Sunday 28 February 2016

Poetry in the Primary School

I gave a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London on 'Poetry in the Primary School' last Friday.

Here's the gist of it:

My key point is 'Believe in the poem'. 

By this I don't mean something mystical. I mean that in order to convince children that they can enjoy reading and writing poetry you have to believe that poems can do the job for you. That's because poems are full of 'hooks'. Poets spend their lives trying to think up ways in which poems catch the ear and the mind. That's our job. 

Poems may have beginnings and middles, but they don't have ends. Every poem is the beginning of something else - a conversation, a re-reading, a reading of another poem, the writing of a poem, or making a drawing, a play, a film, a photo or having a think about the poem. Again, that's because poets make poems so that they start other stuff.

So, the best thing a teacher can do is to create a poetry-friendly classroom and a poetry-friendly school. If you get this right, the poems will do the work. So this means thinking up every possible way in which children can get access to poems, perform and publish poems. 

Here are some suggestions for making a poetry-friendly classroom:
Have a poetry shelf in your classroom
Every so often, clear the decks and do the 'poetry show'. The children choose poems to perform, they perform them - solo, in pairs, in threes. Get the children to discuss what they thought were good ideas in other people's performances that they would like to try next time.
Write out a poem you like and put it on the wall. Put some post-its next to the poem so that the children can write what they think about the poem and stick it on the poem
Give each of the children a blank poetry book so that over a term or a year they can make their own poetry anthology made up of the poems or bits of poems they collect, and the poems they each write. 
Use any 'outlet' like school blogs, school bulletins, letters home and the like to sneak in a poem either written by the children or a published poem. 
When you have a spare few minutes - before play, lunch or going-home time, just read a poem. Don't ask questions about it, don't do any 'work' in relation to it. Just read it. Encourage the children to choose poems to read a poem out in the same kind of time-slot, so it's not only you.

All this - and I'm sure you can think of others - is about making poetry belong to the children. It is about the ownership if literacy. 

Reading poetry
When it comes to reading single poems, SATs require a particular narrow kind of comprehension approach based mostly on 'retrieval' and 'inference' along with some ludicrous stuff about trying to guess 'author intention', the 'effectiveness' of certain poetic techniques like alliteration and personification. Please remember, these are just categories invented by examiners because it's the surface, 'factual' stuff that they can give marks to 'reliably' (i.e. right and wrong answers) not because it's much to do with how and why poets write poems. So, for example, the claims that this or that sound (e.g. alliteration) is 'effective' because the 's' sound is angry or the 'm' sounds is sleepy is nonsense. The main reason why poets do alliteration is in order to stick chunks of language together. It's a form of 'cohesion'. Indeed poems are specialised forms of cohesion of language. 

So, if you can create some non-SATs way of reading poems, that's great.
Here are some areas that are good for discussion to help the children enjoy poems:
1. Is there any thing in the poem that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you or anyone  you know?
2. Is there anything in the poem that reminds you of anything you've ever read anywhere else, any film, TV programme, play, painting...
3. What questions would you like to ask anyone in the poem? the poet? 
4. What puzzles do you have?
5. Can you have a go at answering any of these questions? 
6. If we can't, is there anywhere we can go to find answers? 
7. What if there is no one answer?
8. Poets stick poems together so that they repeat sounds, and pictures. These create patterns. You can put loops round words or parts of words and link them with 'secret strings'. You can be poem-detectives and find these strings. Remember, sometimes poets do this by creating a pattern and breaking it. Sometimes they do it through opposites - which are also a way of linking things.

Writing poetry
The simplest, easiest, most 'infectious' approach to writing poetry is to read a poem and say to yourself, 'I could write a poem like that'. You can interpret that in at least two ways: a) can I write something that has the same sound, or some pattern? b) can I write something that came into my mind as I was reading or hearing the poem?

Once the children get into this mind-set - that poems can be starting-points for writing - you will find there is no stopping them. There will be variety and difference in what they write and how they write, across 30 children. Use this variety to produce more variety.

Poets are always on the look out for ways to start poems. If reading another poem doesn't do it, then collecting scraps of stuff we hear and read will do it too. So, create a Word Wall made up of scraps of words, phrases, language that you all collect: lines from songs, poems, funny newspaper headlines, things that people say, proverbs, signs...

Sometimes, when you decide to have time for poem-writing, remind the children of the Word Wall and see if there are starting-points for poems there. Explore in particular ambiguities and oddities of language and how the intended meaning of a phrase may be different if you think of the word another way: 'US Flies in Hamburgers' - as Roger McGough showed - can mean two very different things. 

Alternatively, use phrases or lines from songs, poems, proverbs and the like as first lines or titles for new poems.

Poetry has the advantage of being a place not confined to the rules of formal, continuous prose. If you look across poems written over the last 100 years, you can see that poets keep inventing new ways of writing, new ways of laying words out on the page, new conventions. 

We can show children this, to show them poetry is a language and image, and story playground. 

This shows them not all written language is the same. Indeed, a quick glance at street billboards, signs, leaflets, ads, headlines in newspapers, comics and graphic novels, writing on the side of packaging etc  - quickly shows that there is a wide variety in written language. We can also find much stronger links between the way we speak and the way we write, when we write poetry - if we want to. Poetry can use any or all of these different ways and create new ones. 

This involves a completely different approach to language than the one prescribed by telling children that there is only one way, the SATs way and that continuous formal prose is the only useful way to write. 

It suggests that language is there for us to use, to invent, to play with in order to say the things we want to say. It belongs to us. 

One of the advantages of poetry is, as I've mentioned, that we can make a strong link between what we say and what we write. I call it 'talking with my pen'. This approach (one of many) shows children that they can write with the language they already possess. I often use simple open-ended questions to help them do that: e.g. being someone in a story and asking the children to think about what this person 'can see', 'can hear' ,'is thinking' ,'can hear other people saying', 'is saying'. The answers to these questions, put on a line one below the other can be the start of a poem. You can then introduce some repetition to give you a rhythm...

This finally leads back to what is this all for and who owns it? 
All poetry belongs to us. 
By doing these sorts of things, we pass poetry over to the children so that they can own it, possess it, be possessed by it, and make new poetry for their own purposes.