poems to get kids putting pen to paper
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.
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.