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Words, birds and flamingos' knees

Those knobbly bits in the middle of flamingos' spindly legs look like knees. But they're not. They're ankle joints. Year 5 pupils at Bishop Harland CEprimary school know all about that because they've spent time at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre in Washington, Tyne and Wear, and written a rap about flamingos: "An ankle where his knee should bepink flamingo stares at me.Standing there so proud and tallFlamingo has no cares at all."

And so on, for another nine stanzas. Plus more than 100 more bird poems from one Year 5 class which spent two days on the wetlands with poet Maureen Almond and artist Nicola Balfour, taking photographs, looking hard, recording what they saw and thinking about bird words, phrases and metaphors. The next 10 weeks were taken up with turning their observations into art and poetry, the product of their efforts plastered on billboards around the city.

Their teacher, Nicola Kell, has been "amazed" by her pupils' creativity and believes working with Maureen Almond has enabled them to look at writing from a different perspective. "The poet worked with every child and taught them how to build up their ideas," she says. "She really got them working in groups, listening to each other, responding to what each other had written." And the wetlands visit had provided an experience and stimulus that children from challenging backgrounds rarely get.

For the poet, the poetry came out of close observation and lots of playing with words. "The wetlands were fantastic because there was so much for the children to go at. I kept telling them to make a note of anything unusual, to think about whether the birds looked sad, where they went to at night, lots of triggers for exploration. Back in class we used all this descriptive language about birds to make up poems about the people of Sunderland, their own families, relationships and experiences."

The children gave their poems a visual form by creating silk paintings with Nicola Balfour (see picture). Maureen Almond believes a poet can give children a language for expression they might not otherwise have access to.

While each school worked with a poet, plus an artist or musician, to respond to a particular place of environmental or cultural interest in Sunderland (English Martyrs RC primary, for example, worked with Maureen Almond and glass artist Gillian McGinley at the National Glass Centre), teachers attended a poetry writing course taught by poets from Newcastle University. This focus on teachers as writers, says Nicola Kell, "has given me a lot of confidence to tackle poetry with pupils, a lot of ideas for projects in the future".

Jill Flanders is clear that Secrets of Sunderland helped to raise standards of writing because it was part of a wider strategy. "I feel strongly that putting writers into schools isn't enough. We had soaked the schools in poetry and sensitised the children to poetic language before these specific projects began. The poets were therefore able to build on a base."

Sample copies of the Secrets of Sunderland anthology are available from the EAZ on 0191 553 6987. See for details of New Writing North's schools projects, and its creative initiatives for teachers.

* Don't miss this week's TES Teacher magazine for an eight-page insert, Words work: what writers can do for schools, sponsored by Writing Together

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