Tips for Teachers
How to organise Poetry Events
The benefits of having a poet in for the day – as I’ve been told by a great many teachers – are manifold. First, you’re getting a specialist in their field – someone who knows about their craft and can discuss all those key areas such as metaphor, rhymes, imagery and drafting. Also, it’s someone who can generate a sense of fun with words. And, as teachers regularly introduce us – me and my colleagues are, ‘real live poets’ – people that can demonstrate that books are written by ordinary, everyday people – not mythic beings locked away in ivory towers. We’re people who work with words. As one headteacher rightly told me, a visiting writer can also encourage a real community spirit for writing: everyone watches the poet perform together and then gets writing together.
I wouldn’t be so daring as to say that a visiting poet can raise literacy standards, but writers can certainly give a sharpened focus to literacy–based work and above all, raise motivation levels for reading, writing and performing. For me, the best compliment I can be given is to hear a teacher say
Robert/Sophie has hardly written a thing all term. Look – s/he wrote a whole page for you!
What are the do’s and don’ts?
Make the most of the visit. Get excited about the day, motivate the children. Read the poet’s work before s/he visits. Put enlarged photocopies of the poet’s poems on the walls. Have KS1 and KS2 performances in the school hall. Some poets even prefer to visit reception and Year 1 separately, in their classrooms.
Workshops should have no more than 35 children max at a time – and need to be conducted in classrooms with children at their tables. A workshop will need to be at least 45 minutes each. You hear horror stories of poets conducting a workshop in a drafty hall with three Year 1 classes put together all sitting on the floor for over an hour. Who could be creative in those conditions?
A teacher must be present at all times (or a teaching assistant) and ideally take an active part in the workshops (and yes, some very occasionally choose to do marking, which doesn’t send very good signals to the children). Try not to overbook the day – too often poets are invited on the same day as an away football match or the school photographer.
What about National Poetry Day & World Book Day?
- World Book Day: a Thursday in March
- National Poetry Day: usually falls on the first Thursday in October – as part of Children’s Book week
Everyone wants a poet on those days – and therefore if you are adamant you need someone at these times you need to book up at least six months in advance. If you can’t get a poet for those actual days, schools could invite the writer in BEFORE those days, so that they can come in to the school, generate some real enthuasiasm for poetry and get the children writing. And then, on the actual day, the focus can be on the children and their poetry reading, writing and performances, not the visiting poet–as–celebrity.
What about a Poetry/Book Week?
Though they take a lot of organisation – and best done by two teachers sharing the load – such events really make the most of a literacy–based focus. Schools organise such activities as book quizzes, dressing up as book characters and organising a book fair in the hall after school.
What about a Residency?
A series of visits/residency from a poet will allow him/her to meet more classes or even do an extended project with one or two classes. This will give the poet time to properly address such issues as drafting and brainstorming, developing poems, to explore further the nature and forms of poetry, to get to know interests and ability levels, and to conduct a range of different workshops and to work towards a rehearsed performance of the childrens’ own writing.
What Should I Get From a Visit?
Well, a good visit from a poet is, indirectly, an INSET session on how to write, perform, share and enjoy poetry with others. In the workshops, the poets will give teachers a wealth ideas for their own future poetry writing workshops. Hopefully, the whole school will have a real buzz afterwards – and feel really positive about the visit, and be keen to carry on writing, reading and performing poetry. Afterwards, why not get to together in the staffroom to brainstorm activities that you liked? Poets often do different workshops in the various classes – so you could pass around some of the poems your class has written. Also share any of the tips the writer has. Tell other teachers from other schools about the day. Spread the word!
A worthwhile visit will work on many levels and children will react in different ways. Some children will enjoy the performance most and get a great deal by seeing how poetry can come to life. Other children will get more from the workshop and enjoy sharing their writing with the poet or asking questions about the writing process or getting published. Please note: children do not necessarily write their best pieces during the poet’s visit. Some children feel intimidated writing in front of a published poet/stranger. Yet children may be inspired in other ways – to want to go on and read some poems, to learn some, to look for poetry books at home or down at the library.
How can I make the most of the day?
Exploit it for what its worth. Ensure the visit is part of a continuum, a process. Work on poetry/especially that poet’s writing before the day. Get the children thinking of general and specific questions they can ask the poet. Listen attentively during the performance so you can discuss certain poems with the children later. Make notes during the workshops. The very best performances and workshops are, without exception, where the teachers are 100% committed and involved. And why not ask two child volunteers to read out their own poems – previously written – to the poet on the day? Children love doing this.
Afterwards, the children can craft and draft their poems. Perhaps they can write more poems based on some of the poet’s poems. Make displays of the poems – publish them in Young Writer Magazine or on the Poetryzone website. Why not ask the class to write to the poet? Most poets are more than happy to reply with a generic response to the class.
Should I make this part of the school calendar?
Why not? Some schools invite a different poet in every year. Some rotate a poet/fiction writer/illustrator or even a drama/dance/music group every three years. Those schools that have an annual topic–based week – say a science week, arts week or book week, invite a writer related to that topic. Or you could ask a poet in to write some science–based poems, or poems in response to the children’s art work. As I said earlier, try not to book too much or too many people on one day – keep it simple.
What other ways can we celebrate poetry?
Here a just a few fun poetry activities:
- Make a poetry tree of children’s favourite poet/poems
- Put up poems all over the school (even the loo!) – enlarge them on the photocoper: from shape poems to haikus, raps to free verse – all sorts
- Listen to tapes of poets reading their poems (and ask the children to record theirs too)
- KS2 children visit KS1 classes to read their own poems – or vice versa
- Write a class poem – every child writes a line or a verse each, then perform the poem in a long ‘conga’ line
- Write a class or school rap
- Have a poetry performance/assembly
- Teachers rotate around the classes performing (not just reading!) a favourite poem
- Publish poems in class anthologies/school magazine or website
- Invite local media – radio and press in to cover the event
From James Carter’s book/CD Page to Stage (Routledge)
Writing Poetry in the Primary Classroom
Ways into Writing Poetry
There are a whole variety of ways into writing poetry with children, including:
- Using SPECIFIC POEMS as models – popular Key Stage 2 poems include The Sound Collector by Roger McGough, The Magic Box by Kit Wright, Down Behind the Dustbin by Michael Rosen, Grandma by John Foster and Ten Things Found in a Wizard’s Pocket by Ian McMillan
- Writing COMMUNAL POEMS – teacher acts as scribe at the board – and the children are sharing ideas and creating poems as a community of writers; class can write to a set title or opening line/verse or poetic form or model poem
- Writing AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL poems – children drawing upon their own lives for source material – teachers can focus on specific THEMES (see ‘THEMES’ below)
- Looking at THEMES as starting points for poems – themes that the children have experience of in their own lives – such as dreams, memories, journeys, school life, friends and family
- Exploring the various FORMS OF POETRY – writing in a variety of poetic forms – free verse, rhyming poems, raps, kennings, shape poems , list poems, haikus etc.
- Using a range of STIMULI to generate ideas for poetry writing – stimuli such as images (photos, paintings, illustrations), music (film soundtracks, instrumental music of all genres, songs and song lyrics) personal items brought in by the children, artefacts (of cultural or historical significance)
- Honing in on POETIC ELEMENTS – and doing exercises involving metaphor, simile, rhyme, rhythm, syllables, alliteration, assonance, onomatopia, point of view (unusual points of view – write in the voice of a tree, football etc), writing in the 1st/2nd/3rd person etc.
These methods are not mutually exclusive – poetry writing approaches often overlap. Yet all of these methods will inevitably require teachers to either act as scribe at times or to brainstorm ideas on the board prior to children writing themselves.
The Writing Process/Workshop Structure
Poetry (or any other form of creative writing) workshops need to follow a coherent structure to enable the mind to create effectively, to give children time to mull over ideas, to share ideas and for the resulting material to fully grow and develop. Here is one such structure:
- THINKING TIME: being given time to consider the topic/focus/stimuli
- TALKING TIME: time to talk, discuss and to share ideas
- BRAINSTORMING TIME: listing all ideas – everything that comes to mind – at this stage it is vital to emphasise that all ideas are worth putting down, as you cannot tell at this stage which ones will be used – ‘there is no such thing as a bad or wrong idea’; teachers can act as scribe for some of the class’s ideas, but children can produce their own brainstorms as well prior to writing
- WRITING TIME: this can happen at various times – from the first draft, to further revisions, drafts and edits on to the final draft; however, not every single piece should be drafted – some pieces should stay at first draft
What’s so Good About Poetry?
- Most poems are SHORT, bite size chunks of text, perfect for literacy activities
- Poems highlight the MUSICALITY of language
- Poems are in MANY FORMS (raps, haikus, free verse etc.) so are ideal for children exploring structures and modes of language Poems cover a range of SUBJECT MATTERS – material can be fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal
- Poems can have a range of TONES – from the lightweight and frivolous to the more profound and spiritual
- Poems are perfect for LEARNING and PERFORMING
- Poems are ideal for DISPLAYS and PUBLISHING
- Poetry is one the best LITERARY MEDIA for children to write themselves – and to write about their own ideas, thoughts, emitions, memories and experiences
- Poems can be written ANYWHERE – in the playground, on school trips – farms, art galleries, museums etc.
Teacher as Poet/Creative Writer
Teachers have various roles to play in relation to poetry/creative writing in the classroom:
- MODEL of creative writing – someone who models creative writing and co–creates with the class; acts as scribe for children’s creativity; and shares their own writing and talks about their own creative processes
- an INITIATOR of a variety of creative writing activities – from poetry to prose to autobiographical writing
- an EDITOR of the children’s writing – guiding their creativity and helping them to develop as writers
- a PUBLISHER of children’s writing
Publishing helps to give a purpose, a direction, a goal as well as a reward to writing. Above all, it increases children’s motivation and helps boosts self esteem. Young writers need to see that there is a product as well as a process to their writing – which can be published in a variety of ways, including:
- class/year group/school anthologies – as themed or miscellaneous anthologies
- displays – in the classroom, the classroom windows/door, in the corridors, in the hall, at the entrance to the school, or as ‘poem/story of the week’ on noticeboards
- school website / other websites (see ‘places to publish’ below)
- poems can be recorded onto audio cassette or video; likewise, performances of poems – perhaps to coincide with a visiting writer – can be also recorded in this way
- poems/stories can be read/performed to other year groups
- local newspapers/local radio stations – who may be happy to broadcast recordings done by the school or may invite pupils to record poems/stories in their studios
- the school magazine
Places to Publish Children’s Poetry
- Poetryzone website
- The Poetry Society (tel 020 7420 9880) runs a writing competition
- The Times Educational Supplement runs a writing competition
- Young Writer quarterly magazine
Finding and Keeping Ideas
It is useful for children to keep notebooks or folders in which they can collect and source all their ideas and potential material for poems. Children often ask poets ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and John Foster’s own response –
a mixture of experience, observation and imagination – has a useful message for children in that they need to be aware that ideas are all around them – in their lives, their memories, what they do, what they read and what they observe in the world around them. And it’s not so much as what you write about, but how you write about it. Anything is potentially good material for writing!
- Keep a GOOD SUPPLY of poetry books. Modern and traditional. A range of verse – haikus to raps, funny pieces to more serious pieces
- Have a poetry box
- PHOTOCOPY POEMS – put them up in unusual places. On doors, in corridors, even in the loos!
- POEM OF THE WEEK – put up one of the children’s own poems in a set place – say a noticeboard at the front of the school and rotate weekly
- POEM OF THE DAY – just after register every day a child reads out a favourite poem
- POET OF THE WEEK – reading poems by one chosen poet – eg Allan Ahlberg or Roger McGough
- POETRY ASSEMBLIES – children perform poems they have written – either as individuals, in groups or as a whole class
- POETRY DISPLAYS – showing examples of the most common forms of poems – from free verse to acrostics to shape poems etc. Examples can be regularly changed
- PUBLISHING POEMS regularly – in class anthologies, on school website, at poetry websites (eg Poetryzone), in Young Writer Magazine and entering competitions (eg Poetry Society)
- INVITE A CHILDREN’S POET to your school – to do poetry performances and workshops
From James Carter’s book/CD Page to Stage (Routledge)