poems to get kids putting pen to paper
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?
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.