poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Stansted’ by Luke Wright
Luke Wright paid St John’s College School a visit in September 2013 and this was one of the poems that he read aloud and workshopped with our Year 7 children. It was already a favourite of mine, the village of Stansted being where I have called home for the past five years. To hear it delivered in person, by the voice that owns these words, was a special experience both for me and the children and one that cannot be underestimated. Only the poet himself can imbue his words with the exact nuances of meaning that were originally intended. Only the poet can truly sense the images described and give them their full emotional resonance. The very best readers of poetry can, of course, bring poetry to life and can move the listener deeply, sometimes more so than the poet can. However, performers of other people’s words cannot overcome the fact that they were not there. Much of their skill will necessarily come down to inference, the ability to empathise and educated guesswork. As brilliant as they may be, those who read what they did not themselves write will always inevitably be missing something, however small, however intangible. For this reason, it is invaluable in the school context and beyond for audiences to be allowed to hear the poet reading his or her own work. Whether this be in person or via audiovisual media, the effect is profound and instantaneous.
The children immediately identified with Luke’s poetic voice and the contrast in their reactions - from wild laughter to silent fascination in a matter of seconds - revealed just how fully they were engrossed and wanting not to miss a thing. ‘Stansted’ struck a particular chord because the situation described and its language both resonate perfectly with children of a certain age:
“...whenever Dads were mentioned I’d say:
My Dad was involved with ‘The Stansted Project.’
I’d say: My Dad was like the main boss.
And on occasion, to proud, freckle-faced boys:
Yeah, well, my Dad ... built Stansted Airport.”
The familiar scenario of children boasting about their father’s achievements to hyperbolic extremes is one that all children have been witness to at some point and, importantly, when they are not in the company of adults. Even the simple use of the filler word ‘like’ really helps to gives the poem the feel of a dialogue between the poet and an audience who are on his wavelength. As English language specialist, Professor Clive Upton has noted: “Using "like" in this way is also about signalling membership of a club”
Luke’s reading certainly helped the children to imagine themselves as part of his childhood ‘club’ and, having established common ground, he was then able to gain their full focus for all of the minutely observed ‘Dad’ details that fuel the switch to a more contemplative mode in the latter part of the poem:
“And yet, I never really knew what he did.
Not like I knew his mahogany trouser press,
the brass bowl for his change and errant golf tees,
the way his cheek felt cold when he came back from work,
his black Mac’ jewelled with rain, smelling of trains
and a faint whiff of the morning’s aftershave.”
The children’s task was to reflect upon particular memories of a person that they know (or knew) well and to make notes on whatever details they could remember well, no matter how insignificant or silly they might seem now and out of context. Unlike the majority of the poetry activities that I myself tend to conduct with children, where sound and exchange of ideas are key, this one required time for silent reflection, so Luke encouraged the children to settle down to independent quiet working. It impressed me how long they were able to maintain this silent focus and write from memory, especially given the lack of specific scaffolding in the activity. From this, I learnt to what extent, given an excellent stimulus and the right atmosphere, children can produce an authentic response without the need for further input:
If you show me a briefcase
Or let me hear the footsteps of your dark black shoes
My mind would be transported back to the days
When I would give you your famous Chocolate Orange at Christmas
And then I wait eagerly for you to offer me a piece
I can still hear the words No-point-crying-over-spilt-milk ringing through my ears
I can still smell the strong scent of black coffee
In the huge mug saying Danger! Man at Work
Beatrice, aged 11
Buddhism: that’s what you make me think about,
Always polite, never mean, never rude.
Never boasting and always trying to do what’s right.
When you moved house,
We were given some of your things,
And whenever I look round our house,
I say: “Those are the matching chairs that you had meals on,
That’s the grandfather clock that gave you the time,
That’s the sofa that you read magazines on,
That’s the desk that was covered in scattered around papers,
That’s the lampshade that gave you light at night,
They’re the plates that you had your vegetarian sausages on,
There’s the cutlery that you cut up your roast potatoes with.”
That’s how I remember you.
Lucy, aged 11
She is a bloodthirsty mongoose
Her tantrums a thunderstorm like no other
Hacking me with her plastic sword
She could out-rule Kim Jong Il
All of us slaves of this notorious tyrant
The thuds of her footsteps
Spread fear across the kitchen
Her Majesty the Queen with 5-a-day dress changes
But she is my sister
And that is why I put up with it
Oscar, aged 11
Photo: A L V Smith
‘The Bridge at Mostar’ by Bruce Balan
Children have a natural fascination with places, I would argue, because their ability to access them is limited by circumstance where their imagination is not. My own fascination with the former-Yugoslavia has been with me for as long as I can remember. It was later heightened all the more by the fear that, just as I reached an age where travelling there myself might be a possibility, the region’s various wars in the 1990s might prevent me from ever fulfilling my dream. I vividly remember watching the television footage of the bridge in Mostar finally falling into the waters of the River Neretva after weeks of bombardment in late 1993, wanting to cry, but, being seventeen, no longer knowing how to.
The bridge, which had stood for 427 years, was rebuilt in 2004, and two years later I was able to stand there, in the middle of the arch, the spot that I had first imagined myself standing whilst absorbed in ‘that Yugoslavia book again’ - as the teachers would groan - back at St Teresa’s primary school in 1980s Stoke-on-Trent. Why this little segue into a personal memory? Because the power of poetry can allow children to access the places that they want to go to, to render the daydream more concrete and to understand their own place in the world. It never occurred to me as a child to write about where I wanted to go. The fantasies just stayed lodged there in my mind. Looking back, and knowing how alive places like Mostar were in my mind from the books I had read, I only wish I had some record of my thoughts at the time, something more tangible than hazy memories of unfulfilled wishes. A flight of fancy may be all that a child can afford to make, but the teacher can be very useful in providing a lift to the airport.
I discovered Bruce Balan’s ‘The Bridge At Mostar’ whilst researching the history of the bridge online. It brought back all the memories of my childhood interest in the bridge and got me thinking about the tripartite link between places, objects and memory, and how the writing of poetry can help to form and secure the ties that bind them together. Working with Year 3 pupils in late 2014, my thoughts were turned towards ‘Remember’ theme of National Poetry Day. A week before the lesson, I had asked them to bring in a small object from home with an important or vivid memory attached to it. I gave them two conditions: the object must fit into the palm of their hand and it must have little, if any, monetary value. (Groans from those who had instantly thought of their new smartphone…) The children’s form teachers would collect in the items and create a small ‘pop-up’ museum in a corner of the classroom for the few days either side of the poetry lesson. The teachers were also asked to bring an object to contribute to the class museum. For my object, I was originally going to bring one of the photos of the bridge that I had taken on my 2006 visit to Mostar.
Then, the more I looked through them, the more I realised that however accurately a photograph might bring a memory back into the mind’s eye, that really is all that it can fully stimulate. The mind’s nose, the mind’s ear, the mind’s skin, the mind’s tongue: all of these are left wanting. Lovely as these photographs are to me, they don’t do justice to what it meant to me to stand on that bridge, to touch its stones, to hear the sounds of the city and smell the Turkish coffee drifting from the riverside cafes in the breezeless July heat.
I look again through drawers and cupboards in search of an object that gets every part of my memory working. What I eventually come across is a stone, one of scores that I have picked up over the years, usually, but not always, on beaches. It is sitting amongst several others, but this is the one that immediately ‘speaks’ to me. To look at, it is unremarkable, a flattened, irregular lump about the size of a jam doughnut. All that it has to mark it out as being in any way out of the ordinary is its ivory whiteness, as if it had been painted with emulsion that has now faded ever so slightly from its original brilliance. I am instantly transported back to the Adriatic island of Brač, to the beach where I chose it, pine trees bleeding their scent into the air, cicadas out-crunching the waves. Back at home, on unpacking my things a week later, I find the stone again and my curiosity is piqued. A few minutes on the internet and it turns out that Brač limestone has long been prized. It was used by the Roman emperor Diocletian to build his enormous summer palace, which still forms the old town of Split and which is the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace. In more recent times it was used for parts of Berlin’s Reichstag, the Catholic cathedral in Liverpool and (supposedly) The White House in Washington DC.
Did this stone that now sits in the palm of my hand once rub shoulders with a stone that now gazes down at the President of the USA? Such thoughts are fascinating for me and so I thought they might be for the children. I shared all of this background with them in the lesson, as I showed them the stone and let them pass it around, asking them to try to connect with my thoughts and memories. I modelled a conversation with the stone about the first time that our paths crossed, in which I asked it questions off the top of my head, for example -
Do you remember when…?
How did it feel when…?
What were you thinking when…?
- and asked the children to volunteer possible answers that the stone might give. We
discussed their suggestions and I gave ideas of my own. The children were quick to engage with the idea and now it was time to pick up their own objects, to ask them questions and to listen to their answers. Five minutes of doing this orally was all that was required before they were confident and eager enough to get writing. The objects were to stay with them throughout the writing process, the injunction ‘Whatever it is that you’re fiddling with there, do please carry on!’ implicitly ringing in their ears. They could write either as themselves asking the questions, or as the object giving its answers:
Sea shell, do you remember when I gently picked you up from the beach?
Do you remember when I carefully put you on my shelf?
What were you thinking when you came to my house?
Did you struggle to try to get off the shelf to see your friends as I was sleeping?
What were you feeling when you were on the shelf?
Do you miss your friends?
Did you used to dream about the beach?
Now that you are here with me, do you like me?
James (aged 7)
Do you both remember when I charged on to the beach and started fossil hunting?
Did you both want me to pick you up and take you to my house?
Were you excited?
Did you both like it when I put you in a container?
Did you both like it when I brought you to the pub?
Do you both miss who you came from?
Did you both go swimming in the sea?
Now that you are here with me, do you want to stay with me?
Dan (aged 7)
Do you remember when my mum pulled you out of the big paper bag?
Did you watch me as I was giggling like a mad monkey with my brothers and dad?
Snow globe, what were you thinking when I shook you for the first time like a monster?
Did you tremble when I put you on my shelf with all my other big shelf friends?
What were you feeling when I picked you up and put you in my big blue backpack?
Do you miss your snow globe friends like mad?
Do you still dream about the broad mountains?
Snow globe, now that you are here with me do you feel the cold?
Jasper (aged 7)
Sea Shore Shell
Catalina, I remember when you picked me up in your warm hands
I watched you as you came closer to me
I listened as your footsteps came nearer
I was fascinated when you picked me up
I worried as you put me in your thin scanty sock
I felt special like the Queen when you showed me to your friends
Catalina, I miss the sound of the sea shimmering
Catalina, I used to dream about going to Africa
Now that I am here with you I feel safe in your warm cosy bedroom
Catalina (aged 7)
There was a real buzz of excitement about this lesson and the children couldn’t wait to read their work out to the class at the end. There was a tangible sense that their ‘conversation’ with their object had put them back in that time and place of original contact and that it had reawoken all of the relevant feelings and senses that make for meaningful expression.
James Tissot, Hide and Seek (circa 1877)
‘Hiding Places’ by Sue Dymoke
As a published poet, academic author and Reader in Education at the University of Leicester, Dr Sue Dymoke can be considered a true expert in the field of poetry teaching in schools. I first discovered her poems for children several years ago and was particularly taken by ‘Hiding Places’, which provided a useful starting point for doing some work on the theme of ‘Games’ for National Poetry Day 2010.
Dymoke’s use of the second person to address the protagonist of this ‘hide and seek’ narrative is particularly effective in helping the young reader to place him- or herself in the various different ‘hiding places’, some of which will be more familiar than others. By the same token, the use of the present tense creates an immediacy which helps to avoid distraction: the reader is there in the moment, alive to each of the senses described and the tension of trying not to be found is tangible. It is almost as if the poet is colluding with the reader in the game, both of them simultaneously trying to avoid detection by the imagined ‘she’ of the first stanza.
The variety of present participle verbs - ‘breathing’, ‘crouching’, ‘outstaring’, ‘squeezing’, ‘flattening’, ‘reddening’, ‘scrunching’, ‘itching’, ‘trembling’ etc. - serve to heighten the senses and ironically convey the sheer effort involved in doing as little as possible, an experience all children can identify with. Huw has seized upon this to great effect in his response to the poem:
Unseen For Now
Nothing must give you away.
Everything is staring.
Everything is curious.
Nothing must give you away.
Only option is to stay low,
Huw, aged 10
The ‘...For Now’ of Huw’s title, I thought, was well chosen. He has picked up on the inevitability of discovery that builds through Dymoke’s poem and with his closing ‘Risk scratching?’, he presses the freeze-frame button at just the right moment to create the best possible cliffhanger.
Elsie, meanwhile, stuck more closely to the structure of the source poem, but chose to make ‘you’ the seeker rather than the hider:
Hide and Seek
You are counting from one to twenty,
Slowly, steadily, giving them
As much time as possible.
“Twenty!” you cry and you start your search.
You head for the back of the garden,
Where banana skins and
Apple cores litter the floor,
Where broken flower pots lie,
Where it reeks of mud and compost.
You head for the house,
The heart of the home,
Where the dusty brown curtains are
Engraved with yellow swirls.
You head for mother’s wardrobe,
Where sparkly dresses and shoes clutter
With unwanted and forgotten coats,
And ten pairs of trainers.
You then check underneath the sofa,
Where clouds of dust rain down on the floor,
And toys lie long forgotten,
The place you wouldn’t want to be.
You then check under the kitchen table,
Where you can smell mum’s chocolate cake,
See people’s smelly socks, feel saliva
Running up your tongue, hear the cooker whirring.
You see some blonde hair,
You hear a giggle,
You feel a surprise round the corner…
“I think I’ve found you!”
Elsie, aged 9
I like the way that this poem shifts the focus from the determination to remain hidden to the determination to discover. It gives the writing a sense of finding newness within the familiar, with details such as the ‘yellow swirls’ in the curtains and ‘the cooker whirring’ demonstrating how well the writer has brought her setting to life. To help the children to achieve this, having read the poem together in class, I asked them not to try writing anything until they had been home and gone on either a real or an imagined ‘hide and seek’ hunt around their own house. A simple enough homework, and one which was, of course, met with not inconsiderable whoops of joy. As every teacher knows, setting children a task that they are going to enjoy will always create excellent results and, when they returned next day to write their poems, I was in no doubt that they had all spent a fruitful period exploring and, more importantly, engaging meaningfully with that setting which is otherwise most taken for granted, i.e. their own home.
My Precious Place
Jumping into the recycling box
I bury myself in amongst the newspapers
Seeing the dust gathering on the side
I can just make out the dogs going in and out of the room
Mum does the washing whilst on the telephone
In the bottom of the box I discover
A Barbie’s leg, half a tennis ball and my eaten homework
Chloe, aged 9
The Dark Stairway
Hiding in the stairway,
Watching everyone skipping by,
I can see
The blue sky
Through a hole in the black.
All I can hear is talking and chatting, and people
Running past me.
Kind faces I see,
Sun shining on them.
Though it is small and cramped,
Alone I sit, all alone.
I hold my breath as people walk by
Right and left,
Which way shall I look?
A whiff of pizza as they pull it out of the oven
Yay! Yay! I hear all the children say.
Annabel, aged 10
Chloe and Annabel’s poems speak of genuine childhood experience, still very fresh in their minds from their direct engagement with the game of ‘hide and seek’. Details such as ‘Barbie’s leg’ (as opposed to ‘doll’s leg’) and ‘pizza’ (as opposed to ‘dinner’ or ‘food’) tell us that these children have indeed ‘done their homework’ and played hide and seek at home with all of their senses fully switched on to the world around them.
I find it interesting how often, when expecting children to write poems, we ask them to rely heavily upon memory and imagination within the relatively sterile environment of the classroom, but we tend to forget to give them the opportunity or time to ‘practise’ what they are going to write about. We wouldn’t ask anyone to paint a still life from memory or to play a piece of music remembered from the dim and distant past, so why do we ask children to write about things that may not have crossed their minds or been part of their lived experience for weeks, months or even years?
‘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.