poems to get kids putting pen to paper
There can be little argument that great poetry relies on the original use of figurative language. Getting the idea across to children as to what we mean by figurative language can, however, be easier said than done. No list of dictionary definitions of similes, metaphors, personification etc. is going to be as effective as regular and meaningful engagement with figures of speech in their natural environment, doing their magic as their creator intended. Isn’t it curious, then, that many teachers waste time trying to explain to children what a metaphor is before actually bringing them into contact with one? After all, one would not content oneself with explaining to an alien what an elephant is if one could just as easily take him outside and show him one in the flesh. I speak partly from personal experience here. The first time I had ever heard the word ‘metaphor’ was in a Year 7 English lesson, in which the teacher dictated to the class to copy down in the back of our exercise books: “A metaphor is when somebody calls one thing something that is not really, for example: ‘the moon’s a balloon’.” (It’s still there, in royal blue washable ink, carbon-dated to 1987 by the weird, uncrossed ‘f’ I was experimenting with at the time in an attempt to achieve fully joined-up handwriting.) And then we moved on. No further mention of metaphors came up until the end of term test, in which the question “Give an example of a metaphor” appeared. I could have taken the easy way out and just written “The moon’s a balloon”, but I wanted to have a go at coming up with one of my own. Drawing on the ‘moon’s a balloon’ idea, which to me sounded quite jovial, I remember deciding that a metaphor had to be humorous or ironic in some way. So this is what I came up with: “My sister is a junior Avon lady on Saturdays”. Yes, indeed. That was my first attempt at a metaphor. I, of course, knew what I meant. I was trying to convey the idea of a sister who wears too much make-up (which to me was doubly ironic, as my actual sister would never have touched make-up with a barge pole, being more likely to be smeared in horse manure of a typical Saturday). So, knowing that Avon ladies spent their lives surrounded by cosmetics, the ‘metaphor’ seemed to tick the box: “A metaphor is when somebody calls one thing something that is not really”. Of course, the test came back with a big fat cross next to my metaphor, tainting an otherwise perfect score. “OK,” I thought. “I can do everything else but I’m rubbish at metaphors.” What I couldn’t understand was why. Hadn’t I done exactly what the definition was telling me to do? Unfortunately, I never had the courage to ask where I had gone wrong, or rather, what I had not managed to get ‘right’ with my metaphor.
Metaphors did not crop up again for another year or two, by which time I was ready for them and could grasp what the writer is trying to do when using them, i.e. to convey a comparison that may not have ever occurred to the reader, but which will resonate and enrich the image and the understanding of the things being compared. As a child, I was always very literal in my use of and approach to language, preferring information conveyed factually to ideas expressed figuratively. I would always pick up an atlas, for example, in preference to Enid Blyton or a guide to dinosaurs in preference to a poetry anthology. I see similar traits in many pupils that I have taught over the years, especially boys, and so, I can fully empathise with the difficulty that they will inevitably have when asked to recognise, respond to and recreate figurative language. Children very often just want to say it how it is and struggle to think outside of that box. “Why would I want to say that a cloud is (like) a ship, when it’s not a ship? It’s just a cloud!” goes the thinking. To get children confident and enthusiastic enough to make this leap of faith and imagination, the key is to immerse them as much as possible in examples in context and to let them engage in playful experiments. No child dislikes being given a free rein to play, and this applies as much to the world of words as it does to the world of, say, football.
‘The Apple’s Song’ by Edwin Morgan
A great way to introduce this poem is simply to omit the title. As the text of poem itself does not contain the word ‘apple’, the teacher can instantly spark the interest of the children by asking them to work out who the ‘I’ of the poem is. Most children, of course, will work it out very quickly, when they hear the verb ‘peel’, for example, but just giving them that initial incentive to listen/read closely as part of a guessing game will get them immersed straight away into the conceit created by Morgan’s extended metaphor. If, as is likely, the children have correctly guessed that the speaker of the poem is an apple, another step might be to ask them to guess the title of the poem instead of telling them directly. Again, giving them the freedom to share ideas and justify them will get your pupils thinking deeply about why the poet has chosen to make an apple speak and the ways in which he has cleverly enabled the listener to suspend disbelief and see into the ‘mind’ of the apple. One can then move on to ask questions about why the poet thinks of this as a ‘song’, about what the apple wants to achieve by ‘singing’ it and so on. Even your most literal-thinking pupils should be able to open their minds to this game and, before long, you should be able to get them writing similarly interesting ideas, either emulating the personification of the original or developing a perspective of their own:
As the knife plunges
The apple’s crunch
Sings a song
Edward, aged 11
The hard shiny armour glistening in the light
The crunching of the shield breaking under my teeth
The smell of blood dripping on the floor
The luscious taste of the inner body
The black heart hitting my teeth
The skeleton being chucked away
Tom, aged 11
I hold the apple in the palm of my hand,
I watch the dense colours mingle,
I run my fingers down the incline to the heart,
I raise the apple to my watering mouth,
I dig my teeth into the skin and flesh,
I hear the crunch,
through the apple,
The unmistakable taste washes through me,
A wave from the sour sea.
Lucy, aged 11
Like a garden after rain
The apple pips rest
In the soft white flesh
Of the heart
Isabel, aged 11
‘The Apple’s Song’ can provide an excellent springboard not only for ‘apple’ poems like these, but for all manner of metaphorical experiments in which the children imagine themselves as inanimate objects. Here is the text of a follow-up activity to this poem which produced some excellent results from children of various ages and levels of ability:
Think of an object. It can be a natural object, such as a banana, a flower or a grain of sand. Or it can be a man-made object, such as a pencil, a tennis racket or a violin. It can be a small object in your pencil case, or a bigger object, such as the door or a chair.
Now try to imagine what the object would say to you if it could speak and you have the makings of a brilliant poem!
Before writing anything down, consider these questions:
What kind of voice would the object have?
What character / personality?
Where does the object spend most or all of its time?
What would it be bursting to say, if it could speak?
Is it good, or is it evil?
Is it happy, or sad, joyful or tragic?
Would it be positive, or would it moan about its place in the world, or criticise?
Now try to write down what your object would say.
I allowed the children to choose whether to tackle the questions individually, working through them like a questionnaire and writing their own rough notes, or to work in pairs to ask the questions interview-style. Permitting different approaches like this in the targeting of a common goal always makes for a happy and productive poetry classroom, with the children being able to play to their own strengths and personalities. The more vocal ones will love being able to discuss the questions with each other, bouncing ideas around which will inform their own individual writing, whilst the children who prefer to work alone will be able to engage straight away in a private internal dialogue with the questions on the page. Both approaches can be equally effective and rewarding, and we all have our own preferred learning styles, so allowing them to co-exist in the same context is always going to make for a successful lesson. This idea has worked similarly well with children in Years 3 through to 8 and there is no reason not to give it a go with children above or below these ages. Here is just a small selection of the work produced by my pupils:
I glide through paper
Running, beak snapping
Fledgling pattern maker
Separating splits on the attack.
Eloise, aged 8
I am swirled and twirled by the cold wet sea
I am thrashed and washed by the wild water
The years roll past and I roll from continent to continent
I see dolphins leap over me like arrows
I travel from hot to cold and around the globe
I am caught in nets and dropped
Pushed and pulled by the sea
Tossed onto the beach
And found by a small child.
Charles, aged 8
I am the moon rock,
The swan’s eggs,
The birch wood.
They pick me out,
Smashing at me till I crumble.
My knees buckle,
Their spotlights burn hot.
Grubby hands peck at me
And fling me into wicker baskets
Then take me to bustling factories and burn me,
Till I am drained of all energy.
Gone, the dark mines,
But I am cooled now,
Then packaged off to warm houses
And in the end they stab me into turkey
And so rudely call me a ‘fork’!
Eloise, aged 10
(SATIPS Poetry Competition 2011, Highly Commended)
In The Cupboard
It is dusty here.
I would sneeze here.
If I could.
It is dark here.
I would squint here.
If I could.
It is cold here.
I would shiver here.
If I could.
I was once worn.
I would wear myself.
If I could.
Sophie, aged 10
The sky is pale, unforgiving
Sending down a shower of snow
To obscure my vision
While the world around me slows
I hear ribbons of bird song all around me
The sky is crying once again
As I am left alone to wait
Time is dragging a whale behind it
The wind curls around my wiry branches
Smothering me in a blanket of cold
Licking off my leaves
Leaving me dying
Chloe, aged 11
A Life Journey
My arms stretched out in the sunshine,
Covered in a pea-green coat,
The birds sang tunes in my ear,
I was happy.
The seasons flew by to winter,
And when my leaves were gone,
They got an axe and cut my body,
Leaving me to fall.
They drove me to a factory,
Where bright lights blinked.
A machine sliced me into sticks.
I was scared.
Now we lie in small yellow boxes,
Our heads a flaming red,
Sad and disbelieving,
As we wait to be struck
Audrey, aged 12
If you were to walk through the bramble thicket,
Their fierce claws raking,
Their dying branches aching
For a glint of light, or breath of wind,
You would find it.
Like a ghost of things that have gone,
No longer used or known
By anyone today.
Each faded letter on grimy keys,
Layered in age,
Yet in it a page
Has stayed since the time it was written upon
And the typewriter knows.
Years have passed since it was common,
When people tapped
With pleasure rapt
And the object knew the writing,
Such wonderful knowledge now fading.
As it used to be, set on mahogany table,
It can wish
Anna, aged 12
(SATIPS Poetry competition 2012 - Years 5 & 6 Winner)
“Poetry can undig hiding ambition.”
Isabella, aged 12
Any discussion which attempts to bring together ‘children’ and ‘poetry’ immediately runs into the question of whether we mean ‘poetry for children’ or ‘poetry by children’. Just as there is a world of difference between literature written by adults for a young audience and writing produced by children themselves, the same, of course, applies to poetry. But what is the difference and how do we distinguish between them? When children write poetry, are they simply attempting to emulate the poems that are written for them? Or do children approach poetry as a means of self-expression which draws from multiple sources and experiences?
In this memoir, I will be discussing a number of poetry activities - I hesitate to say ‘lessons’, for reasons that will become clear - with which I have engaged children aged from four to thirteen over my fifteen years of teaching. By incorporating original source material and examples of the children’s responses to them, I intend to explore to what extent creative and exciting use of language can be fostered through direct engagement with the poetic process, and to what extent poetry can be used to develop both functional and emotional literacy.
How Should I Teach Poetry to Children?
The first way to deal with this question is, in my opinion, to take the unhelpfully weighted verb ‘teach’ out of the equation. The reason why many teachers are intimidated by the thought of using poetry in the classroom is the very fact that they think they need to ‘teach’ it, and, by implication, that there is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way of doing it. The thought of inspectors walking into the room when the lesson is Poetry with a capital ‘P’ is enough to send many a highly competent and otherwise confident teacher running for the hills. But why is this so? Where poetry is concerned, there is thankfully and quite rightly no universal tick list by which an observer could determine the ‘correctness’ of a teacher’s approach to poetry. A lesson in which the children have only listened to and thought about a poem could be just as successful as one in which they have spent considerable time quietly writing. By the same token, a highly structured lesson with activities planned to perfection by the teacher may not, for any number of reasons, be as satisfying or usefully productive as a noisy lesson filled with lively discussion, movement and collaborative sharing of ideas.
Certainly, whenever I ‘do’ poetry with my pupils, I can never be sure of how well it will go or what the outcomes will be. This is why I tend not to think along the lines of a poetry session being a ‘lesson’ so much as an exploration. We are finding our way together towards a particular goal. It might be that we are trying to understand and experiment with a particular form of poetry - say, a triolet or a lục bát - or maybe we are using an image or a memory as the fodder for developing a piece of writing. I deliberately refuse to set hard and fast targets along the lines of ‘By the end of the lesson, all children will have...’, because a) I have no way of knowing whether or not this is achievable and b) to do so could well stifle any creativity and be detrimental to both the learning and the enjoyment. In some of my sessions, Pupil A might have written what she considers to be a ‘finished’ poem, whilst Pupil B might only have written one or two lines. Pupil B’s one or two lines, however, could well be superior in quality to Pupil A’s full page of writing. Pupil B could have spent valuable time thinking, drafting, editing and perfecting one particular idea until he is satisfied with it, proud of it and happy to move on. Pupil A might simply have been focused on ‘being the first to finish’. This example, I hope, illustrates simply enough the fact that an over-controlled approach to dealing with poetry in the classroom can be counterproductive. If, as I would argue, the point of teaching poetry is to foster the love and the deeper understanding of language, the very fact that poetry is a sphere in which rules can and do go out of the window means that we should all be happy to free ourselves up to experiment, to play and to enjoy.
I hope that the reader will find some interesting ideas, materials and methods to incorporate into their own use of poetry in the classroom. Needless to say, nothing in these pages should be taken as prescriptive or definitive. Just as children do themselves, dip in, use what you like, ignore what you don’t and, above all, don’t be afraid to let poetry take you where it wants to go.
Use Your Own Experience
A common misconception in using poetry with children is that the teacher should refer to the ‘canon’ of poetry written particularly for children. ‘Use what you like,’ seems to be the thinking, ‘so long as it’s from an anthology for children. That way, you’ll know that it’s appropriate and it won’t go over their heads’. The problem with this approach is that, if you don’t like the poem yourself, how are you going to enthuse your pupils sufficiently to engage with it? Just because a poem has been written by such-and-such a poet, no matter how respected he or she may be, you are already on a losing wicket if it doesn’t speak to you, if it doesn’t chime with your own experience, if it doesn’t give you goosebumps of recognition, joy or fear. You need to dig deeper than poetry section of the school library and go back to your own childhood. Which poem do you remember first when you think back to your own schooldays? The very fact that you have remembered it, however vaguely, means that something in it must have resonated with you at the time. Go away and find it again. Re-read it. Tap back into who you were when you first heard or read it. Chances are, you will be immediately transported back to a classroom or an assembly hall. The sights, smells and sounds of the place will immediately come back to you. It doesn’t matter what the poem itself was about. It’s the trigger that is important. Something intangible embedded itself in your mind and stayed there, almost fully buried until now. Did you like the teacher who introduced you to the poem? Why? Why not? Did the poem change the way you thought about this person? How? All of these questions are important. Why? Because this is precisely the experience that you are giving to your pupils when you share with them a poem that matters to you. They may not have seen the real you before. You were just Mr Smith, that English teacher. All of a sudden, you have become a real person. (Remember that children think that teachers go home and just continue being teachers: they eat as teachers, dress as teachers, sleep as teachers… It comes as something of a rude awakening when they find out that we go home, slouch around in pyjamas, stroke cats, watch Channel 5, go on Facebook, eat Chinese takeaways and occasionally even swear.) When you share a poem from your own past - it could even be one that you wrote yourself as a child - it creates a wonderful bond with your pupils. They want to find out why the poem meant something to you and it is as if you are giving them a small insight into a private world that they would otherwise never have known was there.
There is no need to limit yourself to poems that you came across at an equivalent age to your pupils. I have used poems that I have encountered throughout my own life and very few of them would be considered ‘poetry for children’. Of course, I would not use any poem that I myself appreciate without exercising some common sense and due diligence. (Much as Philip Larkin remains a personal favourite ever since Miss Hulse, my GCSE English teacher, introduced me to ‘Church Going’, you wouldn’t find me wanting to share other favourite works of Larkin recalled from my A-Level studies with Mr Wood, namely ‘This Be the Verse’ and ‘Sunny Prestatyn’.) However, if you know that a poem is suitable for children, you should never be afraid of using it on the grounds that it was not ‘intended’ for them. These sentiments are echoed by Cliff Yates in his chapter of Making Poetry Happen:
‘I like to stretch students and rarely use poems written for young people in the classroom; in my experience, students have no problem reading ‘adult’ poetry...’
If the teacher can have the confidence to teach the poems that he or she likes reading, rather than feel compelled to teach what ‘ought’ to be taught, this will set children the best possible example in embarking upon their own voyage of discovery in the world of poetry.
Take, for instance, these poems on the theme of gifts for a newborn baby:
‘Born Yesterday’ by Philip Larkin
‘The Wicked Fairy At The Manger’ by U A Fanthorpe
Whilst they could hardly be considered ‘children’s poetry’ by any stretch of the imagination, they can be used to shine the spotlight on an idea that is familiar to all children, namely, the desire to give a gift and for the gift to be appropriate and meaningful. How many times will a child have heard a parent or grandparent say to them: “I love it because you made it...”, “It’s special to me because you chose it...” or “Presents that have been thought about are better to receive than expensive ones...” These sentiments are ingrained in the consciousness of children from an early age, so it is no great leap for them to identify with Larkin’s proposition that offering a newborn child the ‘gift’ of ordinariness will lead to a happier life than the pressures of fabulous fame, wealth or beauty. “I love you for who you are,” they will have heard their parents say. “I don’t mind what you do, as long as you are happy.”
Seeing a contrasting conceit in Fanthorpe’s ironic guise of ‘wicked fairy’ at the birth of Jesus Christ has always fascinated any children to whom I have introduced the poem. The story of Jesus being so familiar to most children makes for instant identification. Whilst the sophistication may challenge them, Year 5 pupils are capable of taking the underlying sentiment and running with it, as seen in these two examples:
Gifts for a Newborn Child
I give you a cuddly bear that will hug you when you are sad.
I bring you a living unicorn with sparkling wings.
I donate to you white slippers that will let you jump to the sky.
I send to you a golden fairy tale book that will never end.
I present to you a block of white chocolate that will melt in your mouth.
I offer you a dark brown piano that will play any piece you like.
I grant you a bright yellow daffodil that will be
The most beautiful thing in the stark winter.
I bestow upon you acres of green hills of soft grass.
I hand over a creamy white marble palace
With enough bedrooms to last a millennium.
I supply you with a solid gold Rolls Royce that
Goes at a million miles an hour.
But best of all I pass on the inky black universe.
Duncan, aged 10
Gifts for a Newborn Baby
I give you a football with red stripes.
I bring you a genie who grants you five wishes.
I donate some white Puma shoes with a hint of football talent.
I send you a pop up book;
When you open it all the characters come out.
I present you with a five star Hawaiian pizza
With a bowl of mango or lemon sorbet on the side.
I offer you a trumpet;
When you blow it, the sound comes out as chocolate notes.
I grant you a puppy which is never tired
So you can always play with it.
I bestow upon you a cricket pitch
That is always fit for playing on
And a golden beach with rock pools everywhere.
I supply with you a never ending drinks machine that says hello and goodbye.
But most of all I give you a new happy and loving family.
Douglas, aged 10
Here, the children have easily tapped into their own imagination by revealing the gifts about which they themselves have fantasised. Challenged to vary their use of verbs to give as many synonyms for ‘give’ as they can, they have been given a tangible structure upon which to hang their ideas. Extending the description of each gift to suggest something of the reasoning behind its choice or something of its unique qualities has allowed them to firm up their images into more tangible and specific things. Finally, by turning away at the end of the poem from the predictable fantasy gifts of childhood to the most meaningful gift, the children have demonstrated their grasp of what poetry is all about, i.e. forming, through the simple sharing of ideas, a deep emotional connection between one human being and another.
Another difficult poem, which I struggle to fully understand myself, is Larkin’s ‘Toads’.
‘Toads’ by Philip Larkin
It simultaneously intrigued and maddened me when it formed part of my GCSE studies, particularly that typically obtuse final stanza. (Quite what the ‘one’ and ‘the other/One’ referred to - let alone their ‘spiritual truth’ - used to keep me awake at night, even though I knew I knew what he was getting at...) However, in spite of its difficulty, this poem formed the basis of a successful activity on the 2008 National Poetry Day theme of ‘Work’. I was initially reluctant to use it with Year 7 and 8 pupils, thinking its language and tone would fail to strike a chord with younger learners. The ideas in the poem are complex, particularly that existentialist paradox of the final stanza, but the basic premise of comparing work to a toad - a slow, ugly, aloof creature - is one that appealed to all of the children, who instantly recognised in it their own reluctance to do homework and prepare for examinations. We read the poem together, looking in detail at the various ways in which Larkin brings his toad to life as a metaphor for work. Without my needing to give too much assistance or, indeed, any persuasion, the children chose their own animal and launched into mind mapping ways of comparing it to their own experience of work. Whereas the study and writing of poetry itself is often thought of something of a chore by schoolchildren, these pupils relished the freedom to make their own comparisons and express their own true feelings about the pressures (and pleasures) of work. Here are some of their responses:
You obese, unsightly caterpillar of labour:
Suction plodding up and down the stem, eating the juicy leaves
And slowly killing the beautiful flower of my life.
The more you consume,
The bigger and hungrier you get.
When I think I can no longer carry
Your burden, you change.
You change from a
Disgusting plague to a
Of fluttering colour
Who is there to assist me.
Aaron, aged 13
Don’t you feel agitated at how much of a sheep work is?
Especially school work?
Always munching on free time,
Like it’s the tastiest grass on earth,
Munching week on week.
Gaggles of girls, of gangs of boys
And even groups of teachers with their lessons
Following each other around
Following week by week
How can we win our dream of fortune and fame?
Playing this school game, when all’s the same!
As I state
Work’s likes a sheep!
Week by week by week.
Alex, aged 13
Work, le travail, Arbeit
All over the world
Is a hexagon,
With one word, bold and clear
“Stop! Halt! Arrête!”
No fun and games,
Laboras, work, get on with it.”
From ancient times, work has stood
Strong as a ram,
With horns withstanding
Beating, bettere, punching, kicking
Keeping me from
The things I love.
Henry, aged 13
What I always find most interesting about using a poem that is not a typical ‘children’s poem’, but rather, one from my own past studies or private reading as an adult, is the extent to which children will always respond positively to my enthusiasm. It seems not to matter a great deal how ‘difficult’ the poem is: if I can share my enjoyment and appreciation of it with my pupils, this is what will inspire them to try to produce their own poetic responses, not a full analytical understanding of the poet’s intended meanings or message. In this case, the children did not need to know anything about Larkin the poet and to understand every allusion in his poem to get the idea that work can be compared to a toad and why this is effective. Simply my choosing this poem because I like it and discussing with them why I can relate to its theme, its humorous tone, its clever use of half-rhyme, and so on, was enough to spark their imaginations and get them writing.
Sixteen years of teaching poetry to children have furnished me with a wealth of ideas. Do dip in and adapt any of these for your own lessons.