writing exercise to think of some weird and wonderful objects that might exist in the future. I am running workshops on Friday at the Museum of Childhood, and will encourage workshop participants to come up with some lists of their own. Whimsy is the name of the game here, I think. Here is my list:

a parent-silencer
a turbo-charged bedroom tidier
a kitten multiplier
an inflatable ipad
a custard-fuelled aeroplane 
a homework destroyer

Saturday 5 April 2014

Making Assumptions

Yesterday I wrote a blog post containing an idea for a poetry-based lesson on the theme of personifying old toys. The warm-up exercise involved each child writing a list of some of their old toys. I have run the lesson twice so far, with a degree of success both times, but on one occasion I encountered something of an issue: a little girl told me that she had never had any toys. I told her that she could write down any object that she remembered using or playing with as a small child - blankets, books, dummies, bottles, etc - and luckily she was subsequently able to participate in the exercise. But I did find her admission somewhat heartbreaking, and it made me think about some of the mistaken assumptions that I, and probably lots of others, sometimes bring into the classroom.

A number of these assumptions come to mind. For example, many of my poems, at least in their initial incarnations, contain male protagonists. I do not do this deliberately; it stems from the fact that much of my work contains several grains of autobiography, and many of the 'characters' that formed the backdrop of my childhood were male. But I have had to work to ensure that female protagonists and characters get an equal billing. Indeed, this has even inspired a poem on this very theme, 'Henrietta The Eighth', included at the end of this blog post.

I can think of many instances in which I have taken an aspect of my own upbringing and unthinkingly assumed that it applies to everyone else. Further examples include referring to the place one lives as a 'house', and assuming that everyone comes from a cosy, nuclear family. Both of these assumptions are challenged in this poem. Further examples include the assumptions of heteronormativity and gender binarism. . At any rate, I suppose at this point I have only to make the perhaps banal statement that diversity needs to be accounted for both in terms of classroom discourse and in terms of poetry (at least if you are in any way concerned that your poems speak to a wide number of real children). One needs to be alive to the diverse realities of children's lives, and to build this as much as possible into one's approach. Were I to run the 'toys' lesson again, I would thus probably say something like 'make a list of toys or childhood objects'. And were I to write 'Henrietta The Eighth' again perhaps I would go with a transgender, polyamourous monarch.

Henrietta the Eighth (published in My Grandpa's Beard)

What would I do if I were queen?
I’d be evil, I’d be mean.
I’d take six husbands
Then, one by one,
Annihilate them
Just for fun.

I’d take the first
And mince his brain
Then throw him
Underneath a train.
I’d feed the second
To poisonous snakes
And scoop up what’s left
With a garden rake.

I’d stone the third to death
With cheese
And drown the fourth
In a bath of peas.
The fifth I’d bludgeon
With a trowel
Then I’d strangle the sixth
With a kitchen towel.

What would I do if I were queen?
I’d be evil, I’d be mean.
At first I’d get
Some dirty looks,
Then you’d read about me
In the history books.

Friday 4 April 2014

Old Toys: Lesson Plan & Sample Poem (upper KS2)

Next week I am running some workshops at the Museum Of Childhood, which contains a large collection of children's toys from days of yore. ('Yore' - good word.) I'd like to share a lesson plan that has worked well with children in Years 5 and 6. The lesson incorporates themes such as personification and memory, and works especially well with the aforementioned age groups because they are young enough that toys in general still interest them, yet are old enough that they have probably acquired a large collection of toys lying forgotten in nooks and crannies (more good words there!); toys they no longer play with. The lesson is based on providing these old toys with a voice, and exploring some substantial themes of loss and abandonment in the process.

Warm Up

Perhaps stimulated by pictures or childhood objects brought in by the teacher, children write a list of toys that they remember playing with when they were younger, but that they no longer do. They should try and be as specific as they can. If they can't think of many toys - an issue I encountered with one child, which will be discussed in a future blog post - they can include childhood objects such as blankets or bottles. Impress upon them that they are not writing a poem at this stage; they are merely gathering ideas.

Sharing & Modelling

Share my poem 'The Unfortunate Story Of Lenny', included at the end of this blog post. It is revealed at the end of the poem that Lenny is an old toy, abandoned in a dolls' house. Have a discussion about why Lenny is so upset (has he been abandoned? How does he feel?) Based on the ideas that emerge, model a quick poem from Lenny's point of view, expressing his feelings. Try to include some techniques such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, etc. The following sentence starters may be helpful here:

"I live...
"I remember..."
"Every day I..."
"I feel like..."
"My dream is..."
"The world around me is..."
"I regret..."


Children pick one toy from their list, and write a poem from that toy's point of view. These toys will likely provide useful conduits for discussing some fairly deep themes of abandonment, loss, fear and frustration. It is a good idea to display the aforementioned sentence starters on the board. For less confident writers it will then be a case of completing as many of these sentences as possible. Remember to leave time to share poems!

The Unfortunate Story of Lenny (published in My Grandpa's Beard)

Lenny had a terrible problem.
He couldn’t tell anyone about it.

Every day in school, when his eyes wandered
from the blackboard, his teacher would address him
in harsh tones:
            Lenny! What’s the matter?
            Why aren’t you concentrating?
But Lenny never told the truth.

When he got home he would fling his rucksack
into a corner and go up to his room and sit
on his bed. His mum would come in and ask him softly,
            Lenny, how was school?
            How was your day?
But Lenny would never answer.

He’d stay in his room all evening, only agreeing
to eat his supper if it was quickly dispatched
through the door.
He never came down to sit with the family.

Lenny had a terrible problem,
and nobody knew what it was.
He couldn’t even tell the posters on the wall
and he never wrote it down in words.
He never told his friends because
he never expected them to care.

Lenny sits in the dolls’ house,
old and frayed, slumped
against the tiny desk.
If he could talk

I wonder what he’d say.