Worth all the words

17th January 2003 at 00:00
You can inspire pupils with an enthusiasm for landscape and poetry at a 16th-century cottage in the heart of the Lake District, discovers Jacqueline Yallop.

In winter, the low-ceilinged, oak-panelled "house place" of 16th- century Dove Cottage is always dark. Lit only by a crackling fire, it is a place of evocative domestic details. It is also a place of literary inspiration. Two hundred years ago, this was the home of poet William Wordsworth where he wrote some of his most famous poems, including Daffodils and The Prelude.

Today, the Wordsworth Trust runs an extensive education programme. But it's not all about poetry. "Lots of the groups that come here know nothing whatsoever about Wordsworth," explains Nancy Martin, Dove Cottage education officer, "so we start with the cottage itself. We walk through the rooms chatting about what we see and this loosens up the children's senses and their imagination. We create little stories about familiar everyday objects."

In summer, when the house is busy, school groups are given memory sheets to encourage note-taking. These can be used during workshops in the newly built schoolroom alongside the cottage or back at school.

In winter, when there are fewer visitors and the cosy rooms encourage people to loiter, schools are offered a readers-and-writers workshop to take the work further.

"Everyone finds a spot and responds to the cottage in their own way. We have children sitting on the stairs or talking about the coal hole, but the most popular place is in front of the fire," says Martin. "And they write very personal and inventive things. We've had the bed described as a bouncy castle or as a theatre stage and we use snippets that the children have come up with to start off other groups."

It's not just about what can be seen, either - groups are encouraged to respond to all their senses. Only when they are tuned in to the ticking of the grandfather clock does anyone even start talking about writing.

Teachers find this immediacy helpful. "It encourages a great variety of sensory work," enthuses Brian Duffield, who brings Year 6 groups from Thorncliffe School in Barrow-in-Furness to the cottage. "The children gradually build up descriptive tools - they get comfortable with language - so when the writing does come it's much more meaningful."

This is what the Wordsworth Trust calls "poetry by stealth". It is aware Wordsworth's poetry can be daunting and is keen to make visits enjoyable for everyone, whatever their literacy.

There are different workshops for Years 3-6, Years 7-9, Year 10 and sixth-formers, but they all share a bright approach, using storyboards, verse cards and copies of original manuscripts. Everything is on show - from where Wordsworth's pen was dipped into the ink pot to the postage used. The storyboards also share an enthusiasm for language and use visual materials to introduce key poems.

"We get children reading out who have never read a poem before," explains Martin, "because it's not scary any more. And we have some excellent discussions about old-fashioned words. We've had a great debate about what a 'faggot-band' is!"

The education team will tailor any visit to a school's interest. As well as a range of workshops, there is a video introduction for older groups and the chance to do a landscape and imagination walk; all visits include the cottage and museum. While the work keys into the literacy strategy, the emphasis is on developing broad thinking skills.

"Children take a big leap in their understanding and perception of what can be interesting," says Martin.

* Dove Cottage is open daily (closed January). pound;2.30 per pupil (workshopswalks extra). Tel: 015394 35544; www.wordsworth.org.uk

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