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At home with poetry

Poet Ken Cockburn is opening doors to pupils' imagination for a new competition, writes Karen Shead

Hands shoot into the air when poet Ken Cockburn asks the Primary 7 class for reasons why we might come back to our houses. "Coming back from the chippie," says one boy. "Coming home from a footie match," offers another.

A few hands go down after that answer, but others are still prodding the air.

For the hour and a half that Mr Cockburn is working with the pupils at Leith Walk Primary, in Edinburgh, they are fully engaged in what he is saying and very keen to chip in responses.

Mr Cockburn is at the school to deliver a lesson on writing a poem about home, something which the Scottish Poetry Library and Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland hope teachers across the country are also doing in response to their competition, Poet in the House.

The competition, which is open to P3-P7 and S1-S4 pupils, was launched by the two organisations in November. They have received funding from the Scottish Arts Council to run two years of what they hope will be a five-year programme of young people's poetry competitions on aspects of the built environment.

As well as developing observational and language skills, they hope the competition will focus young people's attention on the buildings around them in both appreciative and critical ways. Each year the competition will have a different theme, this year's being house and home.

Lorna Irvine, the SPL's education officer, says: "The overwhelming response from both primary and secondary pupils to last October's National Poetry Day competition shows that young people are excited about poetry. The poetry and architecture competition aims to channel that enthusiasm and open the doors of their imagination."

To help teachers deliver a poetry lesson about housing, a free support pack is available. It includes six poems newly commissioned from Scottish writers, eight large photo flashcards featuring a range of homes and a lesson plan devised by Mr Cockburn, who is the fieldworker for the SPL. He visits organisations across Scotland, including primary and secondary schools, community centres, prisons, hospitals and literary groups to present workshops, talks and readings.

Mr Cockburn says: "We hope the education pack will enable teachers to give their own lessons. I have included a lesson plan and, as the competition is open to pupils from P3 to S4, I have suggested ways in which it can be adapted.

"All of the ideas are carried around the idea of a door," he explains. "For younger children, you keep things very simple, so the door might speak, it might describe itself or how it feels, whereas older children might do research about the house from a historical perspective. They can then write about the stories of the people and what was going on at different times or how the house has changed over that period."

Watching Mr Cockburn deliver the class himself, it is easy to see how the written plan can be adapted in the classroom.

Although the P7s are initially shy to answer when he looks for feedback to the poems he has read, responses soon start to come as he asks what kind of buildings they live in and words such as flat, tenement and storeys begin to fill up the board.

After discussions about what their front doors and hallways look like, the children are asked to write a poem of two verses about either coming in or going out of their house. They frantically scribble away and a few volunteers read their poems aloud.

"This is a good age group to work with," says Mr Cockburn. "They have the vocabulary and imagination but are not as self-conscious as older pupils."

Class teacher and depute head Anne Moore welcomed the workshop. "It's lovely having people come in to the class as it's not the same old faces and voices," she says. "And when people come into the school, the thing they are teaching is their area, it's what they do. Mr Cockburn's love of poetry really comes across.

"I really enjoyed it and the children did too. They were really pleased with the poems they had written and have been asking me if we are going to enter them into the competition. They felt really proud of the result.

"And the children's reaction is always the proof of the pudding," she adds.

The competition deadline is March 31 and the winners will be announced in June. The two winning poems will be printed on posters distributed to schools across Scotland and there will be creative writing workshops for the winners' schools led by a poet and a visual artist. The winners will also be invited to join the judging panel for next year's competition.

Scottish Poetry Library, tel 0131 557 2876

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