poems to get kids putting pen to paper
One of the bibles of children’s poetry teaching, Sally Brownjohn’s Does It Have To Rhyme? (Hodder Education, 1980) appeared around the same time as what must be my very first five-year-old dabblings in poetry. I know this because my Kermit the Frog exercise book has miraculously survived to this day and inside, on the pages following a description of my first trip to the cinema to see Superman II, there are a series of illustrated poems, the felt-tip and crayon still vivid as when they were scrawled 34 years ago. Here are some selected highlights:
The butterfly fluttered round the room
Zoom zoom zoom
The horse went out to play
The monkey went out to play
They met in the park that very hot day
A tree grew golden rings
They kept knocking together and going pings
The tree stood still on that very dark night
Wishing that he had a light
In his introduction to This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme, editor Gerard Benson makes the following very salient point:
"When I’ve talked to children, I’ve found that lots of them think that poetry must [writer’s italics] rhyme, above all else. It often spoils what they write."
This is undeniably true and, looking at my own poems as a five-year-old, I can see myself thinking at that time that poetry equals rhyme. Indeed, I would imagine that most children in the early years come across the word ‘rhyme’ (in the context of the phrase ‘nursery rhyme’) significantly prior to the words ‘poem’ and ‘poetry’, so the primacy of rhyme over poetry in the young child’s mind is hardly surprising. On the other hand, if rhyming forms the first meaningful contact with the wider concept of poetry, this is surely no bad thing, provided that the misconception that the two are synonymous with each other is not allowed to persist for too long. Whatever gives children the occasion to get a deeper feel for words and the qualities inherent within them aside from their surface meanings is the first stage on the road to their becoming a writer.
Whether or not I wondered as a five-year-old about the need or otherwise for rhyme in poetry, when I look at these writings now, I can see the joy in them, the sense of achievement in making words fit together. Which child does not smile with satisfaction and pride when they complete a jigsaw puzzle or manage to add the last wooden brick to a structure that still somehow remains standing? The same principle surely applies when children play with words. So whilst I would agree wholeheartedly with idea that poetry does not have to rhyme, I would argue that playing with rhyme and other poetic forms that constrain the writer in some way can, paradoxically, be both gratifying and liberating. As Stephen Fry puts it in The Ode Less Travelled:
"Rhyme, as children quickly realise, provides a special kind of satisfaction. It can make us feel, for the space of a poem, that the world is less contingent, less random, more connected, link by link."
‘The Duck’ by Ogden Nash
I was recently asked by pre-school teachers at St John’s to come and work with their four-year-olds on the theme of farm animals to complement their visit to Wimpole Hall Farm in Cambridgeshire. I would be the first to admit that I find the prospect of doing poetry with children this young somewhat daunting, if only for the fact that I rarely work with children of this age and can get rather hung up with the worry that they might not ‘get’ what I’m on about. Such worries usually end up being unfounded and, aside from the great fun that we have playing with words, I am always amazed by the sophistication with which they can wield them within the context of poetic dialogue. Most notably, by the age of four, children are already comfortable with the concept and the possibilities of rhyme.
I chose Ogden Nash’s ‘The Duck’ as the inspiration for the lesson, putting together a simple interactive whiteboard presentation with images of ducks juxtaposed with the poem split into its rhyming couplets. We recited the poem in ‘repeat after me’ fashion, then all together. We paused to discuss the unfamiliar words, with me providing actions for ‘behold’, ‘dines’, ‘sups’ and so on and asking the children to guess at their meanings. We discussed the images that I had used and how they related to what the duck was doing. We recited together again. We discussed a little more. We recited once again. All in all, we had spent somewhere between five and ten minutes engaged simply in immersing ourselves in the poem. By now, the children were ready to demonstrate their memory for rhyme. I simply recited each couplet up to but not including its final word. The children spontaneously responded with the correct word. They didn’t need any prompting or actions to assist them. The words were just there, waiting to be enunciated. This simple experiment serves to demonstrate the power of rhyme not only as a means of training up the memory but as a useful first step to developing that ‘feel’ for poetry that children can naturally tap into.
I then gave the children my own response to ‘The Duck’:
Behold the pig!
He’s far too big
He oinks at you
He doesn’t moo.
He dines on swill
With perfect skill.
He finds it good
To bathe in mud.
As I have said elsewhere, teachers don’t need to worry about crafting poems of Wordsworthian skill when writing for teaching purposes. I just rattle my pieces out whilst in the thick of preparing my lessons and try not to over-edit or perfect them. That is something that I want the children to do, if anything. Can a pig be ‘far too big’, for example? One four-year-old didn’t think so, and we managed to go off on an amusing tangent as to whether there are any animals that are the ‘wrong size’. As the teacher, your task is not become the poet, so much as to model the desire to be like a poet and inspire your pupils to do the same. Showing the children that your words are open to criticism and correction will open their minds to the idea that the poetry writing process is very much one of experimentation and learning as you go along. A poem might never be ‘finished’ and that is fine. Being able to change and improve it at any point, if anything, helps to keep it alive.
The children enjoyed the rhymes in ‘The Pig’ in a similar way to those in ‘The Duck’ and were able to remember the rhymes and shout them out after a couple of runs through and a few minutes of discussion. They were now ready to make their own rhymes, following the ‘Behold the [x]!’ pattern. Working in groups with their teachers and teaching assistants, they suggested rhymes for the names of various animals placed in front of them on cards. From these stimuli, they then chose their favourite animal and crafted their poems orally, with the adult assistant scribing their ideas. I moved between the groups and recited their ideas back to them from the scribed notes. This then became an opportunity for reflection and revision. I challenged them to think of more interesting synonyms, for example: “Can you think of another word for ‘eating’?”
No need, of course, to waste time explaining the reasoning for this type of question to the child. As Stephen Fry suggests, children enjoy making connections and challenging them to think beyond their original idea fires their imagination. It doesn’t take long before ‘eating’ is expanded into a variety of delicious, onomatopoeic options such as ‘slurping’, ‘gulping’, ‘munching’ or ‘crunching’:
Behold the rabbit!
He has a habit
Of crunching on carrots
And playing with parrots.
Imogen (aged 4)
The nonsense element of rhymes such as Imogen’s only serves to enhance the joy of the activity for the child. Never mind the improbability of rabbits frolicking with parrots, the image has embedded itself in the young writer’s mind and she has made it happen. She most likely won’t have spotted the fortuitous assonance of her ‘a’ sounds in each of her final words, or indeed the eye-rhyme, but this, of course, does not matter one bit. What matters is the lesson learnt about what words can be made to do in addition to the simple rendering of meaning. The following three examples show a similar sense of freedom from the restrictions of logic and common sense. Instead of the children coming up with a story in advance and then trying to find rhymes to make the poem ‘work’, they have given their imaginations free rein to let the rhyme itself do the deciding and steer the narrative.
Behold the hen!
It has a pen
To write a letter
What could be better?
Melissa (aged 4)
Behold the troll!
He fell in a hole
Whilst carrying a fridge
Over a bridge.
Bron (aged 4)
Behold the llama!
It ripped its pyjamas
And you can see
If you look carefully
Its big fluffy tail
Is white and pale
It needs sun lotion
To jump in the ocean.
Thomas (aged 4)
‘Last Post’ by Carol Ann Duffy
Remembrance can be a tricky theme for teachers to approach with children. Now that we live in a world with no surviving participant in The Great War, the collective memory is entirely second hand. The same will all too soon be true of World War Two, which only adds to the importance of remembrance within the teaching of present and future generations. Teachers face an increasingly daunting task. As remembrance gradually loses its direct link to personal memories and drifts entirely into the realms of history, how do teachers themselves retain enough of an understanding of what we mean by remembrance in order to keep it alive in the minds of their pupils? How do we keep the symbolism of the poppy appropriately linked to its various associations: sacrifice, loss, mourning, suffering, the passage of time, memory, love? How do we prevent the events that Remembrance Day commemorates from fading to the same degree as those of the wars of the more distant past?
Fortunately, there is poetry. The poetry of Owen, Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Edward Thomas, and others who experienced war at first hand, has stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time, providing eternal and salient reminders of why the world should never forget. The works of these poets will always be at the disposal of teachers wishing to enable their pupils to grasp what we mean when we say ‘remembrance’ and to understand why we continue to place importance upon it. In addition, however, there are the poems written by poets of subsequent generations, who, in spite of having no direct personal involvement in conflict, have enabled the genre of war poetry to develop and to remain as relevant as ever. Teachers, and more importantly, children themselves can play an important role in this continued development.
It may seem to be rather a big ask to get children to write war poetry. Aside from the obvious difficulties presented by a lack of meaningful context or personal experience, there is the risk that cliche takes over and the end result renders banal that which ought to be at the very least moving and profound. Some might argue that children’s minds are simply not sophisticated enough to deal with the complexities of war, let alone convey anything new or meaningful about it on paper. My own opinion, however, is that children are indeed capable of addressing ‘grown-up’ concepts such as war, provided that they are given a suitable frame of reference. This is why ‘remembrance’ - as opposed to ‘war’ - provides a potentially more useful starting point from which to cover the same ground.
Carol Ann Duffy’s 2009 poem ‘Last Post’, for instance, is more of a poem of remembrance than it is a war poem. Written at the request of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to commemorate the deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, Britain’s last surviving veterans of the Great War, Duffy’s poem is a response to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. She imagines a soldier-poet, possibly Owen himself, overseeing a magical rewinding of tragic events, bringing about the resurrection of ‘all those thousands dead’ through the power of his words. Of course, such miracles cannot happen:
‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.’
This, however, should not stop the poet from trying, from hoping that words might somehow save lives. Here is a message from which children can benefit and a wish to which we can encourage them to aspire.
Working with my own Year 7 and 8 pupils, within the context of the World War One centenary commemorations in November 2014, I asked them to emulate Duffy’s example by writing not directly about war, but rather to use war only as a reference point to write about what they thought the word ‘remembrance’ means. Classroom discussions, therefore, focused on questions such as “Are there things which should be forgotten?” or “What are the best ways of remembering?” rather than anything directly alluding to war. War, of course, inevitably came into our conversations, but by opening up the broader connotations of remembrance, the children were able to explore ideas that made sense to them from their own experience, as opposed to ideas acquired second-hand from the media and history books. We compared Duffy’s ‘Last Post’ with other poems of remembrance, such as the following:
Gunpowder Plot by Vernon Scannell
‘The Plumber’ by Gillian Clarke
‘MCMXIV’ by Philip Larkin
These three poems interest me for their use of settings outside of wartime. In this sense, they are not ‘war’ poems in the usual sense of the word. ‘Gunpowder Plot’ deals with a memory of war reawakened on a subsequent Bonfire Night; ‘The Plumber’ focuses upon Harry Patch’s post-war career; ‘MCMXIV’ reimagines the innocence of Edwardian England in August 1914 at the moment when The Great War was declared. The poets are commenting not so much on war per se, but on human stories that surround it. We are all touched by war, however indirectly it may be, and poetry of remembrance will therefore always serve a purpose. For many children lucky enough to live in countries like the UK, life may pass from day to day without any specific thought given to war and its consequences. The occasional sobering reminder in the form of contact with poems such as these, together with the opportunity to respond, can help to ensure that children remain aware of the mistakes of the past and keep a mindful eye on the present.
When planning their poems, the children were asked to brainstorm what the word ‘remembrance’ (or ‘remember’) means to them. I asked them to use whatever means they wished to in order join the dots between the present day as they experience it and the events of the two world wars. Some of them drew family trees and made inquiries at home to find out about their ancestors’ wartime experiences. Others used Google to research the background to certain familiar places, for example, their home village’s war memorial. Certain children were able to bring in treasured artefacts including letters written from the Somme, medals and items of kit brought back from the battlefields. The opportunity to handle and discuss authentic pieces of history added a gravitas to the process. I asked them to consider the journey of the objects that they were looking at. How, where, when and why were they originally created? Where have they been over the intervening years? How did they make it here today, to a classroom in Cambridge in 2014? All of this preparatory work was intended to make sure that the children felt a tangible link between the past and the present. Rather than thinking that remembrance is solely a question of recalling historical events, they needed to get a feel for the complex web that connects those events to each and every one of us in the here and now.
Once they began writing, I was pleased to see how the children were as conscious of the present as they were of the past. They wanted to explore stories from their own families and their own experience, rather than attempting to write poems around entirely imagined historical scenarios. The end results are moving for their simplicity and believability.
I understand it all now
The gun you said was an air rifle
The cap badge you said you’d picked up
In the old antique shop with your friend who walked with on one leg
You weren’t a tin miner
Who lost his arm when a boulder fell on it - at least not all your life
I understand the musty tin that put tears in your eyes
That you’d never open, with a queer picture of some monarch on
Why you always piled your savings into
The tin of the Help for Heroes lady
And why you always closed your eyes for a moment
When I got out my tin soldiers
You never talked about the war
But I realised when finally I saw the identification card
Proctor, James - A7004915 B.E.F Lancashire Fusiliers
and a picture of a dashing young man in suit and tie
He knows I know, so I always lay a poppy at his tomb
As he lies in the frozen grave in Houghton, England
The line on the old stone grave reads:
He who fought with God, rests in peace.
Rupert, aged 13
Great-Great Uncle Charlie
I never met you, but I heard stories.
Not very often, but still sometimes
They said that you died very quickly,
In the first week of WW1.
I wish I knew more about you.
I picture you wearing an old-fashioned hunting jacket,
Holding a great shiny gun, perhaps with a dog or two,
A man with dark hair and a strong jaw, like my brother.
They named him after you.
My big brother Charles, but they call him Charlie like you,
Once Granny said he was just like you. She was your niece.
They said you weren’t very brave or good at fighting, but I don’t care.
I think that you were brave.
I will remember you. You with your poppy.
Chiara, aged 12
In school we’re always told to remember things:
And ‘important dates and mistakes’.
But Grandpa was in a war, and he doesn’t want to remember that
He tells us that we shouldn’t need to know.
He always talks about before the war,
He always talks about after the war,
But he never speaks about the war itself.
He lost his friends,
That’s what Grandma said.
George, aged 13
‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney
A poem with a similar theme to ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’, which I use in conjunction with it, is Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’. I remember first coming across this poem during my A-Level English Literature studies and being fascinated by the skill with which Heaney’s carefully chosen words bring the image of his father’s work into such sharp relief. He truly does ‘dig deep’ for the ‘good turf’ of linguistic clarity and poetic beauty. The parallels that he manages to draw between the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of farm labouring and writing helped me to appreciate for the first time the true value of creative writing, the sheer effort that goes into it and the meaningful, satisfying, life-giving product that comes from it.
Studying ‘Digging’ with Year 7 children, I encourage them to ‘go digging’ in keeping with the spirit of the poem. I ask them to put their favourite words from the poem onto a Mindmap and make any links that interest them. I don’t give them a set approach; the important thing is that they delve into the words and see what they find. Some children prefer to take a thematic approach, creating a ‘DIGGING’ bubble and a ‘WRITING’ bubble and mapping out words which connect the two. This can yield some fascinating ideas that might otherwise be missed in more of a linear reading. For example, Matthew, aged 11, was drawn to the description of the writer’s pen as ‘squat’, as it made him visualise the father squatting down to dig. He added that it also helped him to hear the splat of the soggy peat. Jenny, also 11, asked what potato drills were. On finding out that they were the furrows in which the potatoes are planted, she connected that to her ‘WRITING’ bubble with the comment that the lines of ploughed furrows are like the lines of words produced by a poet. She added that her mother would often talk about spelling ‘drills’ and so this had now created a new link in her mind between the use of words and the ploughing of fields.
These explorations of the hidden links between words, images and sounds enabled the children to understand the need for rigour in their own poetry. Seeing the parallels between a hard day’s work in the field, with its accompanying sense of satisfaction, and the work of the writer who dedicates proper time and effort to the ultimate benefit of the end product is a lesson well worth giving. If children can assimilate the idea that writing for pleasure is a serious undertaking, that is worth doing properly, they will certainly reap the rewards in the form of better quality writing and improved overall literacy.
The House of Memories
I remember our house
The life I used to live in it
The joy of my bedroom like a wide smile
And the excitement on the trampoline
It would make me surge with happiness
The days of laughter and love
The days of creation and courage
It was as sweet as shiny sugar
On a warm day being caramelised
Your imagination will drip away from you
Like sticky, sweet, melted sugar
Oscar, aged 12
‘For my Grandmother Knitting’ by Liz Lochhead
As Mandy Coe states in her chapter of Making Poetry Happen:
“By assuming a poem starts with pen and paper, we fail to value where it really begins: in real or imagined experiences made even more vivid by the writerly habit of close observation.”
I find this quotation especially apposite when considered alongside a poem such as Liz Lochhead’s ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’. The poet’s reminiscences of her grandmother engaged in her habitual knitting focus in on the finer details, most notably the hands that perform the action. Every movement, every sound and every texture of those hands is clearly at the forefront of the writer’s memory, which itself seems to be intricately ‘knitted’ together from vivid mental pictures and snatches of overheard conversation. We, as readers, come to know this grandmother not through literal description of the whole person, but through those aspects of her that shine through the poet’s memory. In this way, the poem is very much a close relative of Phoebe Boswall’s ‘Baking’. Whether the latter was influenced directly by the former is hard to know, but their common trope of remembering a person through an activity is what makes both of them excellent source material for getting children writing.
I looked at this poem with a Year 8 class with a view to using it as a choral poem for the 2013 poetry evening. Its sparse use of punctuation gives considerable flexibility to the ways in which it can be read aloud and so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to let the children work out where best to make the transitions from one speaker to the next. I split them into three groups of roughly 7 or 8 children and they set to work with highlighters at the ready. Each group had differing opinions about how best to break the poem up. One group favoured longer sections of 5 or 6 lines per speaker; another chose to make the piece more conversational with lines or half-lines bouncing back and forth between two speakers before moving on to other pairs. The final group had taken an almost mathematical approach, working out how to evenly split the text between all members of their team without spoiling the narrative flow. They were keen to demonstrate why they thought their version was successful and were up at the front of the class performing their version with genuine thought and passion. Actions were brought in by some, such as hands being raised and lowered in unison. All three groups had also given some thought as to how best to ‘stage’ their reading, avoiding the instinctual tendency to stand in a line and instead placing themselves in interesting arrangements, occupying individual spaces, some sitting, some standing. All three readings had their own merits and all had their weaknesses. This was the cause for much discussion and debate, all of which contributed to the final version that we developed as a whole class for the choral reading.
This was a prime example of how the democratic process can elicit wonderful results in the poetry classroom. The tendency for many teachers teaching poetry is to think that they must have all the ideas (or answers) in advance and get the children to understand them. In fact, when a teacher puts enough trust in his or her pupils to let them formulate their own ideas and interpretations and then engage in collective discussion and sharing of opinions, the process of studying poetry can be so much more satisfying for all concerned. It also has the added benefit of giving the children a sense of the validity of their own ideas when they come to commit their memories to paper, as can be seen in Lucy’s response to ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’ and ‘Baking’, which also has some poignant echoes of Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’:
You always had apple pie.
You were insulted once when she forgot to make it
When we came down to visit.
You infested the house with the smell of your pipe.
Once she made you stand outside in the rain to smoke it
And when I came home all my clothes would smell of it.
You took us down to the playground
And lifted us onto the seesaw
And laughed when neither side went up or down.
You pushed us on the swings
So high, and we were laughing.
Your allotment, with the falling down shed
The runner beans and the broad ones
Your tomatoes in the greenhouse
The raspberries in the garden
The apple trees…
I helped to pick them.
When you were even older
Mum took you down to the hospital.
You stood in the car park with your pipe
And used the no-smoking sign as a windshield.
Now the house will be sold,
The allotment has a new shed
And the pipe is never lit.
Lucy, aged 13
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.