Sunday 14 October 2012

Poetry is doing and playing: 20 ideas for you

This is a set of suggestions for poetry work in schools.

The reason why I'm putting it here is that I'm getting quite a few letters from people asking me how they should teach poetry or how they should teach a specific poetry lesson. 

As you'll see from below, I think the best route to enjoy and learn from poetry is to get to know it in a whole variety of ways. So, perhaps rather than thinking of teaching poetry,  we should think more of 'playing poetry.'    So that's where I'm beginning: imagining that I've been asked the question, 'how should we play poetry?' The points below are directed mostly at primary school teachers but of course anyone take any of them and run with them. 

1. Find a poem for yourself. Forget that you're a teacher. Just find a poem for  yourself. Read it. And put the book, or newspaper where you found it where you can find it again quickly. Perhaps photocopy the poem so that  you can carry it with  you. This is just for you. If you want to share it with anyone, you'll be able to if you're carrying it with you. But if not, no matter. It's yours.

2. In class, while the children are working, get the largest piece of paper you can find; on the paper write out a poem; pin it up where every child in the class can read it. See what happens. After about a fortnight, do it again. Keep doing it every fortnight through the terms. Remember, you don't have to say anything about it. You don't have to ask anyone anything about it.

3. Do the same and put some post-its next to the poem and say that the children can write anything they think about the whole poem or bits of the poem and stick the post-its up around the poem

4. Invite tables in class to choose a poem to write out and put up on the wall too. After a fortnight, change tables and get the next table to choose a poem. Suggest that they might like to do some artwork around the poem or with the poem. Put the poem up where everyone can read it.

5.. Do 'the poetry show'. You dish out a pile of poetry books on each table and invite the children in pairs or threes to choose a poem to perform in ten minutes time. Then you have a poetry show. The first time, you model being MC, making quite a fuss of each pair or threesome and making sure that everyone's listening.

After the poetry show, sit down and do a circle time, where you discuss what different kinds of things you can do with poems to make them sound more interesting:

after they've suggested things, you can try suggesting and demonstrating any of the following:

working out ways in which  you can do solos, duets, trios and all-class unison in different places in a poem
doing 'echo effects' by repeating words or repeating them with a whisper
doing a kind of 'rhythm and bass' by picking a couple of words of the poem and repeating them 'under' the poem while it's being recited
using your body as percussion in between verses or phrases (eg banging your chest, or your legs or side)
treating each verse or specific images in the poem as an opportunity to do a tableau or 'freeze frame' of a moment in a poem.
using pictures on powerpoint

6. Creating a poetry corner in the classroom. Fill it with poetry books, and whatever systems of playing audio and video at your disposal. Whenever the class make a poetry book (more on that in a moment), put one copy in the poetry corner.

7. Make poetry books and posters as often as  you can. The books can be of original poems by the children and/or anthologies of favourite poems, or both mixed up. Encourage the children to make poem posters to put up in class or on their walls at home in their bedrooms or in the school corridors. Discuss what is the best way to make a poetry poster.

8. Read a poem a day. Just read it. No need to ask questions. Just read it. And see what happens.

9. Create a word-and-phrase collection wall. Encourage the children to collect interesting-sounding words, phrases, sayings and put them up on the wall. Make sure that everyone can read them. Often refer to them, look at them. Play games with what's there, asking the children how they might begin a poem with a phrase. Put up things that you find, showing them what you mean eg lines from songs, something you overheard on the bus, a funny saying that your parents or grandparents used to say, a line from a story or something you heard on TV the night before. Keep it fresh, keep replenishing it. Keep encouraging children to add to it. Hold writing sessions based on the word-and-phrase collection wall. Use newspaper headlines, found funny or interesting phrases from articles, stories, or other poems.

10. Use modern technologies and poetry - blogs, powerpoints, digi camera films as vehicles for poetry or places to put poetry.

11. Find ways to put poems into other art forms, eg in clay tablets, stop-frame animations, as lines to be said to inspire dance, as key points in drama or starting points for improvisations etc, to set to music.

12. Explore a poet. Pick a poet and do a project on that poet's work. Get different tables in the class to devise a set of questions about the poet and then distribute the questions around everyone, go off and research the poet - poems, books, life etc.

13. Explore a kind of poem: do a project exploring a kind of poem eg the ballad, or the haiku, or narrative verse...Distribute a set of these poems. Get the children to devise a set of questions about them. Divide them up into research teams. Come back and share what you've found out. Write up the results and display what's been discovered where everyone can read it.

14. Integrate poetry in to topics and trips. Whatever your topic or outing that you're doing,  you'll find poems that will relate to it. Use google to find the poems. Don't worry if you find things that seem very hard. Just copy one out and put it up on the wall. It doesn't have to be a perfect match. Make a priority of finding poems that come from the place or time that you're studying ie an Elizabethan poem if you're doing the Elizabethans, an American poem if you're doing America.

15. Any poem can be a starting point for another poem. Don't expect or ask the children to follow a poem slavishly. Simply say that if whenever you hear or read a poem and you get the idea that you would like to 'write a poem like that' - then let's do it. You write with them. But also be inventive and ask questions like, I wonder if we can imagine a poem that comes 'before' this poem, or 'after' this poem? Or is there a poem that someone or something in the poem says? Write something for and with the children as an example.

Any collection of poems can be a starting point.

Any little group of themed poems can be a starting point.

So, you could choose a little group of, say, 'family' poems, or poems about eating in order to get the children generating 'poems like that'.

Or you could choose ten poems by one poet and say, can we write some poems like that poet?

Or you could choose a single poem and get the children talking about what bits of the poem would they like to imitate.

You can take poems and change words around in a poem, or swap one word for another and see what happens.

Below, (at 19)  I give some examples of the kind of talk you can generate around poems if you ask open-ended questions. After such talk sessions, it might be a good time to say, 'Well, if anything occurred to  you that you want to write about, let's do it. Or, if  there's a way of writing that you liked, we can do that too.'

16. All stories offer places for poems. The principle is similar to what happens in Shakespeare plays, musicals and opera. That's to say, the plot or drama unfolds till it gets to a kind of 'crunch' moment, at which point there is the potential for a big 'thinks bubble'. If you're doing some acting or making tableaux of scenes then you can hotseat people in the scene as a starting point for a monologue or dialogue poem. Two of my favourites are the moment that Icarus is falling out of the sky and the moment that Hansel and Gretel realise that they have been abandoned. Hotseat asking questions like:
What can you see around you?
What are  you afraid of?
What do you hope for?
What do you remember?
What are you saying?
(use these questions flexibly for different moments in different stories. Invent other questions like, say, what are you jealous of? Or what is making you angry? etc etc)
You might want to experiment with more metaphorical language by asking
what are certain things 'like'?

The answers to these questions from individuals, pairs, groups or the whole class can be made into poems by 'harvesting'...collecting them together, writing them up on big sheets of paper and picking bits of them, repeating bits of them, inventing 'refrains' (ie parts that are repeated at regular intervals) or you encourage the children to write their answers on strips of paper.

Then  you lay the strips out on the ground as if it's a 'ladder'. Then you stand alongside the ladder and shout out the lines...

Remembering what you do in the poetry show, start to make echoes, or choruses, going loud and quiet. Shuffle the strips around to see if it makes different kinds of poems...

17. Collect pictures. Laminate stuff from newspapers and magazines. Download pictures from art gallery sites and google images, laminate them.

Ask the children to choose a picture.
Ask them to choose somebody or something in the picture.
Ask them to be that person or thing.
Ask these kinds of questions:

What do you want most of all?
What are you most afraid of?
What makes you angry?
What makes you happy?
what do you think will happen next?
What do you more remember?
What piece of advice do you have for us?
What's  your favourite saying?

Ask the children to look at the answers and see what happens if you repeat some of the answers or parts of the answers.
Ask them to see what happens if you think of some kind of refrain or 'frame' (ie a beginning and ending that is quite similar).
See what happens if you change things around?
See what happens if you cut things out that seem to be not as interesting as other parts.

18. Collecting and making montages and lists.
A lot of poetry is made up of collections of pictures (images) or sayings, or thoughts and such poems don't worry about making a story.

i)You can go out and be very simple and make 'seeing' poems.
Ask groups of children to quickly say that they can see.
Everytime someone says something, the group repeat it.
Think of a phrase which expresses where you are:
'in the playground' or 'on the bus' or some such.
And use that as a refrain, repeating it regularly.

ii) You can make very simple 'saying' poems by collecting what people say
about things or what they say in certain situations eg
what do parents say when they're angry:
Get the children to really act being their parent when they say it.
Run these one after the other very quickly.
Perhaps pick one of these to be the chorus and slot that in every four 'sayings'.

iii) following this 'montage' system, you can do the same for certain emotions
in a specific situation or something quite abstract.
This is like the Adrian Henri 'Love is...' poem
But you could do eg
'Hope is...'
'Anger is...'

You could tie this into what things you can 'see', things you 'feel', things that the emotion feels 'like'.

19. When you read poems together, you should aim to ask questions that you don't know the answers to.
Get them discussing these things in pairs,

eg Does the poem - or anything in the poem - remind you of anything?
why? how?
remind you of anything that has ever happened to you?
why? how?
remind you of anything that has ever happened to anyone you know?
why? how?

Does the poem - or anything in the poem - remind you of anything you've ever read,
seen on TV, in a film? In any other entertainment? A song?
Why? How?

If you could ask anyone or any thing in the poem a question, what would you ask?
If you could ask the person who wrote the poem a question, what would you ask?

Is there anyone who would like to answer any of the questions that the class have
come up with?
Can we come up with any more interesting answers?

20. Poems are ways of sticking words together ie creating links or 'strings' between different parts of a poem.

They use all kinds of tricks to do this:
eg repeating sounds (rhyme, alliteration, assonance)
eg repeating rhythms
eg using the same words in different ways eg repeating an image or colour or feeling
eg creating opposites and contrasts

We can call these 'secret strings'. Poems don't usually announce these strings,
they just do them.

Let's all be 'poem detectives' and see what 'secret strings' we can find in a poem.
Wherever we find one, put a loop round one end, run a line to the other one and loop round that.
So long as you can convince  yourself or someone else that there really is a secret string, it is one!

So, demonstrate this once on a big piece of paper in front of them all, scribbling all over the poem, finding secret strings. Encourage them to find some too.
Then give them some more poems to be 'poem detectives' with.

If you do this regularly, never telling them they're wrong, they will acquire the tools necessary to describe how poets put poems together and how they try to create effects.
They will also realise that what they have to say about this is important and good.


If you do all these things, with particular emphasis on doing things regularly and often, with maximum amount of autonomy and choice for the children, you will start to see the children building up a repertoire of poems they know, they want to learn, they want to write, ways of describing poems that they have developed, a sense of what they want to write about.

This means that you don't have to worry so much about running the perfect poetry lesson. What counts most is the continuity and variety.