poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘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
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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.