Fired up by poetry

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Pupils have been writing verse in a whole range of languages, inspired by a nationwide competition. Carolyn O'Grady explains

Fire engines, the end of an affair and world peace were among the subjects of poems and songs in foreign languages entered this year in the Free Spirit National Poetry and Song Competition. Fun, often moving and individual, entries illustrated how young people can compose verses in a foreign language without the extensive vocabulary and subtle awareness of nuance usually associated with poetry.

Now in its 10th year and supported by, among others, the French Embassy, the Goethe Institute, the Spanish Education Office and CILT - the National Centre for Languages, the competition "aims to give pupils a focus for creative writing", says Alison Taylor, teacher trainer for modern foreign languages at the University of the West of England, who started the competition. "Students write wonderful poetry in foreign languages because in this country they are writing poems from an early age."

Open to pupils aged 11 to 18 in UK middle and secondary schools, the competition received entries from 124 schools this year. Prizes are awarded for poems and songs in four categories: French, Spanish, German and "other languages". Many were illustrated using ICT.

Some verses emerged from language classes, others from lunchtime classes and others were composed at home. Anna Cooke, in Year 12 at Franklin College, Grimsby, wrote an untitled poem in Arabic, derived from her Sunday lessons in Arabic and Islamic studies at a Grimsby Arabic School. In it she gives thanks for her life.

One teacher who uses the competition as a staple of her language classes all year is Margaret Wells of Valley Gardens Middle School, Tyne and Wear, whose pupils included a winner in the French poetry category and a French song runner-up.

"Poetry in the language classroom is well received by the pupils almost without exception," she says. "It allows catering for individual needs, carrying out individual monitoring and analysis and seeing individual's subject growth."

Margaret introduces poetry when children start at the school. Initially poems are composed in English but are revisited throughout the year and gradually transformed as students learn something new. So winner Sven Larson's poem, written when he was in Year 7, is about fire engines. The initial structure was very simple: six colours, nouns and verbs in columns.

But he was able to transform these into sentences when he learned the use of "qui" (for example "Rouge: la voiture des pompiers qui accel re").

Though their language might be limited, students don't shy away from difficult subjects. "Over the years the themes of food and drink and football and animals don't change, but neither have the poems that show concern for the homeless, the hungry and those in war-torn countries," says Alison Taylor.

Runner up in the French song category was "Chanson d'une fin d'amour", by Rosie Alexander (Year 8), which is about the end of a relationship. The death of a parent, abuse and betrayal have also been the subjects of poems.

At Longridge High School in Lancashire, language teacher Esther Mercier encouraged students to enter the competition in school, but the work was done during lunchtime, not in class. This year "Shokolade", by Juliet Philips and Sarah Hodgson in Year 8, won the German song category.

The girls were part of a steel band in music lessons and a steel band composition formed the background to their verse. The song can be heard on the school's website: Esther uses a lot of poetry in language teaching, particularly to help with pronunciation. Sometimes she takes a real French poem, jumbles up the words and gets the students to create a new poem, which they compare with the original. She will also introduce a song and get the pupils to change the words, perhaps achieving completely new lyrics.

A popular game in her class is "Francovision", a take on the Eurovision Song contest, in which students are given 15 minutes to make up a song.

Winning Spanish song entry was "Ella" by Emma Hammill, Matthew Thomas and Peter and Jeremy Thomas in Year 10 of St Peter's School, York, in which a girl asks for help after she has fallen out with her parents.

It was the first time Anna Robinson, who teaches Spanish, had entered students for the competition. Pupils in Year 10 worked at poems in groups for a week. They began by reading examples from previous competitions. One approach was influenced by their class Spanish resources; another group flicked through the dictionary to find rhyming entries.

When asked for help, Anna Robinson would simplify the English so it was easier to translate. "I didn't expect the amount of enthusiasm", says Anna.

"At the end of the week,they spent a whole lesson presenting their poems and songs to each other and explaining what it all meant. Emma's group performed the song in front of the school and I'm getting loads of enquiries about doing it next year."

Free Spirit is organised by the Bristol and West of England Comenius Centre, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA. Winners receive pound;50 and runners up pound;25. A selection of the poems is published by the Centre Email: Fax: Alison Taylor: 0117 344 4108

Impressions d'un incendie

ROUGE:la voiture des pompiers qui accelere

BLEU: le phare qui fait son appel

ORANGE : le feu qui devore la maison

ARGENT: les echelles adossees contre les murs

JAUNE:les grandes casques des lutteurs memes

NOIR: chaque piece, ravagee, inondee, et silencieuse

Voil... les impressions que j'ai recues

Un jour en entrant dans ma rue.

Pour regarder la scene je restais debout

Stupefie, tres triste, profondement emu!

Sven Larson, Year 7, Valley Gardens Middle School, Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear

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