poems to get kids putting pen to paper
“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.