Can I compare thee to a cheetah, or to a red-hot chilli pepper?

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Nicki Household watched a performance poet teach children how to reach for words and find beauty

I like to encourage children to use poetry as a vehicle to understand themselves better," Adisa says. His methods certainly seem to work. By the end of his high-octane two-hour workshop at the Poetry Society in Covent Garden, London, every child in the Year 6 group from Thomas Buxton junior school in Tower Hamlets has an eight or ten-line poem describing what they like about a special friend.

The prologue to this achievement is subtle and structured, but not low key. Adisa is a performance poet, and his approach is inspirational and charismatic. First, he asks them to remember something they saw on their way to the workshop.

One child saw a man sitting on the floor of the tube train.

"Why was he there?" says Adisa. "Create a story in your mind. Was he ill, or tired, or homeless? Or was he just a harmless person sitting on the floor?" The children imagine different scenarios. Then each one writes five or six lines beginning "I live", set in a real or imagined world. The paper is passed to the next child, who adds five or six lines beginning "Inside, I feel". A third child completes the poem with a few lines beginning "Outside, I feel". Then each poem is read aloud.

Now Adisa asks them to write a few lines describing him. But before they start he performs a lively poem, full of imagery, about his Aunt Pearl. Can they think of similar images to describe Adisa? He wants their poems to express his personality, he explains, not his appearance. He gets compared to a limousine, chilli pepper, a cheetah and a supermarket.

To help with their final poem he draws a large diagram. Radiating from the central subject are different categories of imagery - nature, food, transport, music and animals. He encourages the children to think of things in each category that their friend resembles.

Silence falls. The children sit scribbling. Adisa and teacher Anita Wood move round giving help where needed. When the "sharing" moment comes, no one is keen to be the first to read their work aloud. After much cajoling one young poet steps forward.

His quiet voice tells us his friend is: "Like a dictionary, knowing everythingLike a tree, standing strong in the storm."

"Teachers can find poetry a very challenging part of the curriculum," Anita Wood says. "But a workshop like this makes it easy for the children to write. Adisa is a natural communicator who puts real structure into what he does. Everyone has access to what he's doing, including the two statemented children."

Every pupil in the class comes from a Bengali background, she says, and "very few of these children speak English at home. But poetry is interesting for them because it enriches their language. And in poetry, it's the words that are important, not grammar."

Eleven-year-old Najim agrees. "It's really fun to do," she says, "because it makes you think about words and use words you've never used before."

Afzal, also 11, likes the way poetry makes you think about different people's points of view. "I enjoy the thinking," he says, "but not so much the writing because you never manage to say what's in your head."

Many a published poet would admit to the same frustration.

ContactFor details about working with poets in your school, or attending workshops on a particular theme or with a specified poet, contact Martin Colthorpe The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street London WC2H 9BX Tel: 020 7420 9894 Email: Web: Cost of workshop for up to 20 pupils: pound;250 half-day, pound;400 full day.

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