18 (mostly unexpected) ways to bring poetry to life in the primary school

Here is a smattering of thoughts, ideas, links, projects, organisations and a few people who might help you to bring poetry to life in the primary school setting. No pretending here that this is anything other than my own subjective brainsludge – I am a keen and devoted amateur; a teacher who writes poetry and sometimes a poet who teaches. I run poetry retreats with Adisa, which I yadder on about perpetually because they are the highlight of my working life.

Some things here are activities/lesson plan ideas, and some are not.

Whilst I have definitely included some well-known suggestions, I am aiming to fill the cracks and nudge you towards the slightly leftfield.

Hope it helps, and always happy to email about this sort of stuff too.

Here we go then. In a characteristically disorganised and haphazard fashion…

Headings in Green are practical teaching exercises you can do

 

  1. Follow the CLIPPA prize

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The CLIPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award) is awarded each year, celebrating the best in new children’s poetry. Diving into the shortlists and winning books – past and present – is a great way to find well-curated and interesting writing. There is an abundance of activity around the CLIPPA on the CLPE website, including videos of shortlisted poets talking about their work, and also the option to join the Shadowing Scheme, giving your class the chance to dive deeply into the texts and perhaps join in with the Awards Ceremony.

Previous winners include Steven Camden, Karl Nova, Kate Wakeling, Carol Ann Duffy and Roger McGough, amongst illustrious others.

 

2. Listen to the ‘Tell Me The Truth About Life’ Podcast

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As part of the phenomenal hive of activity around National Poetry Day, the Forward Arts Foundation and Michael O’Mara Books developed a brilliant podcast alongside the 2019 theme of Truth. They are introduced by Cerys Matthews (!!) and feature Susannah Herbert from Forward Arts Foundation, in discussion with Simon Armitage, Nikita Gill, Kate Clanchy, Henry Normal, Jade Anouka and Michael Morpurgo. All are really enlightening but I was a particular fan of Kate Clanchy‘s interview, in which she spoke candidly about her approach to getting students to write.

One such student is the poet Mukahang Limbu, whose sensibility and skill is breathtaking.

All of the podcasts can be found here.

 

 

3. Rhyme-battling fridges you say?

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Here is a resource of my own into the mix. The premise here is a fairly simple one, deriving from our poetry retreats: sometimes, we need to think deeply when we write, but sometimes we become so thoughtful and introspective that we end up prevaricating about everything and writing nothing. It’s true for adults and children alike.

This activity goads people into forgetting that what they are doing is performance poetry – for some quieter or more reticent young poets, it provides a way for everyone to be equally confused and uneasy, whilst engaging in playfulness around rhyming and words.

Split a class into groups. Using this sheet, or something similar, each group is allocated a ‘Character’. It may be a fridge, a tool box, a treasure chest, a picnic box or suitcase, for example.

On each page, there are a range of component elements, selected because of their high frequency of potential rhyming words. In the group, begin by devising a rhyme list – fill a blank page with as many rhyming words as possible for your focus words.

From these rhyming words, consider as a group which might be most topically appropriate or meaningfully linked, and begin forming lines. Every member of the group must share at least two lines.

If your team is the Fridge and you are battle-rhyming/battle-rapping against the Kitchen Cupboard, what might make you better than your nemesis is the fact that you are chilled and lit up and hold all the fresh stuff.

So from the rhyming word of ‘cheese’, we can form rhymes like disease, unease, please, fleas, knees, tease, wheeze, sneeze. Of these, disease jumps out at me. I might then make couplets which either celebrate my jubilant fridgeness or which lambasts the wretched deficiencies of my nemesis.

I’m keeping my cool, filled with fresh milk and cheese / Whilst all of your warm contents grow mould and disease 

Why, I hear you beg? Why do this?

It gets children pooling their ideas about rhyme and language. It is highly accessible, with all children expected to share at least one line. It is very low-stakes, despite it involving performance. Everybody has a very short amount of time to prepare this, and everybody knows it is a bit of fun. This isn’t deep, meaningful stuff – it is a hammer battle-rapping a piece of lettuce. But within this, children (or adults) are being imaginative, toying with language and recognising the difference between good and bad rhymes.

Download the Battle Rhymes Activity Sheet

Here is a group of kids doing their version on one of our OtherWise Retreats – the treasure chest brought the ruckus.

 

4. Explore ‘the classics’ with a critical eye on what that means

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Some poets are very commonly recognised as being ‘good to know’, and it is worth reflecting on this. The poets whose names I bark at the TV screen when I don’t know an answer to a poetry question on University Challenge are poets I wish I had read more of. Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Milton etc.

This is reminiscent of how, in order to get a real handle of so much allusion and allegory in English Literature, you really need to have read the Bible, and deeply. Some things it is helpful for us to know, whether to bask in their magnificence, respect their contribution, move with their logic, analyse them in context, or in order to challenge their presuppositions.

This talk of ‘the greats’ necessarily comes with the deafening klaxon of a proviso – ‘the canon’, in whatever form it is typically shared, tends not to take fair and just account of the diverse traditions that make up the world culture of poetry. Even when we are specifically looking at ‘the classics’ rather than poetry more broadly, it is not true or just to present it as the creative achievements of just the white European Romantics.

Poetic tradition(s) are far wider and broader than students typically encounter in the school curriculum, and the questions of what constitutes ‘proper poetry’ are fraught, startling and political.  To do it right, you are going to talk about this with pupils, so let’s roll up our sleeves and do it right. 

 

5. Explore The Children’s Poetry Archive

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I let out an actual gasp when I discovered this, after years of wanting for there to be something like this in existence. Turns out it already was here and I was just too gormless to find it!

The Children’s Poetry Archive is a glorious and vast compendium of children’s poems. Most contain the full text alongside readings by the poets. There are interviews too, which are enormously helpful for supporting children to write authentically and ‘find their way’.

It is a very well-designed website. Poems can be sorted and characterised by Age Group, by Theme, by Poetic Features and by Poet.

Here is Brian Patten’s ‘A Blade of Grass’, one of my favourite poems to share with children.

I really liked hearing Adham Smart’s reading of his poem ‘Why I Google myself‘ too. Clearly, the website is still being updated all the time, so keep an eye on it.

Explore a poet’s craft in this interview with Valerie Bloom.

 

6. It’s Time To Share A Blog Post That I Wrote, Upon The Theme of How to Write a Sonn’t / It’s Often Overlaboured To Promote, Your Own Work, Nonetheless Click Upon’t

When I was teaching a Year 5 class toward the end of last academic year, I had the joy of a fortnight reading and writing sonnets. It was a fascinating way to explore how children navigate between structure and agency – in short they relished the constraint, and enjoyed writing their own truths or part truths within the confines of the tight poetic form.

You can read a whole blinking post about it on my blog here.

If you have 11 minutes to spare, or even if you don’t and are just procrastinating, why not immerse yourself in this acting masterclass, in which a young Trevor Nunn teaches a young David Suchet about how best to breathe meaning and interpretation into a recital of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138.

 

7. Narrate the Mundane in Iambs

Not much more to say on this other than the title. Simply put, it is enjoyable to get the children to try to just speak out every single thing they are doing with a sensitivity to the rhythm of their words. It helps them to see that the thought of writing with rhythmic precision is sometimes harder than the reality of it – in fact, there is a natural melody to much of what we say.

Speaking to my cat earlier, for example, who is called Shelby.

Shelby the lovely cat boy is so kind / he often tends to want to boop my face / his eyes are green his fur is sleek and dark / his litter box is a god-damned disgrace

Right this moment…

The time is now so close to Two AM / Bizarrely I am up awake and typing / Writing in iambs talking to my self / The neighbours will presume that I am Skyping

It is a good habit to be able to play around like this, particularly if you are encouraging pupils to share performance regularly. Few things in a poetry session with pupils get me as excited as a child who can freestyle whilst maintaining form – it is a masterful thing to see, though it is not afforded the same reverence as a well-edited piece. Both have their place, I think.

Don’t play with your food. Do play with your iambs.

 

8. Profound Intonation With Nonsense

I am making this one up myself, and haven’t tried it, but I will do so and feel confident it will illustrate the point about expression and tone. Prosody matters enormously in poetry.

How much of what we want to communicate in a poem is the words, and how much is the expression, pacing and intonation? We can show pupils how important the prosodic elements of speech are through speaking in nonsense to them, but doing so in a way that suggests meaning.

I give you three words.

BLIM, GANJOODLE and CORSK

Combine and repeat them to make sentences.

Declare your love for me with those words.

Show your disappointment for me with those words.

Order your lunch with a hostile barista with those words.

Reprimand a toddler with those words.

Console a weeping classmate with those words.

 

We can punctuate this, and the punctuation reflects our understanding of the prosodic features of our strange sentences.

“Gan…” he inhaled, wistfully “Gan… Ganjoodle. Corsk corsk corsk ganjoodle.”

I imagine this to be deeply apologetic and sad; how about you?

 

9. Nonsense

There are interesting discussions to be had around nonsense. It is serious business. When we think of nonsense poetry we possibly think either of Edward Lear and The Jabberwocky, or we think of children’s poor attempts at SomeSense poetry. Nonsense poetry can shed light on the nature of sense – there is a difference between a good nonsense poem and something which is utter gobbledegook. Where does the sense lie, and how can we play around with reality.

Nonsense poetry can exist at the surreal fringes of poetry, and it can be accessible, but it is not a free for all. Children do get this.

It would be untrue and unfair to call AF Harrold a ‘nonsense poet’, but there is something brilliant about his poem, I Want To Be A Wallaby from his collection ‘Things You Find In A Poet’s Beard’

There is a stunning collection of nonsense poetry I would draw your attention to  called Pumpkin Grumpkin – a collection edited by John Agard and Grace Nichols and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.

See more about Pumpkin Grumpkin here.

 

10. Read ‘Did I Hear You Write’ by Michael Rosen

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It is impossible to talk about children’s poetry without reference to Michael. His influence is enormous, and rightly so. He thinks deeply about it as a craft, whilst reliably creating poetry that children fall in love with. Devour his collections for children, and devour his writing about writing, such as ‘Writing for Pleasure’ and ‘How to Make Children Laugh’.

Here though, I am once again yaddering on about his book from 1989 ‘Did I Hear You Write?’. Every page is brimming with sagacity and more than any other, it has shaped the way I think about teaching poetry. My interpretation of his message is that children’s lives are already rich and lively pools of experience from which children can write. He understands the social cultures of childhood, and the huge importance of things which – to adult eyes – could easily appear trivial.

Read it, love it and use it. Before you get to the end of every page, you will be grasping breathlessly for a notepad to record all the ideas you will be having about how to introduce poetry writing sessions with your bambinos.

 

11. Cinquains

Cinquains are five-line poems that typically deploy a 2, 4, 6, 8, 2 syllable structure, following the lead of the poetically-named ‘Adelaide Crapsey’, who created the form. Cinquains are versatile structures which can encourage children to really economise with their words.

The haiku typically takes a natural theme, and it can be fun to use this with the cinquain too; though, as James Carter makes clear on the Twitters, it can be used in a huge range of dynamic ways.

 

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Jonny – I’m a massive fan of cinquains for KS2! Perfect for cross-curricular and topic stuff! Happy to help out if you need poems/teachers’ notes etc..! <a href=”https://t.co/USNjcMjRiM”>https://t.co/USNjcMjRiM</a></p>&mdash; James Carter (@jamescarterpoet) <a href=”https://twitter.com/jamescarterpoet/status/1229734134760820736?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>February 18, 2020</a></blockquote> https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Adisa introduces cinquains on our poetry retreat projects, and they reward children’s ability to cut through all the extraneous details and isolate the raw meaning of what they want to say.

If you want to talk more about cinquains, I reckon you could get in touch with James Carter!

 

12. Tweet the living poets

I will not fall into the trap of trying to list all of the brilliant poets on Twitter, because to do so will always lead me to forget people I want to mention, and that would be not very nice. Instead, simply explore and engage with the contemporary children’s poets, the majority of whom are on Twitter. Talk, share and engage.

Cheeky bit of unsolicited advice – don’t ask them for loads of free stuff, even if they are willing to give it. From my own experience of working with a lot of children’s poets, they are typically not rolling in money, and are having to do a lot of self-publicity to keep afloat. If you like their work, throw your money at it, since the creators deserve it!

 

13. Explore Somali poetry

Somalia is known as the ‘Nation of Poets’ and not without reason. This interview with Said Samatar from Rutger’s University gives an interesting context and overview.

Samatar: Poetry is the vehicle by which Somalis ask the three eternal questions: Where do I come from? Who am I? And where do I go from here? Somali poetry is not art for art’s sake. In the West poetry is purely aesthetic but in Somalia, it’s always art for a cause. If you translate and chant Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ to a Somali audience they would ask what the poet’s motivation was, what point he was trying to make. Somali poetry is didactic, not purely aesthetic.

The Poetry Translation Centre holds a vast number of poems across the Somali tradition, featuring the original Somali as well as English translations.

And this Buzzfeed article highlights five young Somali-British poets who are lighting up the scene.

All children will benefit from exploring poetry in this tradition, but it is especially important for our Somali pupils. I am going to spend a lot more time on this website, and there is a lot to learn from.

 

14. Spontaneous group poems

This activity is one that I kind of accidentally invented, using my favourite piece from Steven Camden’s ‘Everything All At Once’ – the CLIPPA winning collection about the experience of moving up to secondary school. In Camden’s ‘Prologue’ poem, a line of which is the title of the collection, we get an introduction to the maelstrom of confusion, and excitement, and joy, and fear which characterise moving up from Year 6 to Year 7.

I have the great pleasure of co-facilitating a one-day training course with Nikki Gamble, titled Poetry: pleasure, performance and potential. Nikki introduces the culture of poetry and the way in which we can develop complex comprehension and inference using poetic texts, and – in the last iteration at least – I led the afternoon’s look at writing poetry.

I shared Camden’s ‘Prologue’ poem and wanted the teachers in attendance to share what thoughts it fired off about their own memories of transition to secondary. With time to discuss, more and more ideas seemed to formulate, and some with more crystallised details.

I asked for feedback to be spontaneous and voluntary. As soon as you heard a silence, fill it with your memory. Without wishing to do the teachers a disservice, things came up like.

‘Knowing my trainers were not the right trainers’

‘Friends for life ditched me within minutes.’

‘Getting lost and getting lost again’.

As the teachers just threw out all of their responses, it settled into a flow that we could sense. Without asking it to, it had taken the form of a poem, purely through the breathlessly-sequenced collective oversharing.

It is a good way to generate ideas together with a group of writers who are developing their ideas. The children who want to share fifteen times can do so, and the openness – the clear knowledge that nobody is going to be ‘called out’ to share – means that most teachers felt able to share something poignant.

It was very reminiscent of our ‘Fears We Once Had’, which is shared below somewhere, if I remember.

While I’m here… if you wanted Nikki and I to run that training with your lot, get in touch with Just Imagine.

 

15. Use a rhyming dictionary every now and again

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When I sit down to write, I feel absolutely no shame about occasionally calling upon the use of a Rhyming Dictionary. From my ill-fated and unexpected stint as a low-tier Battle Rapper on an online cypher community, to my writing for children now, and my filthy smut poems I share at Open Mics in Northern pubs every now and again, I make generous use of Rhymezone.

What I like is the inclusion of Near Rhymes too, or ‘vowel rhymes’. Sometimes it is the delivery of a line that makes it rhyme, even if it looks very much not to be rhyming on the page.

Near rhymes are what enable Eminem to rhyme sweaty with heavy and with spaghetti.

 

16. It is so disgusting that… It is so brilliant that…

I am currently rifling through the books of the educationalist and poet, Sandy Brownjohn, who supported many children and young people aged between 9 – 15 to find ways to create some pretty exquisite poetry, that leaves you feeling almost suspicious. Her collections are filled with practical activities that you can use well once you have built a good culture around poetry in your writing classroom.

One activity that I read about recently, that I am inkling to try out, involves the room of poems being split in half. An imaginary event is described, but the children have no idea what it is. All children share ideas using phrases that are rich in simile, metaphor and hyperbole. One half begin by describing this unknown event with It is so disgusting that… and the other half retort with It is so brilliant that…

What I imagine it would generate was a competitive activity with everybody keen to outdo each other in terms of gore, exaggeration, revulsion and excess.

My own suggestions…

It is so disgusting that it makes my pancreas leak

It is so brilliant that it makes me want to kick a lamp.

It is so disgusting that it makes me think of retching like a dying cat

It is so brilliant that it makes me want to launch a weeklong carnival  of celebration

It is so disgusting that it makes me want to pack my eyelids with gauze.

It is so brilliant that it makes me want to peel off my skin, fold it into a little pile and dance around it.

I entertain myself very easily.

 

17. What 3 Words Poem

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This is cool. What 3 Words is a powerful and transformative geo-location app that has so many incredible uses. The concept is simple(ish). The whole surface of the planet is split up into 3 by 3 metre squares and each one is given a memorable 3 word code. Whilst GPS coordinates exist, they are not memorable.

I was at university with a man with a brilliant mind who was behind this whole thing, and it was amazing hearing him talk about it. Now, it is used by emergency services to identify hikers in desolate rural areas in the UK. It is used as a technology in cars’ GPS system. It can sync up with drone technology and deliver things anywhere. It is used in humanitarian crises to enable refugees to be tracked and supported.

And… it can be used by little numpties like me writing poems. The words are random. Right now, for example, I am sitting in a cafe in Chelmsford and my What3Words code is (can’t believe this…) ‘heavy.worm.paying

So based on this, I have a theme to write about – what a challenge. As soon as I finish this coke, I will worm my leaden self over the bar to pay. Perhaps my poem could be about me slowly transforming into a worm, and having to rush out before the metamorphosis exposes me. Perhaps in a few minutes, despite the seeming normality of my day thus far, a 16 foot worm is going to bimble along and pay my bill. WE JUST DON’T KNOW.

Perhaps every child in your class can find out the What 3 Words of their front door, or their bedroom, and write a story poem to explain how the 3 words link together.

I love this stuff. Get out and explore.

 

18. Finally, if I may be so bold, why don’t you do a poetry retreat with me and Adisa

Watch this and if you and some other schools near you might be interested, we might be able to spend four days writing together and playing with words, with you and your pupils.

 

 

 

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