poems to get kids putting pen to paper
There can be little argument that great poetry relies on the original use of figurative language. Getting the idea across to children as to what we mean by figurative language can, however, be easier said than done. No list of dictionary definitions of similes, metaphors, personification etc. is going to be as effective as regular and meaningful engagement with figures of speech in their natural environment, doing their magic as their creator intended. Isn’t it curious, then, that many teachers waste time trying to explain to children what a metaphor is before actually bringing them into contact with one? After all, one would not content oneself with explaining to an alien what an elephant is if one could just as easily take him outside and show him one in the flesh. I speak partly from personal experience here. The first time I had ever heard the word ‘metaphor’ was in a Year 7 English lesson, in which the teacher dictated to the class to copy down in the back of our exercise books: “A metaphor is when somebody calls one thing something that is not really, for example: ‘the moon’s a balloon’.” (It’s still there, in royal blue washable ink, carbon-dated to 1987 by the weird, uncrossed ‘f’ I was experimenting with at the time in an attempt to achieve fully joined-up handwriting.) And then we moved on. No further mention of metaphors came up until the end of term test, in which the question “Give an example of a metaphor” appeared. I could have taken the easy way out and just written “The moon’s a balloon”, but I wanted to have a go at coming up with one of my own. Drawing on the ‘moon’s a balloon’ idea, which to me sounded quite jovial, I remember deciding that a metaphor had to be humorous or ironic in some way. So this is what I came up with: “My sister is a junior Avon lady on Saturdays”. Yes, indeed. That was my first attempt at a metaphor. I, of course, knew what I meant. I was trying to convey the idea of a sister who wears too much make-up (which to me was doubly ironic, as my actual sister would never have touched make-up with a barge pole, being more likely to be smeared in horse manure of a typical Saturday). So, knowing that Avon ladies spent their lives surrounded by cosmetics, the ‘metaphor’ seemed to tick the box: “A metaphor is when somebody calls one thing something that is not really”. Of course, the test came back with a big fat cross next to my metaphor, tainting an otherwise perfect score. “OK,” I thought. “I can do everything else but I’m rubbish at metaphors.” What I couldn’t understand was why. Hadn’t I done exactly what the definition was telling me to do? Unfortunately, I never had the courage to ask where I had gone wrong, or rather, what I had not managed to get ‘right’ with my metaphor.
Metaphors did not crop up again for another year or two, by which time I was ready for them and could grasp what the writer is trying to do when using them, i.e. to convey a comparison that may not have ever occurred to the reader, but which will resonate and enrich the image and the understanding of the things being compared. As a child, I was always very literal in my use of and approach to language, preferring information conveyed factually to ideas expressed figuratively. I would always pick up an atlas, for example, in preference to Enid Blyton or a guide to dinosaurs in preference to a poetry anthology. I see similar traits in many pupils that I have taught over the years, especially boys, and so, I can fully empathise with the difficulty that they will inevitably have when asked to recognise, respond to and recreate figurative language. Children very often just want to say it how it is and struggle to think outside of that box. “Why would I want to say that a cloud is (like) a ship, when it’s not a ship? It’s just a cloud!” goes the thinking. To get children confident and enthusiastic enough to make this leap of faith and imagination, the key is to immerse them as much as possible in examples in context and to let them engage in playful experiments. No child dislikes being given a free rein to play, and this applies as much to the world of words as it does to the world of, say, football.
‘The Apple’s Song’ by Edwin Morgan
A great way to introduce this poem is simply to omit the title. As the text of poem itself does not contain the word ‘apple’, the teacher can instantly spark the interest of the children by asking them to work out who the ‘I’ of the poem is. Most children, of course, will work it out very quickly, when they hear the verb ‘peel’, for example, but just giving them that initial incentive to listen/read closely as part of a guessing game will get them immersed straight away into the conceit created by Morgan’s extended metaphor. If, as is likely, the children have correctly guessed that the speaker of the poem is an apple, another step might be to ask them to guess the title of the poem instead of telling them directly. Again, giving them the freedom to share ideas and justify them will get your pupils thinking deeply about why the poet has chosen to make an apple speak and the ways in which he has cleverly enabled the listener to suspend disbelief and see into the ‘mind’ of the apple. One can then move on to ask questions about why the poet thinks of this as a ‘song’, about what the apple wants to achieve by ‘singing’ it and so on. Even your most literal-thinking pupils should be able to open their minds to this game and, before long, you should be able to get them writing similarly interesting ideas, either emulating the personification of the original or developing a perspective of their own:
As the knife plunges
The apple’s crunch
Sings a song
Edward, aged 11
The hard shiny armour glistening in the light
The crunching of the shield breaking under my teeth
The smell of blood dripping on the floor
The luscious taste of the inner body
The black heart hitting my teeth
The skeleton being chucked away
Tom, aged 11
I hold the apple in the palm of my hand,
I watch the dense colours mingle,
I run my fingers down the incline to the heart,
I raise the apple to my watering mouth,
I dig my teeth into the skin and flesh,
I hear the crunch,
through the apple,
The unmistakable taste washes through me,
A wave from the sour sea.
Lucy, aged 11
Like a garden after rain
The apple pips rest
In the soft white flesh
Of the heart
Isabel, aged 11
‘The Apple’s Song’ can provide an excellent springboard not only for ‘apple’ poems like these, but for all manner of metaphorical experiments in which the children imagine themselves as inanimate objects. Here is the text of a follow-up activity to this poem which produced some excellent results from children of various ages and levels of ability:
Think of an object. It can be a natural object, such as a banana, a flower or a grain of sand. Or it can be a man-made object, such as a pencil, a tennis racket or a violin. It can be a small object in your pencil case, or a bigger object, such as the door or a chair.
Now try to imagine what the object would say to you if it could speak and you have the makings of a brilliant poem!
Before writing anything down, consider these questions:
What kind of voice would the object have?
What character / personality?
Where does the object spend most or all of its time?
What would it be bursting to say, if it could speak?
Is it good, or is it evil?
Is it happy, or sad, joyful or tragic?
Would it be positive, or would it moan about its place in the world, or criticise?
Now try to write down what your object would say.
I allowed the children to choose whether to tackle the questions individually, working through them like a questionnaire and writing their own rough notes, or to work in pairs to ask the questions interview-style. Permitting different approaches like this in the targeting of a common goal always makes for a happy and productive poetry classroom, with the children being able to play to their own strengths and personalities. The more vocal ones will love being able to discuss the questions with each other, bouncing ideas around which will inform their own individual writing, whilst the children who prefer to work alone will be able to engage straight away in a private internal dialogue with the questions on the page. Both approaches can be equally effective and rewarding, and we all have our own preferred learning styles, so allowing them to co-exist in the same context is always going to make for a successful lesson. This idea has worked similarly well with children in Years 3 through to 8 and there is no reason not to give it a go with children above or below these ages. Here is just a small selection of the work produced by my pupils:
I glide through paper
Running, beak snapping
Fledgling pattern maker
Separating splits on the attack.
Eloise, aged 8
I am swirled and twirled by the cold wet sea
I am thrashed and washed by the wild water
The years roll past and I roll from continent to continent
I see dolphins leap over me like arrows
I travel from hot to cold and around the globe
I am caught in nets and dropped
Pushed and pulled by the sea
Tossed onto the beach
And found by a small child.
Charles, aged 8
I am the moon rock,
The swan’s eggs,
The birch wood.
They pick me out,
Smashing at me till I crumble.
My knees buckle,
Their spotlights burn hot.
Grubby hands peck at me
And fling me into wicker baskets
Then take me to bustling factories and burn me,
Till I am drained of all energy.
Gone, the dark mines,
But I am cooled now,
Then packaged off to warm houses
And in the end they stab me into turkey
And so rudely call me a ‘fork’!
Eloise, aged 10
(SATIPS Poetry Competition 2011, Highly Commended)
In The Cupboard
It is dusty here.
I would sneeze here.
If I could.
It is dark here.
I would squint here.
If I could.
It is cold here.
I would shiver here.
If I could.
I was once worn.
I would wear myself.
If I could.
Sophie, aged 10
The sky is pale, unforgiving
Sending down a shower of snow
To obscure my vision
While the world around me slows
I hear ribbons of bird song all around me
The sky is crying once again
As I am left alone to wait
Time is dragging a whale behind it
The wind curls around my wiry branches
Smothering me in a blanket of cold
Licking off my leaves
Leaving me dying
Chloe, aged 11
A Life Journey
My arms stretched out in the sunshine,
Covered in a pea-green coat,
The birds sang tunes in my ear,
I was happy.
The seasons flew by to winter,
And when my leaves were gone,
They got an axe and cut my body,
Leaving me to fall.
They drove me to a factory,
Where bright lights blinked.
A machine sliced me into sticks.
I was scared.
Now we lie in small yellow boxes,
Our heads a flaming red,
Sad and disbelieving,
As we wait to be struck
Audrey, aged 12
If you were to walk through the bramble thicket,
Their fierce claws raking,
Their dying branches aching
For a glint of light, or breath of wind,
You would find it.
Like a ghost of things that have gone,
No longer used or known
By anyone today.
Each faded letter on grimy keys,
Layered in age,
Yet in it a page
Has stayed since the time it was written upon
And the typewriter knows.
Years have passed since it was common,
When people tapped
With pleasure rapt
And the object knew the writing,
Such wonderful knowledge now fading.
As it used to be, set on mahogany table,
It can wish
Anna, aged 12
(SATIPS Poetry competition 2012 - Years 5 & 6 Winner)
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.