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!