It was brilliant to engage with so many people after posting the first set of eighteen ideas for bringing poetry to life in the primary school. I got a lot of enjoyment from pulling them together, and just as much from chatting to teachers, friends and even some poets about it all. It helped me to reflect more on my leanings too; in terms of my poetry pedagogies and also my personal tastes in writing.
This post is a continuation of that. As before, it is a brazenly subjective collection of thoughts, and my hope is only that you get something from it. There are far more poets and far more ideas than I can ever give praise to – where I share an idea that is from someone else, I am keen to make sure it is attributed properly, and just because I haven’t mentioned someone, or some idea, or some approach, doesn’t mean I think it’s bad!
Before I go into another eighteen, a few little niceties. Since writing the last one, I’ve had several poetry events. With our ‘Writes of Passage’ project, we have introduced two segments with a poetry focus, one led by Adisa and one (today in fact) led by me. Adisa toyed with personification and cinquains, and I got to put some of the ideas from the last post into practice again today, including the ‘Disgusting/Brilliant’ activity from Sandy Brownjohn. Some of the new ideas to share in this post are things we did today.
In the last post, one of the eighteen ideas was about the teaching of cinquains. In Adisa’s session on Tuesday, he led a rapid-fire five minute session on cinquains, chosen to attune the children to syllable structure and the power of brevity. One pupil wrote his about his forceful opinions on Marmite. What brilliant expression too – enough prosodic emphasis to say far more than 22 syllables-worth.
This wonderful student shares a Marmite cinquain. Writes of Passage, Primary. pic.twitter.com/zSj6VH0uO6
— OtherWise (@OtherWiseEdu) February 25, 2020
And as final tying up of the previous post, I stumbled across this brilliant quotation about nonsense in John Agard and Grace Nichols’ ‘Pumpkin Grumpkin: Nonsense Poems from Around The World’. The quotation is by Sampurna Chattarji.
To me, nonsense is a game we play in which humour and insight, imagination and anarchy bounce in amazing (and amazingly rigorous) patterns on the trampoline of language.
This fusion sits nicely alongside my approach to poetry – and heck, even to life – and it leads us nicely into some more lyrical tomfoolery in these next eighteen ideas. Let’s go – as before, practical ideas for direct use in the classroom are highlighted green.
1. “You never say biscuit. You say Garibaldi!”
In the glorious ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’, Ep 2 S4 of ‘Inside Number 9′, there is a chunk of dialogue that floored meI don’. The two characters, former members of a comedy double act called Cheese and Crackers, are bickering about the past. They argue about the name…
I hate that stupid name. I always did.
But somebody had already registered Cheese and Onion. I told you!
Why did it have to be Cheese and anything? It’s so babyish. And it’s not funny.
Well, I think it’s funny.
It’s too generic. First rule of comedy – be specific. You never say biscuit – you say Garibaldi!
I don’t know why I find it so striking, but I do.
How does this relate to teaching children to write poetry?
So much of our writing is ‘biscuit’, when it could so easily be ‘Garibaldi’.
When children are encouraged to recognise the difference between a generic statement and a specific detail, a different kind of authenticity rings through their writing. By being specific, we begin to see something more real in their expression. It can be enormously frustrating when we feel we have had a good session of writing, and the outcomes feel very generic – ambivalent opinions on broad topics can leave the children and the audiences, often us as their teachers, feeling uninspired.
A child once started a poem that spoke very vaguely of ‘then we had dinner’. When nudged to be specific about what that entailed, he wrote one of the most memorable things I’ve read from a child, in which he outlined how his mother has to cook five different evening meals for her husband and four children. In writing about these details, he saw them with new eyes, and realised how hard that is on his mum. The details are where the interest lies.
I can get very bored of hearing children tell me they like football, and they get bored of saying it. But they do genuinely really like football, and it can matter to them a great deal. For many kids, their entire friendship group, social life and world of hobbies and interests can revolve around it.
‘I like football’ is biscuit.
Dig deep and encourage them to think about the ‘Garibaldi’ – for some, they like the ferocity and lawlessness of the pitch, for some they like the camaraderie and team spirit, for some they like the imaginative play of it all when they become Lionel Messi in the playground, for some it is just the respite from SPAG.
In the Inside Number 9 script “You don’t say biscuit. You say Garibaldi!” is a tip of how you write to be funny. I think it’s true of children’s funny writing, and our writing for them, but I think it’s true more broadly.
Steer children towards valuing the specific rather than the generic.
2. National Poetry Day 2020: See Like a Poet
National Poetry Day is growing every year, and the theme for next year is Vision. Just today, the new site went live with lots of brilliant resources, and if last year is anything to go by, the site will grow and grow. Currently, it features poems on this theme by Roger Robinson, Pascale Petit, James Carter, Chrissie Gittins, Langston Hughes, Christina Rossetti, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and William Hughes Mearns.
There are lots of practical ways to get involved with your class. As the resources build up, there is an archive of poems and readings to work with in class, as well as lots of opportunities to engage in competitions and sharing.
Give them a follow on Twitter here, and you’ll be in the loop for lots of opportunities.
3. Hear how poets feel about poetry: how do artists feel about art
My colleague Jo mentioned how brilliant this little piece was on the radio yesterday. In this specific episode of Only Artists, the poet laureate talks with the playwright Simon Stephens about lots of things, including the writers’ craft. Whilst this is not a podcast for the children to access, it is great for us, as teachers, to engage with poetry more broadly. With Simon Armitage, it was brilliant hearing how he brings characters to life with simile and metaphor, and about mimicry. (About 22 mins in)
‘It allows you with language to try different costumes on… You need to find about five or six writers who becomes gods or goddesses to you. Know their work so intimately that it begins to pollute or perfume your own vocabulary, and what happens is that their voice harmonises with your voice.”
Which poets live in your head? For me, it’s John Cooper Clarke, Pam Ayres, Adisa, Michael Rosen and Ian McMillan. Whilst I enjoy lots of different poets’ work, it is probably only these five whose words I read with their voice in my head. I can read my own stuff and see if it has the same clarity of humour and performance by reading it as Michael Rosen. I can test whether it is acidic and playful with a John Cooper Clarke reading. I’ll add Brian Patten in here too actually – his reading of ‘Little Johnny’s Confession’ firmly implanted his voice into my psyche.
This brilliant podcast with the two Simons got me thinking about all this stuff anyway, and it may do similar things for you. Another brilliant dialogue between creative minds is this episode of Dialogues with the Turner Prize winning artist Chris Ofili talking with the classicist Emily Wilson, whose translation of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ is a thing to marvel at.
To build writerliness, we can hear how writers go about they work.
On from Simon Armitage’s advice about mimicry, we can play with emulation as a way to develop pupils’ writing. This can take many forms. In the podcasts I mentioned in the last post, with Kate Clanchy, she talks about students writing in response to a poem they have read, or have had read to them. They may mirror elements of the style in doing so.
We might find a poem that moves us and have it written down. What we might try to do is write another poem that exactly matches it in terms of its syllable structure, or its metre, or its rhyme pattern, for example. By focusing on just one element, we make it achievable and it takes considerable creative use of language in order to fit within these confines.
Again, we come back to that dilemma around creativity – is it the freedom from constraint, or is creativity the way that we work within constraint? In this case, we work with the latter.
An example could be Brian Bilston’s ‘Refugees’ poem, which is coherent when read from top to bottom, and is also coherent when read from bottom to top – when you read conventionally, it is against refugees, and when read from bottom to top, it supports them. I’ve seen lots of examples of schools using this poem in a way that celebrates it through emulating its structure.
Another example. I am keen that my blog remains swear-free, due to the likelihood of my students finding my stuff, so I shan’t post the original. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed writing an emulation of ODB’s ‘Got Your Money’ with my own rendition about ordering a takeaway, called ‘Got Your Curry’.
Trying to do this, however facile and gormless and pointless as it may be, was really challenging. With the original playing in the background, the challenge of threading new meanings alongside the same rhyme structure, line length and assonance was high – for me, anyway. The craft of a rapper should not be sniffed at, and I could spend an entire blog exploring the writing structures of MF Doom.
5. Michael Rosen’s vast Youtube channel
‘Kids’ Poems and Stories with Michael Rosen’ has over 400 videos on there, and it is a phenomenal resource. There are all the old favourites, performed emphatically to camera – No Breathing and Chocolate Cake included, your class will be pleased to know. But there is a lot more on there too.
There are Book Reviews, readings of chapter books – Even Stevens is currently being serialised. There are interviews with other writers, such as Frank Cottrell Boyce. Essentially, dig in, subscribe and explore – it is gold.
Beyond the poems themselves, there is a lot of rich content that goes into the craft of writing, and it can help the children’s writing to breathe, even if this contravenes your No Breathing rules.
6. Note: Poetry Books Are Not Just The Small Thin Things
There are some notions about books that children reliably adopt. One of them is about book sizes. For the youngest readers, books are either very phonicky, meaning they are small glossy squares with lots of close-up photos and very short sentences; or they are huge brightly colour floppy things full of pictures. Growing up as a reader may seem to be about the book size meeting in the middle, and then gaining in depth. Suddenly, prestige as a reader is about owning a roughly A5ish book that could serve well as a door stop.
I remember flaunting my copy of Ivanhoe around as an insufferable Year 5 boy. I didn’t want to read the thing, but I enjoyed the status I got from having this thick weighty cuboid in my hand that made a THUMP rather than a SLAP when I chucked it on the floor.
Poetry is a victim of this book-body shaming. Poetry books become recognised as the thin small slightly floppy books. You see this with your excellent stalwarts. This is the Talkin’ Turkeys, your John Agard and Grace Nichols… it is what you expect to see when you are searching for poetry books.
But don’t forget the picture books! So many of the brilliant picture books that are doing the rounds are fantastic examples of poetry, particularly when looking at KS1 and early KS2. The ‘Bathroom Boogie’ and ‘Kitchen Disco’ books by Clare Foges and Al Murphy are sublime playful celebrations of rhyme, and their rhythm is great too.
Andy Stanton and Miguel Ordóñez’s ‘Going to the Volcano’ is reliably amusing the kids I work with in Year 5 and Year 6 just as much as the youngers, with its rhyming of volcano with train-o, lane-o and crane-o.
The Squirrels Who Squabbled is another example that is brilliantly structure rhythmic poetry in picture book form.
And let’s not forget to bow down to The Highwayman and The Lady of Shallott at this juncture.
Some books may not fit easily into your backpack, but they ought to fit into your classroom!
7. Melody married to harmony, one and the same…
Children’s views on poetry are fascinating. Like the point above, they expect a certain kind of book. At the level of the poems themselves, they expect certain kinds of content. They see it as analogous with ‘funny’ – poetry is the land of the humorous, the strange, the exaggerated and the bizarre, for many children. This is true, this stuff does exist, but there are lots of other types out there too.
Children also see poetry as being ‘rhymes’. Not that it can rhyme, but that they mean the same thing. For this reason, they may occasionally proudly share something that rhymes but makes literally no sense (which is different from nonsense). As well as expecting rhyme, there are certain rhythm patterns that they see as ‘poetry’.
Often it’s balance lines of iambs, without them knowing. – da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM…
We can explore these perceptions with the children, and it becomes all the more fascinating when they see the complexity and variety of ways in which poetry can be structured, formed, designed and toyed with.
I have enjoyed sharing Nas’s ‘Jarreau of Rap’ with the lyrics up, so that they can see the way in which storytelling poetry can have the same syncopation, bounce and rhythm as jazz.
8. A Day of Talk Poem
This is a very practical way of generating a poem which is often very rich in insight, and can give us cause for reflection. The poem works by threading together things which we might hear at different stages of a day in school. Of course, it is very flexible and you can add whichever ‘elements’ you like based on your school day. What is fascinating is seeing the wide variety of experiences that children have in what is – in physical terms – the same experience. We are all here in the same building, doing lots of the same stuff, but we are having a very different time.
Here’s how it works.
As the teacher, you are going to run through a day, picking out specific times and little events. For each one, the children record just one sentence – the first thing that honestly comes to mind – based on what they hear people say. For the children then, what they have at the end is a sequence of different phrases that characterise different parts of their day.
Here is a sequence you could use, with thirteen bits.
a) The first thought that comes into your head when you wake up.
b) The first thing somebody says to you at home.
c) The last thing someone from home says before you go to school.
d) The first thing you hear people in your class say when you get into the playground.
e) The first words your teacher says.
f) What is said to you if you do something great in class.
g) The rudest thing you’ve heard somebody say in class.
h) Something a teacher might say if they are annoyed with someone in your class.
i) What is said to you when your food is served for you?
j) What do you hear your friends say in the playground at lunch time.
k) The last thing a teacher says before you leave the class.
l) The first thing someone says when you get through the door.
m) The last thought you have at night time before you sleep.
I’ll share one from an invented child (but using examples of things that have been written by a range of different children) to illustrate the point.
oh my gosh i’ve only just fallen asleep / we’ve ran out of shreddies, get cornflakes / off you go now
allow it he’s here now so he can go on your team / nice straight line everyone / beautiful job you’ve really been working hard, I can’t wait to show Dad what you’ve been doing / you don’t know nothing miss / name. board. now.
LUNCHTIME halal or not halal? HALAL OR NOT HALAL? / you coming to mine later then? / remember your reading diaries guys / ah brilliant, hold the baby I need the toilet / are we going to war?
It is very quick and can be kept as it is, as a kind of idea-generating warm up, or the ideas can be developed and crafted into more considered poems.
I’ve found it effective to have children read it back to themselves and really dig deep into the expressive prosodic reading of it – getting into character for each phrase sees the children not only changing their intonation and their voices, but often their faces and bodies. It makes for a really fascinating little activity, and one that allows all the children to write something that rings with the truth of their lives.
9. Writing about familiar passions well – Dear Basketball
I’ve been thinking about basketball a lot recently. The death of Kobe Bryant affected me in a small but significant way that I hadn’t anticipated. Hard to imagine now, but when I was a teenager, basketball was everything. We would train every night, meet up and play in the park in the evenings, go round each other’s houses and play NBA Ballers and on the weekends, we would spend the whole day out around the parks playing, practising, improving, taking it very seriously whilst also just really enjoying it.
One of my friends from back then always wore the Kobe Lakers vest, and when the news broke about the helicopter crash, I can’t tell how instantly I was hit by a torrent of nostalgia for those times. The sight of that jersey sprinting around in front of me, looking for that jersey to make the pass, seeing his dreads lashing about above the purple and yellow and the 24 as he made a lay up.
This last week, I’ve absent-mindedly been steering my Spotify towards the music I was playing at the time – this bizarre scene of the lyrical landscapes of Ludacris, Marques Houston, DMX, The Neptunes and Xzibit set against the backdrop of our ‘bog standard comprehensive’ in Doncaster, a place not known for its spinning rims and Hummers (unto our prom at least).
Looking at what I’ve splurged out, I think even the way I am thinking about poetry is heavily influenced by this – lots at the intersection of poetry with self-expression, maturity and a skewed South Yorkshire dialect of hip-hop .
If I was asked back when I was 14 what I cared about, I would say ‘basketball’.
All biscuit, no Garibaldi.
Back then, I couldn’t go beyond the general in any writing I would do – and I know because I still own the horrendously embarrassing notepads from 2003 onwards.
Now though, I could write about the significance of the echo in the sports hall, and how hearing the same song every week before a match would make me forget the reality of everything else. When ‘Right Here, Right Now’ would blast through the hall, and we lined up to do a passing drill, we were just doing, not thinking.
Now, I could write to articulate how the memory of this makes me realise that I never ‘just do it’, no matter how much I adorn myself in XXL Nike basketball gear. My body has become the bridge between a brain I can’t switch off and a laptop I don’t switch off.
That’s the weird irony here. Now that I have the ability to express my passions, I don’t have the same passions to talk about.
Perhaps I have eaten so much Garibaldi in the last fifteen years, that I’ve forgotten what it means to just have a biscuit.
For that reason, a better articulation of what poetry about our passions looks like can be found in ‘Dear Basketball’.