Talking from personal experience as a teacher and English subject lead, poetry can often get overlooked by busy teachers lacking confidence and time. This is such a loss for pupils as poetry is a masterclass in precise language choices and how to tell a story on a page. It can make you laugh, cry or pause for thought. It can take you on journeys to far away lands or to your school playground.
To help busy teachers during lockdown, and to celebrate the release of his brilliant new poetry collection ‘Weird, Wild and Wonderful,’ which is illustrated by Neal Layton, poet and performer James Carter has written an exclusive blog post packed with ideas about how to deliver engaging poetry lessons online and in the classroom! Even better, you can find him performing a lot of his work on his website as well as further teaching tips and details on how to book him for virtual events.
Poetry Is A Gift – by James Carter
As poet James Carter publishes his ‘best of’ poetry book – Weird Wild & Wonderful (Otter-Barry Books, illus by Neal Layton), a summation of 25 years of writing and performing – here he gives teachers, librarians and home educators some easy-to-follow practical tips on getting children reading, writing and performing poetry at school or at home.
Of course I’m biased, but poetry is without a doubt, a gift for all educators right now. It’s THE perfect medium for developing children’s oracy and literacy skills – ideal for virtual sessions and so easily done at home. Poetry is concise, meaning-rich and an irresistible invitation to join in and have a go yourself. Children love poetry’s brevity, its musicality, its humour, its philosophy. Poetry is achievable. Anyone and everyone can write a poem. Moreover, teachers are telling me time and again that poetry motivates the most reluctant readers and writers.
In over 30 years of working in education, I’ve heard many incredible poems written by children that have reduced teachers, librarians and myself to tears. Poetry is licence to express and to explore ourselves, our thoughts, emotions and experiences. It’s good for mental health – for it encourages us to open up as well as to empathise – and moreover, it reaches parts that other literary forms (as brilliant as picture books, novels and non-fiction are…) cannot attempt to.
O N E
Let’s start where language begins for all of us. Oracy. With a child/class, slowly read through the poem ‘The Dark’ together. Now ask for comments…
- What do they think of it? Why?
- What does it make them see in their mind’s eyes?
- Any favourite phrases?
Now read it out again..
- but with more intonation and expression,
- even assign different lines and verses to different children/groups of children.
- Could everyone join in on the last verse?
- Should it be loud or medium or whispered?
- Could you add a few actions?
- Should you stop ………. just occasionally for a dramatic pause?
Above all, find your way of doing it – but not too fast! A child once said to me in an assembly, ‘I love how you read the poem so very slowly. It was like we were inside the poem with you.’ Wow, thank you!Now see if you can learn it off by heart. That will make the performance even more special. Even record it or do a virtual performance. Go for it!
Hey, why not start each day with a poem – something short and snappy to get everyone language-focussed and immersed in word-weaving magic…
- Perhaps some days have poems chosen/read by the teacher/parent/ guardian, other days by children.
- Put on a Britain’s Got Talentpoetry show, reading, singing, acting out poems, with jokes and magic tricks and anything you can think of!
- And look for a variety of poems too – silly poems, thoughtful poems, rhyming poems, shape poems, haiku poems. Poetry is a giant word warehouse just waiting to be explored!
T W O
50% of why I do this job is because I love the craft and creative challenges of writing but also how it gives me licence to really think about things. The other 50% is because I love encouraging children to write. I originally trained as a Primary teacher, and this has informed everything I’ve ever done since. But I’m not looking to teach here, simply show ways for children to take ownership of words, and loving the process of creative writing. No pressure there, then!
This is a very simple workshop, an old one, and originally called ‘The Furniture Game’. I use it as a way of getting children to a) take risks and be adventurous and b) write poems dedicated to someone they admire/love, using expressive and original imagery.
It encourages the use of similes and metaphors. ‘She’s…’ below is a list poem: it’s a list of interconnected metaphoric images that cumulatively summarise what a person is like…
- Read ‘She’s..’ out loud to a child/class.
- What do they think of it – and why?
- Any favourite phrases/words?
- Does it describe anyone they know?
- Anything they could borrow/change/use for their own poem?
Brainstorm some ideas.…
- Ask them to think of someone – an adult ideally (more material..!) they would like to write about/dedicate a poem to. (By the way, these make great birthday cards/thank you cards/Mothers’ Day poems etc. – hint, hint!) .
- With each of the lines be as descriptive as you can – so rather than say ‘a scarf’, try ‘a silk scarf for a winter walk..’
- Try some sound words (‘fizz’, ‘zing’) too
- If you want to rhyme, why not, but it doesn’t have to as the list pattern gives it structure and repetition.
She’s / He’s / (Person’s name) is . .
A drink / food / taste
A type of music / instrument / sound
A spacey thing
An animal / bird
A piece of clothing
(even add a few similes- she’s / he’s as … as a …)
T H R E E
A memory poem. Please read through ‘The Shooting Stars’ a few times..
- See how the lines and the verses are all short and very simple.
- Now think back, and focus on some brief mini-moments from your life.
- Make a list – think of a few special memories you wish to celebrate, and then pick the one that you think would work well in a poem.
- Try short, snappy lines and verses and expressive words.
- Try not to rhyme if you can, as it will be too sing-songy and not atmospheric enough.
- You could even begin That day../that afternoon – or It was the time..
And why not play some atmospheric music in the background as you are writing – Brian Eno is perfect for this – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alo3KFRfLvE).
What an amazing wealth of ideas! If, like me, you sometimes struggle for a starting point when working with poetry, James Carter’s ideas will definitely get you hopping up and down with enthusiasm! You might even be inspired to hold your own class poetry slam!
I’d like to say a huge, ‘Thank you!’ to James for sharing his knowledge so generously. I know that he will have helped a lot people enormously! P.S. you might also like to have a look at his collection titled ‘Zim Zam Zoom.’ I constantly recommend it to Year 2 teachers.