poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘What Is the Pond Doing?’ by Diana Hendry
I first came across Diana Hendry’s ‘What Is the Pond Doing?’ when browsing for ideas to use on National Poetry Day 2013. The theme that year was ‘Water’ and this poem was featured on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website. This is one of my favourite online resources and I can strongly recommend it to anybody teaching or studying poetry at any level. What struck me about this poem as a means for getting children writing is the ease with which it moves from the question of the title through the various ‘answers’, each of which begins with a present participle verb: ‘Wobbling...Being...Sending...’ etc. Each image stands independently of the next, allowing the imagination of the young reader to taste a metaphorical smörgåsbord of the poet’s various ideas, think about each one separately and start to come up with their own possible answers. Finally, the poem returns neatly to its original question and gives the beautifully simple summary: ‘Ponding. Responding.’ Turning the noun ‘pond’ into a verb cleverly encapsulates the idea of an inanimate object having a tangible essence or ‘thereness’, which in turn, gives it life. Children enjoy the game of bringing objects to life through word play of this type and I wanted to give them the opportunity to see how it can be done simply but effectively, as in Hendry’s poem.
By way of introducing the idea to a group of Year 4 children, I didn’t start with the poem at all, but rather, I displayed an assortment of images and video clips of ponds and just asked them the question: “What is the pond doing?” The first image was of a totally still pond, for which the initial collective response came back as: “Nothing! It’s a pond. It’s not alive. It can’t do anything!” However, once we had moved on to looking at raindrops falling, leaves gathering, breezes rippling, clouds reflecting and so on, it wasn’t long until the children were spontaneously raising their hands and vocalising close equivalents to the phrases within the poem, complete with similes, onomatopoeia, personification, alliteration - you name it - before having even seen the text itself. If ever there is evidence of children possessing an inner poetic sense, then this is it.
We then looked at the poem together and the “But, I said that!”s came thick and fast. When children are able to see for themselves that they can ‘do’ poetry as easily as this, without the hard graft of ‘writing’ in its traditional sense, it can be a genuine epiphany and any barriers that may previously have been blocking their way to self-expression are swiftly removed.
Here are two responses from Year 4 children:
What is the Sea Doing?
Spitting like a shower-head in a shower
Answering back at the sky
Swords in hands stabbing the rocks
Tsunami waves tumbling on the islands
Asking the fish, should I battle the sand?
Sparkling like the glistening moon
Punching the fishing boats that steal the fish
Sinking blinking for ever.
Alfie, aged 8
What is the Sea Doing?
Telling a little starfish: do you want a ride?
Suddenly it gets angry and swashes the little starfish away
Roaring the sea in the sky
And then goes back down and sways
Emotion commotion for ever.
Lewis, aged 8
I particularly like these two examples for their raw energy. The writers have really latched onto the possibilities inherent in their choice of verbs, using them simultaneously as springboards for effective personification and onomatopoeia - ‘spitting, ‘stabbing’, ‘punching’, ‘sinking’, ‘blinking’, ‘telling’, ‘swashes’, ‘roaring’, ‘sways’. There seems to be something of a cathartic effect going on here too. Who knows what particular frustrations these two boys may have had prior to their starting this activity, but as an outlet for emotions seeking expression, the act of writing verse, it would appear, has provided a release of some sort. I am taken back to a lesson from the previous year, in which I worked with Year 1 children on their ‘Oceans’ topic, one of whom responded like this:
The sea is rough when it hits the rocks
It goes mad like lightning
He is so angry that he tries to drown me
I run as fast as I can
The sea is so angry he bursts out of his vest
When it comes to night he looks up and cries with happiness
He bursts into a furious ball going mad
All he really wants is for someone to teach him how to behave.
Fred, aged 6 (not his real name)
Not being a regular teacher of this year group, I had not come across Fred before and I cannot say anything of typical demeanour within the classroom. I am told that he is a child who struggles with emotions and impulsivity. I witnessed no such difficulties in this particular lesson and, if I hadn’t been subsequently informed of Fred’s history, I would not have considered him as anything but bright and enthusiastic learner with an urge to impress. Perhaps something within the theme had inspired him; perhaps it was the direct creative engagement. Whatever it was, he has arguably revealed something of his inner turmoil and successfully put into words that which, for a six-year-old, would otherwise be difficult, or even impossible, to express. Such is the potential power of poetry on the young mind, not only as a reader, but, perhaps also and more significantly, as a writer.
In the week or so following the original lesson with Year 4, I also used ‘What is the Pond Doing?’ with classes of Year 5 and Year 7 children. Here are a handful of my personal favourites from these sessions:
What is the Flood Doing?
Rosebudding on the land
Flowering spreading its petals wide
Eating through buildings
Leaking from the sea
Overpowering the army
Great waves working as one
Like mud from a golden cup
Ellie, aged 9
What is the Puddle Doing?
Troubling a passer-by with an unwelcome reflection
Luddling in children to splash around
A roaring river eternallyflowing
Bubbling up into the blue
Trickling back down into a differentditching
Wondering what is beyond the horizon
Puzzling and distorted pictures floating
Staringbacking with a similar face
Chuckling along with everybodyelseing
Coldingandcuddling in the winter months
Donning sunglasses in the shining sun
Mouthwatering at the sight of fooding
Disappearing into the dark
Daniel, aged 11
What is The Snow Doing?
Floating like a lily pad on stilled waters,
Layering like hay in a bale,
Being a playmate for the wind
A lonely ice floe,
Drifting on the glowing sea,
Blowing growing flowing sewing
Snowing, lowing, downbelowing.
Beaty, aged 11
What is the Sea Doing?
Barrelling like Gloucestershire cheese going down a hill
Hoteling a billion trillion fish
Drowning the occasional human
Blueing up the coastline
Gazing at the bright yellow beach
Smashing up the rocks
Sucking in sailing boats
Mocking the shipwrecks on the sea bed.
Jake, aged 12
What is the Sea Doing?
Drinking every fish that swims in it
Thinking about when the sky is raining
Wishing overall to be famous
Keying to a secret door at the deep of the sea
Skiing down the mountain waves
Emma, aged 11
Something that I found especially interesting about repeating this activity with children of different ages was the way in which their desire to be experimental with language appeared to increase as they got older. We often tend to think that younger children are more alive to ‘nonsense’ words, hence the prevalence of works such as Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwocky’ within the children’s poetry canon. In fact, inventing words to fit with a particular pattern, rhyme or sound effect is a surprisingly sophisticated skill, which requires a certain level of confidence to master. Children need to understand, if they embark upon coining new words within their poems, both why they are doing so and what effect they are aiming to achieve. Just as Carroll’s masterful portmanteau words such as ‘slithy’ create just enough of a semantic or lexical association - ‘slimy’, ‘lithe’, ‘writhing’, ‘shiny’ etc. - to suggest a possible meaning whilst obscuring a precise one, children will be most successful in this endeavour when their subject matter is very clear in their mind and they put real time and effort into dismantling and assembling their words in much the same way as one might do with a set of Lego bricks.
Daniel’s ‘luddling’ is a particularly pleasing invention, seeming to conflate the idea of ‘luring into a puddle’ into a single word. This careful crafting illustrates the extent to which such words are far from ‘nonsensical’; indeed, in certain cases, they carry more poetic weight than a comparable ‘real’ word might do. Playful creations - such as Daniel’s ‘wishitcouldbeing’ and ‘solesoftheshoesing’, Beaty’s ‘downbelowing’, Jake’s ‘hoteling’ and ‘blueing’ - help to animate images by turning other parts of speech into verbs. Finally, when the children attempt to echo Hendry’s memorable ‘ponding/responding’, we get some lovely results such as Emma’s ‘keying.../skiing.../freeing/being/seaing’. Emma’s poem is especially notable for the fact that she wrote it just six months after her arrival in the UK from her native Norway, having never spoken any English prior to her arrival. Still getting to grips with her English grammar, spelling and syntax, she was not by any means a confident reader, speaker or writer of English at this time. Being permitted to use words without the restraining influence of strict meanings and usage allowed her to express her thoughts freely and to find ways of making newly discovered words work for her and thereby gain increasing resonance. (Who knows if Norwegian has an equivalent punning possibility to ‘seeing/seaing’, but Emma has discovered it in English and this can only serve to enrich her ability to use language creatively in the future.)
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.