Rhyme and reason

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
How do you make poetry exciting and appealing? Taking it off the page and putting it on stage is a good start, as Hannah Frankel finds out

Groups of Year 6 pupils at St Luke's Primary School in Canning Town, east London, are busy discussing how their parents tell them off. But this isn't part of a general moan. These everyday phrases are forming the foundations of a poem.

"Watch out, strict mama's about," a girl says in a strong Caribbean accent, crossing her arms and tapping her foot impatiently. No sooner is she done, another girl jerks her head from side to side with studied attitude. "Don't get smart with me now," she bellows.

The rest of the group is waiting, pupils clicking their fingers in the background and rhythmically whispering: "Go to your room, Go to your room."

Taking poetry off the page and on to the stage is just one possibility for schools wanting to enliven National Poetry Day on October 9, which this year focuses on the theme of work. It has certainly bought the subject to life at St Luke's. The performances delight Michael Rosen, the children's laureate, who has already warmed up the pupils with stories and poems from his own childhood.

"Pupils love playing around with everyday words," he says. "They can take that raw material and give it rhythm and shape before performing it. It doesn't have to be all about the words; they can use their face, voice and body to reinforce their message."

It is easy to assume that the so-called Xbox generation underestimate the power of the spoken word. But pupils at St Luke's are beside themselves with laughter as Michael recites his poem, "Boogy Woogy Buggy". They find it hilarious when he forms a two-handed thumb and finger "square" in front of his ear and asks, "What's this ear?" They guess the gag themselves when he points to his cheek. "Don't be cheeky," they shout out. "The six o'clock nose," suggests another.

The interactive poetry workshop is just one event at St Luke's, which has given more than a week to the subject instead of just a day. Almost 85 per cent of its pupils have English as an additional language (EAL), but Theresa Aanonson, the headteacher, says poetry lends itself naturally to less confident speakers. "We are a language rich school," she says. "Poetry is ideal because it allows EAL pupils to be more flexible with language as opposed to getting caught up in its structures."

Teachers say that the fun does not have to be confined to just one ability and should certainly be extended beyond primary schools.

Bringing poets such as Michael Rosen into school - to talk to pupils or inspire teachers - is a simple but highly effective motivator, says Richard Evans, head of English at Tonbridge School in Kent and one of eight poetry teachers identified by this year's Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

"There are some fantastic poets out there who are brilliant at helping teachers teach poetry. A visit from Michael Laskey, David Morley or Peter or Ann Sansom can galvanise pupils and teachers," he says, adding that workshops can also encourage teachers to attempt poetry. "Find time in departmental meetings to try out poetry writing exercises," he advises. "Better writers make better teachers."

Jude Brigley, head of English at Cardiff High School and another Foyle teacher trailblazer, is researching the development of poetic thinking among key stage 4 pupils. For her, writing poetry demands a certain ambience. She recommends using music to create the required atmosphere, or warm-ups such as the "automatic writing" technique. This is when the teacher dictates a line such as: "I was dreaming about ." and the class has to continue writing without taking their pens off the paper. "Even if they're just writing `blah, blah, blah', it gets the brain and hand ready for writing," she says.

Images also help develop pupils' imaginations. Jude gives her pupils pictures of the moon, a tree or the sun and asks them to write three similes about the image. The suggestions form a language bank to help pupils create their own poems.

"It pushes pupils to be more original," says Jude. "At first, all the pupils write the obvious connections, but this exercise helps them look deeper."

You can do it too

- Copy a poem on to a poster. Encourage pupils to stick questions about the poem on the poster, before discussing the questions.

- Read a poem to the class at the end of each day.

- Get pupils to swap their favourite poems among each other. They can read them out and explain why they like them.

- Create a poetry show. Groups of pupils have 20 minutes to devise a song, dance or mime to go with a poem as it is read. Then perform it.

- Get pupils to make a decorative poem poster that can be displayed.

- Link poetry to other art forms, such as pottery, painting, film or music. Use these mediums to trigger creativity.

- Encourage pupils to keep a poetry notebook for words or phrases that stick in their minds. These can be used later for writing poems.

- Get pupils to interview a character from a poem.

- Put on a poetry cabaret night for parents, involving recitals, stage lighting, music and food.

Adapted from www.childrenslaureate.org.uk.

Take a different view

Susan Gale, English co-ordinator at Lindisfarne Middle School in Alnwick, Northumberland, has a number of ways of inspiring her pupils.

"Most are more successful when they write poems about something they have experienced and that has had an emotional impact on them. They are usually adept at collecting words and phrases to express their feelings, but need a structure on which to hang their words. Allowing them to model their poem on one they've already read, but which is based on a different subject, helps support their writing.

"Once writing, I encourage pupils to use Venn diagrams to help them understand the quality of metaphors and similes, plus find the similarities in the things being compared.

"Pupils should be encouraged to see items or events from different points of view. Looking at everyday objects through a microscope can spark interesting comparisons and give new perspectives."


- www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk for resources and events surrounding October 9.

- www.poetrysoc.comcontenteducation for competitions, training and visiting poets.

- www.poetryclass.net for poetry trainers.

- www.poetryarchive.org. Collection of poets reading their work, plus teacher resources.

- www.childrenspoetrybookshelf.co.uk. Information on The Old Possum's Children's Poetry Competition 2008, open to seven to 11-year-olds. Closing date, October 20.

- www.dictionary.com. Use the synonym tool to find richer, more expressive words.


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