Monday 22 May 2017

Poetry and stories for primary and lower secondary schools 6


1. I've written two books on how to help children write poems: 'Did I Hear You Write?' published first by Andre Deutsch and then by Five Leaves Press. You can find it in libraries or second hand on line. 

The second one is much more recent and is published by Walker Books. It's called 'What is Poetry? An Essential Guide for Reading and Writing Poems.' It is available to order through any bookshop, it's in libraries and you can find it online. 

In this book I talk about some classic poems and how they're put together and how I respond to them. I talk about some poems that I've written and how I came to write them and what methods I used to write them. I also have a set of activities for children reading the book. 

I won't summarise what I've written in these two books here. 

2. If you follow some of the processes I've described in the 5 previous blogs, I promise you that part of the problem of getting children to write poems will already be solved for you. That's to say, primary school children will start to say to you and the class that they want to write poems. This is because poetry is 'infectious'. Poems are, as I've said, constructed with 'hooks', methods and meanings that are designed to stick in readers' and listeners' minds. If you share lots of poems, talk about them and explore them in enjoyable ways, children will want to have a go themselves. They will also have in their heads many models for how poems work. If say, you are doing the 'poetry concert' thing alongside a 'poem a week on the wall' and they all have notebooks where they put poems they like, then their heads are full of parts of poems and even whole poems. This gives them and you a 'repertoire' or 'gallery' of poems to refer to. 

3. Building on this idea, the simplest and easiest way to trigger the writing of a poem is to say to the children something along the lines of 'We could write a poem like that!'.

That simple sentence hides something a bit more complex. When we say, 'like that' it can mean - a poem that sounds something like that; a poem that is shapes something like that; a poem that has a meaning like that; a poem that picks up from the poem a single image and runs with that. 

You can model these different ways of what you mean when you say, 'We could write a poem like that.' 

4. Once children start writing poems in a class, one key thing is to get them 'distributed'. By this, I mean getting them up on walls, into  say, blogs which can be seen by any audience  you choose - the class, the school, or whatever, into booklets, into your own school-made anthologies, performed in shows for the class, for the school, for a show with parents. 

5. The moment you start sharing poems, one key thing is to allow time for you and the children to say what aspects of the poems they and you read or hear that you or they would like to have a go at yourselves. This is the positivity response that helps you build together a reading-writing community. 

You might also want to integrate comments about the poems you've read (by established poets) and the poems that the children and you (?) are writing. So you can ask the children to spend time sometimes talking about 'echoes'.  What 'echoes' can you hear in the poem by a child that echo back to a poem they've heard? You have to make sure that this isn't an accusation! No one is saying that to write a poem that is a bit like another poem is 'stealing'. Poets through time have always been in conversation with other poets through the poems they write. They echo, imitate, parody and 'scavenge' from other poems. That's fine. It's a great way to understand and interpret poems if you explore these similarities, overlaps and echoes. 

6. Are there specific techniques to write poems? Well, yes and no. Yes - clearly, you can decide, 'Today I'm going to write a limerick. A limerick has a specific rhyme scheme. I'm going to write one just like that.' That's fine. There are books full of how to start writing a poem in this way: starting with a particular poetic form. When I do poetry workshops in schools, these are usually one-offs. I arrive, do a workshop and go away. Given that that is the time and space available, I will adopt a way of running a workshop that is partly along these lines. I show the children a poem I wrote that has a chorus. I invite them to write a poem with me collectively that uses the same chorus. I use 'trigger questions' to pick up on the themes of 'what can you see?', 'what can you hear?' 'What are people saying?' 'What are you saying?' 'What are you imagining?' and slot the answers to these within the chorus. 

Then I suggest that they can opt to do one of these on their own, in pairs. They could change the chorus, change the questions, change the order of the questions. They could experiment with taking out the chorus once they had written the poem. Or use the chorus as a 'frame' rather than a chorus. Or, - and I always ways this - they could write in any way they like, taking off from anything they've heard so far. As the poem I start with is often my 'After Dark' poem, this quite often triggers poems that are completely different from the structure that I set out with.

7. Another workshop that I do, involves me reading one of my poems that has a mystery at the heart of it. There is something that has gone on 'off-stage' that isn't mentioned in the poem. I invite the children to write about that moment. In a sense nearly all stories have these off-stage moments, as well as others which either come before or after the poem, story or play. A great way to get children to write is to find these off-stage moments and write about them or write them as part of how a character or a thing is 'thinking' in these offstage moments. I have a nickname-phrase for these moments as 'What did Goldilocks say when she got home?' Think of, for example, what did Hansel or Gretel or the trees in the forest, think when Hansel and Gretel realised that they had been abandoned and the birds had eaten the bread that Hansel dropped? 

8. A further workshop I do involves getting the children to think metaphorically without telling them! I invite the children to think about riddles. We share some. We tell them to each other. 

I say that today we're going to write some things that are a bit like riddles. I invite them to choose an object, or a process or a concept (like 'time' say). Then I invite them to say what that object can 'see', what it can 'hear', what it 'imagines', what is it 'afraid of', what it 'hopes for', what it 'dreams of'? (There's no limit to these, you can think of as many or as different as you like.)

Then we discuss how riddles often have at their heart a 'paradox'. 'I stay on the corner but I go round the world. What am I? A postage stamp.' We discuss paradox and think of other riddle paradoxes, e.g. a chair has legs but can't walk. A clock has a face but can't smile etc. 

So can they put a paradox amongst the answers or after the answers to the questions they asked?

Then they read the riddles out loud and the class has to guess what the object is.

The follow-up to this is to discuss metaphor and 'figurative' language. By animating an object or a process or a concept, they have made a metaphor and explored it. Remind them of how they can use this as a way of writing other poems. When reading poems, you can discuss how poets are often using this 'riddling' method of inviting us to think about how objects, processes and concepts work. 

9. I won't go on with this as I have a few more in the two books I mentioned at the beginning and as I've said, you'll find many, many more in the books available in libraries and bookshops. I'll finish by saying that no matter how immediately effective these 'triggers' are, at the end of the day, 'trust the poem, trust the child'. That's to say, keep reading and talking about and performing poems - whether these are by established poets, you, the children. By encouraging positivity in how to talk about each other's poems you foster the urge to write, and the urge to experiment and improve. By encouraging the children to talk about poems you encourage them to listen out for ways of writing and performing that excite and interest them. Your input can be decisive because you can introduce poems that they wouldn't otherwise come across. 

Make yourself a finder-out of poems for the class. Tell the children when you've discovered a poem. Tell them that you're excited when they discover a poem you didn't know. Encourage them to do that: be poem explorers!

Poetry and stories for primary and lower secondary schools 5

Pupils’ comments when reading
(Based on Michael Rosen’s ‘matrix’ of the types of comments which children make about texts (2017), from which the wording of the descriptions is mostly borrowed. See
While reading, children will make comments spontaneously, or within a range of organised contexts – free discussion, free or journal writing, structured talk in pairs, small groups or as a class, talk or writing in role, drama and so on.
However, often comments are in response to questions, sometimes posed by a teacher or other adult but sometimes posed by other pupils. Below are some typical trigger question stems. Of course, it is often the subsequent follow-up questions (‘WHY?’) which prompt the deepest and most interesting thinking.

Where we relate what is in the text with something that has happened to me or to someone I know.

Has anyone ever…?
Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something that has happened to you, or someone you know? Why? How?
Have you ever…?
Does that remind you of a time when you…?
Does anyone you know…?
Have you ever seen…?
Has anything like that ever happened…?
When are you most like…?
When do you feel like…?
Which character are you most…?
Do you recognise…?

Where we relate what is in the text to
another text.
Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something you’ve read/seen on TV or online or at the cinema/a song/a play/a show..? Why? How?
Where else have you seen…?
Have you read any other…?
Does this remind you of any…?
Is this like a…?
Is this typical of…?
How is this different from…?


Might that bit…?

Where we relate one part of the text to
another part.
But how do we know that…?
Does that remind you of any…?
Are there any other examples of…?
Is there a pattern…?
Does that echo any…?
How is this different from…?
What’s changed in…?
Were there any clues to…?

Where we ask questions of the text and voice puzzles and are tentative about something.

Is there anything here we don’t understand or are puzzled by?
Any questions about…?
What would you ask the…?
What don’t we know about…?
What do we need to know, in order to…?
Is anything missing from?
Is there something that we haven’t…?


I wonder what…?
Where we make comments about what something in the text means.
What might that mean?
What do you think the writer is saying, when they…?
Does this tell us anything about…?
What does that imply/suggest/indicate about…?
Is it clear what…?
Can we be sure what…?
Where does the text say..?

Where we indicate we are making a comment about how a part or whole of the piece has been put together, 'constructed'.

How does the start/middle/ending…?
Is there a pattern in…?
Is there a shape to…?
What do we… first?
Next, how do we…?
Does that remind you of any…?
Does this echo any…?
What changes, as…?
How has the writer built…?
Is there a repeated…?


What might…?

Where we make speculations about what might happen, what could have happened.
What could…?
What might… if...?
What do you guess could…?
What could have led to…?
What might have…?
Any theories about…?
Why do you suppose…?

Where we make interpretative statements often headed by 'I think...’
What’s your impression of…?
What, to you, is… like?
What do you think happened when…?
Why do you think…?
What will…?
How do you suppose…?
Do you think…?

Where we make comments about how the story has been told, e.g. about narrators, methods of unfolding a story, what is held back, what is revealed. ('Narratology').
It may include an awareness of how stories have episodes, and sudden 'turns' or 'red herrings', flashbacks, flash forwards etc.
What has the writer done to…?
Do you think we are meant to notice…?
What isn’t the writer…?
Who is telling…?
Whose view is…?
How have we been…?
How has the writer built…?
What happened to the story there?

Where we make value judgements about aspects of a text of the whole. These can be comments about significance, ‘what the author is getting at...’, or ‘why someone in the text said ‘x’’.
What do you think the writer is getting at…?
Why do you think the characters said…?
When does the writer show most clearly…?
What, overall, is the effect of…?
What is your favourite…?
What is the most effective…?
How well does…?
What is the most…?
Is there anything you didn’t think…?

Eureka moment
Where we announce that we have suddenly 'got it'.
Anyone got a new idea about…?
Any comments on what just…?
Any breakthroughs?

Where we sense that an 'effect' has been created in us (or in others we have observed) because of the way something has been written.
How did you feel when…?
How might that make…?
What feeling does…?
What’s the effect of…?
Which bit make you feel…?
Which part might create…?
Can you describe how you felt when…?
What’s your own reaction to…?

This is where we make a comment which is in essence another story, triggered by something in the text being read.

What do people usually do when…?
Do you know any…?
Anyone had their own…?
When have you…?
Does that remind you of any…?
Has anyone had a…?
Anyone know a story about a…?

Where we recount aspects of the text. This may well be more significant than it first appears because we can ask why details were.

Which part do you…?
What do you remember about…?
What sticks most in your mind about…?
What moment do you remember most from…?
Can you remind us…?
How would you sum up…?
What happened when…?
How did we get to…?
What happened to make…?

Where we draw attention to the structure of sentences - syntax, or how individual words are used grammatically.
I wonder what makes that sentence…?
What do you notice about…?
In that sentence, how has the writer…?
Where has the writer…?
Which sentences are most…?
Which word makes the…?

Where we draw attention to the sound of parts of the whole of a piece – the 'music' of it.

Let’s try…
Let’s listen to how…
If you say that aloud, how…?
Where does it sound most…?
Listen to that but. How…?
How do the sounds of…?
Is there anything about how the words sound that…?

Effect of interactions

Can we work out…?
Where we draw attention to how people interact with or treat one another, how they 'relate' and what is the outcome of how they relate – often more valuable than simply trying to describe ‘character’.
How does … treat…?
Why do you think she…?
How did … talk to…?
What do they seem to think about each other?
Which characters seem to…?
Can we work out how … feels about…?
Why do you think … tells …?
How do … and … feel when…?
What do you notice about … and… ?

Where we move to another artistic medium in order to interpret what we have been reading or viewing.

How could we show this by…?
What would that look like if…?
What would … say if…?
How might … describe…?
Can you imagine what…?
What would an actor playing…?

Emotional flow
These are comments which show how feelings towards the protagonists change.

Any thoughts about…?
How have your feelings about … changed?
How did you used to feel about…?
Does … still make you think…?
Is that the same as when…?
What’s different now about…?
Any thoughts about how … is different…?
How do you feel now about…?
When did you feel most … about…?
At what point did you start to feel…?

'Author intention'
This might come partly under the category of 'speculative' – what the author could have written. Or it might be part of 'effect – how the author has created an effect (possibly intentionally.)

What do you suspect…?
What do you think is likely to…?
How do you think we are meant to…?
Do you think the writer has a plan for…?
How might we be supposed to react when…?
What do you think the writer wants us to…?
What do you suspect the writer is doing when…?
What might that word be meant to…?

Every piece of literature comes from a time and place. The person reading or spectating will not be in exactly the same time and place. Many responses and critical ideas and thoughts go on because of this 'gap'.
Pupils may well know or speculate about the gap, or the context ('They didn't used to do that sort of thing in those days') and of course, may ask questions and/or we offer them information or they are encouraged to research the context(s).

How do you think we might read this differently from…?
When this was written, what/how/who might…?
What can we guess about where/when this is taking place?
What do we need to know about … in order to understand…?
Is there anything we know now which…?
Why do you think they felt/thought/ believed…?

Representational or symbolic
Where we make comments about what we think something 'represents'. This might be about 'character' where we say that a person 'represents' the class or type he or she comes from...'typical x kind of person'.
It might be about parts of the landscape or the nature of the landscape - as it represents a particular kind of challenge to the protagonist. It could be a feature in the landscape/cityscape i.e. a particular kind of tree or building. It could be a single object that represents something more than itself – a torn piece of paper. And so on.

How do you think that might be important?
What kind of… is…?
Are they typical of any…?
Could it stand for a…?
What does that mean for…?
Does that make us think of any…?
Does anything symbolise…?
Might it represent something else?
What represents…?
Could it be symbolic of something else?