Branches of the same tree

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Writing poetry in modern languages lessons is good for practising language structures - and can be great fun. The small, manageable chunks of language involved mean pupils of all abilities can enjoy it. Language can be personalised and computers can help learners produce well-presented work.

Most pupils are probably more expert than languages teachers in composing poems because they will have written poetry in English from key stage 2 onwards. English teachers are usually full of ideas for structures on which to hang poems, and other cross-curricular links can also lead to creative writing.

The national poetry competition, organised through Mary Glasgow Publications and the Bristol and West of England Comenius Centre, is in its fourth year, and now incor-porates songs as well as poems. This year 102 schools took part, sending in 1,500 poems in 11 languages (including Polish, Cantonese, Manx, Punjabi and Latin).

When the competition started in 1994 most entries were from pupils in years 7 and 8. This year, pupils in years 9-11 and the sixth form are well-represented, probably because creativity has been highlighted within the national curriculum, with some good models for poetry-writing in recent text books.

Topical themes among the entries included the Hale-Bopp comet and the Spice Girls. Footballer Eric Cantona remained popular, but with his retirement from the game, his days are surely numbered. Themes such as food, leisure, pets, weather and holidays, which relate closely to topics being studied, also featured heavily. Other frequently occurring themes included social problems, the futility of war, love, jealousy and animal rights. Some sixth-form poems were inspired by passages in books the pupils were studying.

About 50 songs were entered in French, German and Spanish, many on themes related to common topic areas. Pupils tended to sing in small groups, using a variety of accompaniments, from piano or guitar to recorded backing music. Tracks from the Spice Girls proved invaluable for some. Others made up their own words to traditional tunes. Rap showed its enduring appeal, especially with boys

The judges said they enjoyed reading and listening to the entries, some of which were humorous and showed great creativity. In addition to the prizes, about 100 pupils will receive a highly commended certificate for their poem or song.

Simple structures for encouraging pupils to write poems had been used in many cases. For example:

Bonjour dentiste

Au revoir bonbons

Si j'tais un animal

Je serais un lion

Pour tre roi de la fort

Quand je dis Pays de Galles

J'imagine la campagne

Quand je dis le printemps

J'imagine la jonquille

Quand la vie est une fleur

Chaque jour est un petale

Pupils can quickly gain confidence in poetry-writing if it is started as a pair work activity. Each pair writes two lines on a piece of acetate, using one of the above structures. These are then shown on the overhead projector as part of a group poem. Pupils could use the dictionary to find nouns and adjectives to complete the poem. Shape poems are also good for introducing pupils to writing poetry. Children can create a poem by writing around the shape of an animal, a football or a country, for example.

Acrostics are also simple and effective. Pupils write a word (such as their name) vertically on the page and add adjectives beginning with each letter. Brainstorming words and ideas on a theme is also helpful. Older pupils can be given cut up versions of existing poems and asked to create a new one. This leads to interesting comparisons with the original and can act as a springboard for pupils' own work.

Writing for an audience is important. Pupils can write for another class or for a link school abroad. Interesting visual displays can be created by using, say, a tree, with leaves or fruit containing individual poems, or a fish with the grammatical structure to be practised written on it and the poems in bubbles.

Poems (particularly weather or seasonal ones) also look effective as friezes, mobiles or written on classroom windows (Illumograph, Zig Posterman or Rainbow Liquid Chalk pens are ideal for this). Other ideas to stimulate the curiosity of the reader might include poems under flaps, or poems written on scrolls which have to be rolled down to be read. You could even select a poem of the week, and display a large version of it in the corridor.

For more ideas on poetry-writing, see Yet Another World of Words (#163;3.25) plus the Ideas for Teachers booklet (#163;1.75), available from the Inspectorate, Education Libraries and Heritage, Castle Court, County Hall, Cambridge CB3 0AP.

Tel: 01223 717667

Alison Taylor co-ordinates the poetry and song competition and is a teacher trainer at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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