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Thursday 29 May 2014

Some Reasons Why Children's Poetry Matters

It is sadly true that "the greater literary world treats children's poets as nonentities" (Sloan 2001: 46). I am in the middle of writing an MA paper discussing this, and I'd like, very briefly, to present a couple of thoughts.

What is poetry? Former U.S Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky once said that poetry "provides one with an epiphany, or a revelation" (Carroll 1998: 5). Given that the less experience one has accrued the more will be experienced as revelatory, it follows that the younger a person is the more will be experienced as poetry. For young children each and every experience is a revelation. In other words, for young children the whole world is poetry, and anyone who interacts with a young child is in a sense a children's poet. Children's poetry basically represents the most profound interaction possible between literature and life; it renders the two indistinguishable.

This is borne out in the work of linguist Frederick Erickson, who has done pioneering work on the musicality of everyday speech. An implication of this is that "as a child grows, nursery rhymes and songs [and poems] provide interactional 'scaffolding' practice for the acquisition of speech because the stress patterns in those rhythmically stylised writing genres map over the slightly less stylised but nonetheless regular patterns of timing in the conduct of ordinary talk" (Erickson 2003: 15). In other words, poetry can quite literally help young children to communicate. It essentially takes the best bits of chocolate and vegetables and combines them: "young children take an instinctive pleasure in rhythm pattern and rhyme" (DES 1989: 7.1), just likes chocolate, except that it is good for them as well!

Poetry matters both to and for children.

References (snore!)

Carroll, A. et al, (eds.) 101 Great American Poems, Dover (1998)

DES, English For Ages 5 to 16: Proposals of the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Wales (Cox Report), National Curriculum Council (1989)

Erickson, F. 'Some Notes on the Musicality of Speech', in D. Tannen and J. E. Alatis (eds), Georgetown University Round Table On Languages And Linguistics 2001, Georgetown University Press (2003)

Sloan, G. 'But Is It Poetry?', Children's Literature In Education, 32.1 (2001), pp. 45-56

Tuesday 20 May 2014

The Emotions And The Senses - Workshop Idea(s) for KS2/3

Here are some activities centred around emotions and the senses that I have used with a degree of success in various different settings. I have found that they are great imagination-stretching exercises for younger pupils (sometimes as young as Year 2), as well as being techniques for encouraging reluctant older pupils to produce often strikingly good material. They can be strung together as part of the same lesson, or taken and adapted to form separate sessions. The beauty of the exercises is that they have the potential to address physical, performative, listening, imaginative and writing skills within a single lesson. 

Physical Exercise

Pupils generate a list of ten emotion words ('happy' and 'sad' are banned), with the help of the teacher. Pupils walk around the space, not talking or touching each other. The teacher calls out words from the list, and the pupils have to walk and move their bodies as though they are feeling that emotion. 

Performance Exercise

Each pupil is provided with a very short poem - 'The White Horse' by D.H. Lawrence works well. Each pupil then chooses an emotion word from the list generated in the warm up, and keeps it a secret. Pupils take it in turns reading out the poem in the style of their chosen emotion word. The rest of the class listens carefully, and tries to work out what the relevant word is. 

Writing Exercise

Each pupil chooses a different emotion word from the list, keeping it a secret and not writing it down. Through a series of quick-fire, timed exercises, the teacher directs the pupils to imagine what their emotion TASTES, SOUNDS, SMELLS, FEELS and LOOKS like. Here are some tips for this part of the session:
  • pupils write in full-sentences
  • each sense begins on a new line
  • see if they can use a different sentence starter each time
  • for the 'looks' exercise, they can illustrate it instead of writing about it
The students will all have ended up with a poem without even realising it! The poem they have written reveals the importance of the 'show don't tell' dictum - i.e. that it can be more powerful to demonstrate how an emotion is felt rather than simply to say that it is - as well as the importance of making use of a wide variety of sense data when undertaking a piece of creative writing. Once each pupil has written a poem, they can perform it while the rest of the class tries to work out which emotion is being talked about. Once they have worked it out, this can then become the title of the poem!

Tuesday 13 May 2014

'My First' - Poem + Workshop Idea

I’m New Here

The students are lining up for lunch.
I don’t know whether to wait with them
or to push to the front,
like the other teachers do.
I’m new here.
It’s my first day of school.

The dinner lady tells me to step forward,
to the top of the queue.
She spoons me an extra large portion,
with four potatoes.
The students get two.

They sit in rows at long tables, locked
in conversation like two sides of a zip.
I’m the only one who chose fruit salad
instead of chocolate cake.
I find an empty space.

I’m new here.
It’s my first day of school.

They’re prodding each other, debating
where to sit. They eye the seats around me
and decide they’d rather stand. 
One of them cracks a joke,
then they all start laughing.

And I’m ten years old again,

no one to talk to, wanting to belong
more than anything else in the world.
I’m ten years old again,
whispered comments prickling at my back;
my very skin an ill-fitting uniform.

I’m ten years old again,
the new kid
on my first day of school,
my eyes searchlighting the exits,
desperate to run away.  

I take my tray
and eat in the staffroom


Can you think of other 'first' experiences to write about? Some possible ideas include:

The first time I got a pet
The first time I saw an adult crying
My first football match
The first time I failed a test...

Saturday 10 May 2014

Patron Of Reading, pt2: Poetry With Year 8 at Stalham High

Yesterday I posted on my blog a brief report of my first visit to Stalham High School, Norfolk, as their new Patron Of Reading. I shared some lovely work that was done by Year 7 during my visit. During my visit I also worked with a small group of Year 8 students, who wrote poems about wishes. As with Year 7 I was struck by their quirky, often surreal sense of humour. Here are some of their lovely poems:

I wish I could fly! (By Ben)

I wish I could fly,
Escape the sly,
The ones who make me down,
and frown.
If I could fly,
I would never need a plane.
No passport,
no more.
When I fly,
I will fly with an eagle,
carrying a lamb,
And some airborne ham.

I wish…(By Will)

I wish I lived in America or Australia,
I could go “down under”  in Australia
With the cool kangaroo in the outback,
And spend a night in its pouch.
Then get the kangaroo to dig through the earth,
So I can reach America.
And tan myself until I look like a bronze statue,
Then parade myself through the streets in a Ferrari.
This is how I want to live.

I wish I had a pet leopard (By Sam)

I wish I had a pet leopard.
Not a lion.
Not a tiger.
Not a lemur.
But a leaopard.
That eats annoying mice

and pedestrians

Friday 9 May 2014

Patron Of Reading - Poetry With Year 7 at Stalham High School, Norfolk

Earlier this year I was appointed Patron Of Reading at Stalham High School in Norfolk. My role is fairly informal, and will hopefully involve supporting literacy at the school over the coming years in a variety of fun, interesting ways. A couple of weeks ago I travelled from London for my first visit to the school, which went really well. After a poetry performance for Year 7 - as well as some Year 5 and 6 students from a local primary called Catfield, which I insisted on calling 'Dogfield' to the extremely mild amusement of some of the pupils - I led poetry workshops with small groups of students from Year 7 and 8.

The workshops were largely informal, with a heavy emphasis on lighthearted fun. I would like to post the results of the some of the Year 7 workshops (the Year 8 poems will be posted soon!). One group of Year 7 students wrote about their most embarrassing moments:

When I was six (By Elijah)

It was when I was six,
That I looked at the fish,
Their bowl seemed dirty, so I gave it a five star clean
I mixed soap and bleach in the water

And I felt so proud that I said “Mummy!”
My mum came in the room
She gave me a look of gloom,
It was only then that I realised I had ended the lives of some fish
I felt like a shark which had eaten a bunch of fish
but had only just realised that it wasn’t a carnivore…

I remember (By Isis)

I remember when I was small ,
And my most embarrassing moment occurred,
I walked up to the head teacher and said…
I wished that I was as small as an ant:
 Insignificant and pointless,
The class pointed fingers and laughed at me.
I must have sounded like a little snob,
Calling people “Mummy”
My face burned up,
I felt like a fool,
I never said the word “Mummy” again.

When I got slapped in the face by a fish (By Liam)

When I got slapped in the face by a fish when I was fishing,
I felt like when you try to pull off a stunt at a public swimming pool,
When everyone’s staring at you,
And cameras are all on record,
And you make the jump…
Your heart is racing …

I especially the sense of humour and quirkiness in these poem. Another group of Year 7 students wrote metaphor poems describing poetry, using the refrain 'Poetry Is':

Poetry is…(By Jake)

Poetry is when I fell head first in a puddle,
Poetry is a flower.
Poetry is a vegetarian zombie eating grains,
Poetry is sweets,
Poetry is a flame.

Poetry is…(By Kirsty)

Poetry is jumping in a cold pool on a cold night
Poetry I my brother being born funny,
Poetry is being scared of doors,
Poetry id going swimming with my brother,
Poetry is my dog eating a balloon.
Poetry is jumping off a hill,
Poetry is me.

Poetry is (By Stacey)

Poetry is the time my sister said that eggs came from cows.
Poetry is the time I feel in a lamppost
Poetry is the time my dog ate baby food.
 pOetry is the time Joshua Seigal came to our school.
Poetry is the stars in the night sky.

Sunday 4 May 2014

False Impressions - Workshop Idea (KS2/3)

First off, here's a funny poem from Trevor Parsons, with whom I recently spent a week on a poetry retreat:

Front Of The Class 

I sit at the front of the class
and try to get on with my work.
The back row are mucking about.

Tom’s had a paper dart flown at his head,
it’s caught in his hair
and he doesn’t know it’s stuck there.

He looks like a scoop of ice cream
with one of those horrible fan-shaped biscuits
sticking out the side of it.

I want to laugh out loud
but I suppose I mustn’t.
I always have to do the right thing.

Often, when I shouldn’t, I just want to be silly,
stop being old Serious Drearious,
or Sternly Burnley – and just be me.

I’m back row material, really I am.
I could mess about with the worst of you,
have a laugh, see the silly side of everything.

It’s what I’m like on the inside.
But on the outside it’s just not that easy
when you’re a teacher. 

I very much empathise with this teacher's predicament, which is something I hope to elaborate on in another blog post. For now we can note that this poem, whilst admittedly lighthearted, could be used as a springboard from which to explore some serious issues to do with self-identity and false impressions. As a warm-up, students complete the following sentences:

          Everyone thinks I am...
          But really I am...

Each student should try to aim for a list of such sentences. This list could either form a poem in itself, or a specific dichotomy could be extracted and developed. Other options likewise present themselves. Students could get into groups and complete sentences of the form:

         Everyone thinks we are...
         But really we are...

Thus issues to do with collective youth identity could be explored. There is also ample room for imaginative flights of fancy. Students could write from the point of view of someone who lives a normal life by day but is a superhero by night. As with many of my workshops, I want to allow room for both lightheartedness and the exploration of deep, personal stuff. 

Saturday 3 May 2014

Poets' Retreat at Ammerdown 2014

About a year ago, after having had a poem accepted for publication in Roger Stevens' children's anthology Off By Heart, I was invited to participate in a week long children's poets' retreat at Ammerdown, near Bath, with several eminent practitioners of the art. I have just returned from the retreat, and had a great time.

I was immediately struck by the warmth of the other participants, especially given that I was by some decades the youngest (as I'm sure they won't mind me acknowledging), and that I was one of only a few people to have recently joined what I subsequently discovered to be a well-established group who meet up regularly. I was also struck by the poetic diversity among the group. The life of an itinerant poet/educator can be a fairly solitary one, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is a certain way in which children's poetry should be done. The retreat was extremely helpful in exposing me to a variety of practices, ideologies and techniques, and enabling me to appreciate that, as well as the full-on, highly energetic performances I tend to give in schools, children's poetry can be written and performed in a more quiet, reflective way.

We ran workshops for each other in the mornings, which were very useful in furnishing me with new ideas for the classroom. Especially revolutionary, to my mind at least, was Sally Crabtree's food poetry (literally poems written on food), which really opened my mind to the sheer number of wacky possibilities when it comes to playing with words, which is I think essentially what poetry amounts to. Evenings consisted of reading poems, singing songs and generally being a little bit silly. The age gap was rendered totally irrelevant by the fact that I shared a sense of humour with my fellow retreaters. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I felt more at home among this group of children's poets than I have ever felt among younger 'Spoken Word' artists.

The retreat, however, was permeated by a degree of sadness due to the passing away of Gerard Benson, a poet whom many other members of the group knew very well. I sadly never got the chance to meet him, but by all accounts he was an inspirational man.

We closed with some discussions as to how to take the group forward. I suppose it all remains a little 'hush hush' at this stage, but I look forward to continuing to be a part of an inspirational group of children's poets.