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The ancient mariners

Chris Fautley finds history, literacy and life at sea combined at Chatham's Royal Dockyard

What do "babies' bums", a klaxon, and a submarine have in common? All feature in Chatham Historic Dockyard's Living Literacy Day which aims to help teachers looking for new ways of approaching the literacy hour.

Targeted at Years 5 and 6, the day is built around "Atlantic Convoy", a poem written in 1941 by Kenneth Wilson, a seaman aboard the destroyer HMS Bideford. In dark and emotional verse, he describes the tedium of hunting submarines; the anticipation as the sonar hones in on the enemy, his thoughts as it explodes, and the feeling that perhaps, tomorrow, it will be his turn to be hit.

Just another war poem? Maybe. But read within the cramped grey and duck-egg blue confines of the mess room of Britain's last surviving Second World War destroyer, HMS Cavalier, surrounded by valves, pipes, cables and hammocks, it acquires a vivid new force, as Year 5 pupils from Bridge and Patrixbourne Church of England Primary School, near Canterbury, discovered.

The setting inspired animated discussion. "How did the poet feel during the hunt?" "When the depth charges were fired?" "When bloated bodies bobbed to the surface?"

The object is to gain an understanding of the effects created with rhythm, rhyme, emphasis and onomatopoeia.

This was encouraged by dividing children into small groups to work on themed cards covering these topics, as well as vocabulary, where dictionaries are provided to look up the more unusual words. The next session, back on terra firma, featured word-play, specifically understanding synonyms. Here, the education staff have devised an inspired learning tool.

The poem was divided into segments, each displayed on Velcro boards. Words were highlighted - the children having to choose suitable replacements from a selection of words. Their teacher, Simeon Corfield, encouraged them to tape record their new poem, thinking about volume, pace, reading solo and reading together.

And finally, all aboard the submarine HMS Ocelot for an insight into life beneath the ocean and inspiration for the ultimate aim of the day: to write a poem back in school describing how a sub-mariner felt to be on the receiving end of the destroyer's attentions.

Within Ocelot's cigar-shaped confines, children conjured up adjectives describing their first impressions, how a submariner felt when the emergency klaxon sounded, and the forest of wires, dials and lights. (The semi-spherical red lights illuminated during battle stations are known as "babies' bums".) With submarines and warships, it's a lads' day out, for sure. But what about the girls?

"A submarine has a universal appeal," explains Chatham's education director Joanne Brooks. "It's got such a magic about it that it's not something only a boy would be interested in. We have very quickly found that girls don't feel excluded."

They agreed. "I think it was great," one of them enthused, adding that she enjoyed the work groups and recording. "It's not as if it's all shooting and war and guns. It's interesting and fun."

* When the Royal Navy withdrew from Chatham in 1984, it ended an association that had lasted more than 400 years. The site is now run by the Historic Dockyard Trust.

HMS Cavalier, a memorial to the 30,000 servicemen who died aboard destroyers during the the Second World War, and HMS Ocelot, a Cold War era submarine, are just two of the artefacts now held in the Trust's care.

Simeon Corfield is key stage 2 literacy coordinator at Bridge and Patrixbourne Church of England Primary School

"Children need to touch and do and feel and get the senses going, especially with poetry. The language material we did all comes up in the literacy strategy. What attracted me was the idea of literacy skills, particularly boys' writing. In our school, the boys have always out-performed the girls in Sats, but we do have difficulty motivating boys to write.

Warships and submarines motivated them, but I don't think the girls needed any motivation in the sense of, "I've got to get you to enjoy this day".

The highlight for me was the children writing their poems and coming up with unusual words. To follow up, I'm going to do more on synonyms because I think there's scope there to extend their vocabulary. I want them to use the skills they learn in other poems and story writing, and I would like to extend what they have learned to other subjects.

I think literacy needs to be integrated generally. It's not quite topic work, but certainly cross-curricular."

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