A journey into the unknown

5th September 1997 at 01:00
A Year with Poetry Edited by Myra Barrs and Michael Rosen Centre for Language in Primary Education #163;11 for non members, #163;9 members

In this stimulating book, 10 teachers record their journey into teaching poetry - more particularly, into teaching poetry writing. They were guided on this journey by Michael Rosen - and by each other - throughout a year-long in-service training course during which they each kept a journal.Each chapter records not only what their children achieved with them, but also their own personal development.

They did not necessarily start with any expertise in poetry, but believed that it could be important to their children's learning. Many had inhibitions, feeling poetry was "difficult". But what they all - and all their children - discovered, was a sense of play and freedom, an ability to use language expressively in ways that gave them confidence as writers and learners. And both the enthusiasm with which they write about their year's experiences, and the quality of the poetry written by the children, should galvanise tired teachers into wanting to take the same journey.

Michael Rosen's introductory chapter is a puff for poetry - or, rather, for children writing reflectively about what matters to them. He knocks old-fashioned poetry lessons - learning by heart, recitation, choral speaking, and poetry writing lessons based on the model "Here is a poem. You could write like that." Yet, curiously, learning by heart and performance play a large part in the practice he inspires. And he advocates making the classroom "poetry-friendly", dousing children in a rich soup of established poetry. Exposure is important, but it is also important to let poetry's influence filter into writing in its own good time.

No, what is novel about this book is that it aims to be more "bottom-up" than "top-down": it is a book about the experience of teachers learning from their children and from each other about what works.

Only very occasionally is a poem not contemporary - accessibility seems to be a key criterion, hence the emphasis on humour and rap. Group work is encouraged. Yet sometimes through humour and rap, issues that cut deeper - like bullying and family relationships, fears and loss - find their expression.

One of the observations that recurs like a refrain through the chapters is that the children were very supportive of each other, appreciated each other's work and grew in self-confidence themselves. Another is the way children resistant to poetry - and reluctant readers and writers - came on.For some of them, the relative shortness of poems, as well as simple patternings - for example, of repetition - were a great advantage.

The book also makes clear the support and appreciation that the teachers had for each other. Rosen even suggests they could find setting up such poetry support groups for themselves very beneficial.

I remember the influence that Sybil Marshall's An Experiment in Education had on me as a young teacher in the early Sixties - and I think that A Year with Poetry could be similarly inspirational, with its rich range of examples, its lessons couched in anecdotes and its enthusiasm inviting emulation.

* Michael Rosen has been awarded this year's Eleanor Farjeon Award for services to children's books by the Children's Book Circle.

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