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Please yourself

Often I'm asked about the best ways to encourage children to write poetry. The best thing a teacher can do is to create a "poetry-friendly" classroom, doing any or all of the following things.

* Make your own poem posters: choose a poem you like, write it out on an A2 sheet and put it up on the wall - any poem for any reason. It's not a bad idea to be enigmatic about it - don't explain it or attach questions to it.

* Set up performance sessions: bring in a pile of poetry books, get children in groups to choose a poem, prepare and perform it for the rest of the class.

* Read poems when the children know for certain you're not going to ask questions and or ask them to write something.

* Have tapes, CDs and videos of poets reading their own poems. When you "work" on a poem, only ask questions that you do not know the answers to: does this poem remind you of anything else you've read? Or of anything that has happened to you? How is it different from things you've read or that have happened to you? What puzzles you about it? Can anyone here help?

* Have a poetry swap shop where you introduce poems to the class, and the children can all introduce poems too. The class decides what to do with each poem: dramatise it? Set it to music? Recite it? Do some art work with it?

If you do all these things, children will have a repertory of poetry they feel they own, rather than poetry that is handed to them because it's "good for them", or that they are being tested on.

When it comes to writing, you could use the starting points that poems offer, often as a result of the conversations that crop up out of the reading and performing. It is better to let this grow rather than say: let's imitate that poem.

Other starting points are the stories and anecdotes that you and they tell, or read from a book. Poems can relate these, or you can freeze a moment in the story and from within that moment you can be someone or something - a character or an object - and from that person or thing's point of view you can write about what you might be thinking, seeing, saying, hearing or doing (or just one or two of these things).

Using those questions, you can move from situations (eg being told off, not wanting to go to bed, sitting in the doctor's waiting room, eating breakfast, yawning) to characters (eg yourself, your mum, Superman), to objects (eg a leaf, the sun, a parking meter, a car wheel) and write using those seeing, saying, hearing, thinking and doing questions.

These questions also give you a critical language. Most poems are made up of seeing, saying, hearing, thinking and doing. We have another raft of names for it, (monologue, imagism, stream of consciousness, action, narrative and the rest) but the terms I use are simple and accessible. It means that when you come to look at poems you and the children can ask: am I reading about seeing or thinking here? Or is it doing and saying?

In short, I don't believe there are simple quick answers to writing thoughtful, well-made poems. Of course, you can ask children to copy, imitate and follow formulae handed down from on high and some children will produce. I'm suggesting another pathway - one that should make writing and reading poetry matter to the people doing it, rather than simply pleasing a higher authority.

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