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Pods of poems

Diana Hinds was on hand when top poets passed on tricks of the trade to inner-city primary children

Take six poets. Mix with Year 5 children from six schools, six new poems on fire, air and water, and three "poetry pod" installations containing visual, verbal and aural stimuluses on these three elements. Add a colourful stage, some microphones and plenty of notebooks and pencils and you have the recipe for a day which can hardly fail to put a spark into children's writing.

"We are trying out this experiment to make your reading and writing a bit more exciting," Jillian Barker, head of education at the Barbican, London, tells the assembled 150 children and their teachers.

This is day one of the Barbican's new venture, "Can I have a Word?", which over two years aims to raise literacy standards in schools through more imaginative stimuluses to children's writing.

Interactive poetry is only the beginning. Later in the year, the same children will take part in a project exploring art and science through creative writing, based on a major retrospective of the work of British artist Helen Chadwick. In the summer, the focus will be on drama and writing, involving a theatre production at the Barbican to mark the 10th anniversary of free elections in South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela.

The Barbican has been working closely with schools for the past five years, through its "Adopt the Barbican" scheme.

Jillian Barker says: "When we asked schools what was needed now, every single headteacher said raising standards in literacy, principally the creative use of language. Most teachers say the literacy hour has been positive, but they feel it has lacked creativity."

But for children to write with more imaginative freedom, they first need the stimulus of rich and varied experiences, something in short supply for many of these inner-city children. One boy, visiting the "poetry pod" devoted to water words and images, admitted he had never been to the sea.

In this first stage of "Can I have a Word?", much of the stimulation is provided by the presence of real poets - Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay, Matthew Sweeney, Margot Henderson, Leah Thorn and Olusola Oyeleye.

The children are already familiar with some of their work, and are soon scurrying around collecting autographs. But the real work of the day begins down in the "poetry pods", where the children's senses are bombarded with sounds and images of water, air or fire, and the poets help them collect words, assembling long lists in their notebooks.

Once out of the pod, Matthew Sweeney's "water" group has a brain-storming session to gather words for things made of water - clouds, lakes, fountains, tears - and then they begin to write individual poems as though they were themselves a cloud, lake or fountain.

Katie, aged nine, loves reading and writing, and produces an accomplished poem about a well. "I wasn't very good at poetry before but listening to the poets you can get more of an idea how to do it. They give you tips and it really helps."

Ujjah, also nine, doesn't like reading, but says, "it's more fun here, you get a picture in your head of what you're going to write."

Ben, nine, doesn't like reading either, but is pleased with the last line of his puddle poem, "I wish I had a peaceful life, like an icicle." He says: "You get more ideas for things with Matthew; he tells you straight what he thinks about it. He doesn't just say it's ok."

Matthew Sweeney believes the "pod" experience has really helped get the children thinking: "All the images in there were so specific. What's wrong with most writing is that it's very vague and blurry. The more children can be lured to specific images, the better their writing is going to be."

After a morning's writing, the afternoon session at the Barbican resounds with the excited sounds of rehearsal, as the children's poetry becomes performance on stage, words translate into movement, and expressive language leaps off the page. The poets shape and encourage these performances, at the same time feeding children and teachers with ideas to take back to school with them.

"I'm learning a lot," says Vanessa Ranpat, Year 5 teacher from Bangabandhu Primary School, Tower Hamlets. "I've got a lot of children who are quite reluctant writers, but I'm getting so much work out of them today - one boy, who has a lot of behavioural issues, has written a whole poem. I sometimes feel the fun element has been taken out of things at school, so today is invaluable. It's so nice to see them so into their work."

Melissa Bond, literacy co-ordinator at Sir John Cass's Foundation School, Islington, says: "Working with the national literacy strategy has been a complete dampener, \starts teachers' imaginations and we need that to pass it on to the children. As soon as we went into the fire pod, the teachers were saying to each other, we could do something like this at school. We need it as much as the children do."

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