Thursday 18 May 2017

Poetry and stories for primary and lower secondary schools 1.

The starting point for poetry in primary schools must be poems. That's to say, not a worksheet, not a writing exercise but a pile of poems, a set of poems, a cornucopia of poems.

The first job is for the children to see that poems can become theirs, that poets wrote poems for the likes of them, that poems belong to them.

How can we best do that?

Poems have to become part of the classroom, part of school life and poems are things that children can browse and find for themselves; poems are things that are on walls, in books that are accessible at all times; poems can be heard, shouted, whispered, sung, given accompaniments with drawings, pictures on powerpoint, music, mime, film, whatever.

One simple place to start is to come in one day and say that in 20 minutes time we're going to have a poetry show. You distribute piles of poetry books on the children's tables. You invite the children to go into pairs and choose a poem per pair. You ask them to prepare a poem per pair for the poetry show that you're going to have in 20 minutes time. You tell them that they can perform the poem in anyway they like: taking turns, saying it together, singing some of it or all of it, tapping out a rhythm, miming it, making noises to go with it - leaving out words or lines for the rest of the class to guess...etc etc.

20 minutes later, you hold the poetry show. For this first one, you m.c. the show making a big deal of it, making sure that everyone is ready and quite to hear each performance and giving each one applause.

At the end of the show of approx fifteen performances, you invite the children in their pairs to consider what aspects of each other's performances would they consider trying out for the next poetry show. This is a positive way to do criticism and builds the idea that you are a team trying to help each other get better and better at poetry together. If there was something you noticed that no one mentions you can chip in with. If there's something that you think might be worth trying e.g. making the sound of sea 'behind' a performance, you suggest that too. 

A day later, or a two days later, or three days later or a week later you do the same again. Whatever interval you set up, you repeat, so there is an expectation for this activity to happen again and again. This is very important.

You keep this going for as long as there is enthusiasm. 

You can vary the format by e.g. you and a child having a go. Involve the TAs. Widen the choice of poems. Let the children go back to favourites. Try using powerpoint, try making 'shoe boxes' to represent poems. Try doing paintings. If you're used to one of the animation apps, try that. 

What is all this about?

This is not only about helping a class 'possess' poems, it is giving them a 'repertoire'. Each time you do the 'show', you might be covering 15 poems. You're building up many ways of how poems work. You're enabling the children to have poems in their minds, bodies and voices.  

I can promise you that they will become enthusiastic about poetry because you're showing that you believe in poems and you believe in them. The point here is that poems are doing the work, and that's because poems have 'hooks'. Poets are people who write poems so that they 'stick' to readers and listeners: whether that's rhyme, rhythm, imagery, shape, repetition or whatever, each line of a poem holds within it the efforts of a poet to grab the attention of a reader or listener. These hooks are the most cogent argument for poetry - not commentary, not worksheets, but the poem itself.

Don't necessarily expect dramatic results immediately. Give it two or three sessions for the pattern to develop of performance/discussion/learning from each other/performance to take hold. 


Alongside this, it's worth thinking about what else you can do to make a poetry-friendly classroom.
A bookshelf or bookcase of poetry books. 
You could try writing out a poem a week on a huge bit of paper. 
Invite the children to put post-its on and around the poem with comments and questions. On the day you're going to change the poem to a new one (a week later?) collect up the post-its and get the children to talk about them e.g. handing them out to pairs, followed by a plenary. If there are questions, discuss how best to answer them. 
Watch or listen to poets performing their poems on CD, video, online or wherever. 
Get poets to come to school.
Organise a poetry cabaret evening involving parents and grandparents. Make sure that it only lasts about half an hour interspersed with music, dance and perhaps an art show. 
Invite the children to make their own personal poetry anthologies. Give them each a nice notebook and tell them they can copy out any poem, part of a poem, song, part of a song, or any 'line' from something they hear on TV or on the radio that sounds interesting or caught their imagination - perhaps from a film. You do the same and show them your anthology and where you're collecting your poems and parts of poems and sayings from. This 'models' making an anthology. 

Poetry in Primary Schools 2 will be about what happens if someone comes into  your room and says, 'How can you justify spending time on this stuff?' 

Poetry in Primary Schools 3 will be about interesting and exciting ways of reading poems in a critical way suitable for primary schools.

Poetry in Primary Schools 4 will be about interesting and exciting ways of writing poems. 

These pages are all inter-connected. However your base is in reading poems together and sharing poems in a poetry-friendly classroom. It's here that poems do the 'work' for you. They will engender the enthusiasm and excitement you need. 

(Most of these ideas and many more are in 'What is Poetry? An Essential Guide to Reading and Writing Poetry' published by Walker Books. In that book, I have a section on some poems I've written and how I came to write them.