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The Poetry Friendly Classroom

Now it so happens that teachers sometimes ask me, what's the best way to get children writing, and one of the ways I answer is to suggest that the first thing to do is to create a 'poetry friendly classroom'. In other words, you can't really talk about writing poems that matter unless you make a classroom a place where poems are welcome. I usually suggest in my workshops that there are many ways of doing this and I can suggest some, but it's usually a good idea if teachers and the whole school think of ways this can be done. Here's some I suggest:

1. Without any explanation or questions being asked of the children, just try writing out a poem that interests you on to a very large piece of paper and sticking it up on the wall. You could also put some post-its next to it, telling the children that they could write anything that they want on the post-it to do with the poem. This could be questions that they would like to ask anyone or anything that appears in the poem, or it could be a question that they would like to ask the poet. At a later stage, you could all sit round and look at these slips of paper and see whether people have answers to any of the questions, have anything to say in reply to anything on any of the post-its. They could pretend to be the poet in order to answer the questions directed at the poet. If there were questions that were factual, they could come up with ways of finding these out, eg when did the poet live?

2. If you read a poem to the children and start looking at it in class, see if you can restrict yourself to only asking the children questions that you, the teacher don't know answers to. So, instead of asking, 'count the adjectives', or 'what kind of poem is this?' and the like, how about asking 'does this poem remind you of anything you've ever read before?' (or anything  you've ever seen on TV or on a film). Does anything in the poem remind you of anything that's ever happened to you? What kinds of things going on are similar and what kinds of things are different? As with the post-its, what kinds of questions would you like to ask of anyone or anything in the poem and/or of the poet? Is there anyone in the room who would like to have a go at answering these? (It might help to act out an interview here as if, say, you were interviewing Humpty Dumpty about how he felt about no one being able to put him together.) You could ask if anyone can see what I call 'Secret Strings'.

A secret string, is anything that links one word or phrase to any other. As we know, the most common of these is rhyme, but there's also rhythm, sentence length, repetitions of sound, phrase, image, patterns of various kinds. Quite often, the more you look, the more you find.

3. Poetry swap. This is a deal you can strike with children where you take it in turns to read poems eg teacher reads one, a child reads one. That way  you don't simply keep repeating the same kinds of poem. You could encourage anyone who reads to say why they chose the poem.

4. The Poetry Show. You divide the class up into threes and fours and each group chooses a book of poems and a poem from inside the book. Then in twenty minutes they choose a poem to present to the rest of the class. They can do this in any way they like so it could be reading the whole poem together, or it could be doing a mime and reading all or some of the poem. It could be taking a line or two and making up a song, or a dance to it. It could be dividing the poem up into different voices, solo and chorus. It could be using musical instruments and percussion of some kind.

5. Poem Posters. The children could make poem posters, taking a poem and working out a way of turning it into a poster that could go up on the wall in the school for a while. The more often these change then children in the school get the idea that there are hundreds of poems and you don't have to just stick with just a few.

6. Using other art forms. Poems are great ways to start work on other art forms, pottery, painting, dance, drama, music and film. They're great platforms for starting creative work in many different kinds of ways.

7. Notebooks: encourage the children to keep a poetry notebook. Suggest that they can write down any words or phrases that strike them as odd, interesting, difficult, amazing, puzzling, scary etc. If they have an idea for any interesting ways of saying things, jot them down. If they come across a phrase, a verse, a line from anything they've read anywhere - poetry, the newspaper, street sign, anything - jot it down. Write out poems or parts of poems in the notebook too. To help them, you can make a 'public' notebook that is up on the wall in the classroom, where you can write things that you've noticed.

8. I'm sure anyone reading this could think of plenty of other ways of making poetry friendly classrooms and schools. In this context, to talk about 'writing a poem' is completely different from the context of a non-poetry friendly classroom where, let's say, you hope that by reading a single poem, or by using a 'trick' from one of the How To Write A Poem books, you can get children to write great poems. If you create a poetry friendly atmosphere, what you do is build up a repertoire of poems in the children's heads. It's a resource they'll use without even knowing why or how.

Writing Poems

When it comes to writing poems, I suggest that one way to think of is it to ask how can we create a time in which the children can gather some thoughts and ideas that we can use to make poems? One way, is to think that the resources we have at hand are the things we say (if we are in the scene in question) or that other people say to us, the things we can see going on, the things we hear, the things we think, the things we feel, the things we are doing ourselves (if we are in the scene in question). There are many routes to tap into this: using photos, other poems, a title, a situation, a feeling, a memory, a story that I've been told, a moment or a scene in a play or a novel, a piece of music and so on. If we ask a question for each of these 'resources', as I've called them, then we can pool the answers. So, let's say we started from a situation, like 'Breakfast Time at Home', and we ask: 'What can you see going on?' You can pool the answers on a big piece of paper and pin that up. Same again for each of the others: saying (you and others), thinking, feeling, seeing going on, doing. So you end up with a series of big posters of all the things that people have come up with. This is a resource you can use to make poems, either class poems or individual ones.

You can show either by doing it yourself, or by comparing what you're doing with poems that have already been written and published, that you can make poems out of each or several of these different 'resources'. So you could write a 'seeing' poem about breakfast. Or a 'saying' poem about breakfast. Or you could write a 'thinking and feeling poem interrupted by 'hearing''. And so on.

There are also ways in which you can introduce patterns to what you're writing, through rhythm, repetition and chorus. If you've got  a poetry friendly classroom going then these are the 'secret strings' I've talked about that you've probably started to notice.

You can also talk about what I've called 'Impossible Writing' on the post above called 'Another Poem'. You can show that you can write things that don't make sense but in a funny way they do. Take 'Hey diddle diddle'. A cow jumps over a moon. A dish runs away with the spoon. That's quite odd and is meant to be a bit funny, perhaps. But you can also do impossible writing about sad, scary or mysterious things. Like 'the bed started to eat me.' Or 'the sky bent down' or 'the lemon drove off.' This gives us another resource, another way of thinking that we can introduce into 'real' situations, like breakfast or as a way of writing in itself, say, about autumn, or the market or whatever. In the workshop I did with the children where we looked at the Lodz Ghetto photos, one child wrote '...and the leaves called out my name.' Yes!

Using this range of words to describe writing: saying, seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, and impossible writing, actually gives you a range of very accessible ways of talking about poems that you read. You can spot how poets switch between these different senses.




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