Children at Bangabandhu Primary School in the London borough of Tower Hamlets are rehearsing their poem: "Tell me where your homework is. Tell me what the truth is. Tell me where your homework is, I don't want no excuses," they chorus.
"I went home by plane and someone hi-hacked it"; "I had a cold and wanted to blow my nose"; "An elephant trod on it" are some of the plausibly offered excuses. Poet Lindsay MacRae, author of How to Avoid Kissing your Parents in Public, and You Canny Shove Yer Granny off a Bus (published by Puffin), encourages them to introduce different voices into the work, and to distinguish their own voices from that of the teacher. They gradually grow in confidence. It'll be a good performance that they will give to the rest of the school the next day.
Lindsay has spent five days with classes of children between eight and 10 in the school, doing a range of poetry work. She is there as part of the Poetry Society's "Poet in the City" project, which so far has worked in more than 50 primary schools in inner London boroughs, all culturally diverse communities where the development of language is very important.
The first session was on metaphor. Children thought of a person, a doctor, for example, and then decided what kind of furniture they were; what kind of drink or food; hairstyle; weather and so on. Lindsay emphasises the importance of adjectives "to create pictures and make it more interesting", and the children add some colourful descriptive words.
Annie's poem is about a clown: "I am a pink dressing table; fish and chips on a blue plate. I am a red oily wig; a sunny warm afternoon; I'm a blue and yellow bike with a silver bellI". Shanay's poem describes a policeman:
"I am an old fashioned computer; vegetable home-made soup. I am a clean stripy, blue hat; nine o'clock in the morningI" Later the classes work on a class poem, based on snatches of conversation which can be heard in a supermarket. In groups they write ideas on a large pieces of paper and include sound effects, for example the beep of the scanner; tannoy messages such as "Will Mr Hamid come to the office please", and that cash-till mantra: "Do you want cashback?"
The chorus is "Shopping in the supermarket. Shopping in the supermarket", which is punctuated by a very rhythmic beat: the notion of rhythm and beat was introduced with clapping and other exercises, and easily picked up by the pupils. "This is just like a song," commented one boy.
Teacher Katie Lewis is pleased. "The children were excited about meeting a real poet, and were interested in how she worked: Lindsay showed them a work in progress with her crossings out and notes for ideas."
There has been a good balance between class poems, where the emphasis is on performance, and working on poems individually. In a school where for a large proportion of the pupils English is not their first language "it was useful to hear and compose poems that use everyday language: language they know. Lindsay wasn't saying 'you have to speak perfect English'. The sessions also introduced them to the idea of different styles and the idea that poems don't have to rhyme."
The Poetry Society introduces poets into classrooms throughout the UK and publishes teachers' and pupils' resources. They also have a team of poets who provide in-service training. Go to: www.poetrysociety.org.uk and click on the education logo for more information.