Did you know it was poetry month? *UPDATED*

Hello, humble Friday Carl here.  I recently purchased a new keyboard, which, for some reason, resulted in a lot of missed letters and other such typos.  For reasons beyond my fathoming, a certain web-based spell-check service failed to alert me to these very unprofessional goofs and they were only drawn to my attention by my ever-patient wife.  Anyway, they have been amended now and the following post should no longer be an affront to the eye!  Thanks!


Hello everybody!  I had no idea that April was poetry month and just happened to find out while listening to a classroom tech blog.  Anyway, it is and I thought it would be a good opportunity to write a blog post about teaching and learning about poetry in the classroom because I don't think it is done nearly enough.



Why poetry?

Poetry appears in the National Curriculum for England and Wales as early as Year 2 (that's 1st grade for anyone over the pond), where it is stated that children should be listening to, discussing and expressing views about a wide range of contemporary and classic poetryand that they should be developing positive attitudes towards and stamina for writing by writing poetry.  By the time they hit Key Stage 2 (2nd and 3rd grade), they should be recognising some different forms of poetry (free verse, quatrains etc.) and by Years 5 and 6 (grade 4 and 5), should be reciting poems by heart.  


So poetry is a big deal as far as the curriculum is concerned. 


However, in my experience, few teachers are comfortable with the teaching of poetry.  Some are not really sure what even constitutes poetry.  And it's not just classroom teachers.  I had a class of fairly deprived inner-city children using Tupac Shakur's fantastic poem, The Rose that Grew from Concrete, which is a beautiful poem to teach children, by the way, when the Executive Headteacher (so, someone who is in charge of lots of schools) pulled me to one side and asked, without irony, when I was going to 'stop messing around with silly poems and get on with teaching real English'.


I'll let that sink in for a while.


Needless to say, the children loved the poem and were very aware of Tupac's other work (their little minds blown by the idea that Rap could mean 'rhythm and poetry'.  Sadly, that is a backronym and not true but we can dream) and so it did not take them long to accept the piece as being worthy of their time.


Similarly, with a different class of similar children, we spent some time in the Summer term looking at Coolio's Gangster's Paradise and exploring the allegorical merit behind its borrowed Bible verses and use of colloquial vocabulary.  The very next day, we looked at Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat and they were very keen to draw similarities between the two.


Poetry and the discussion of poetry is a wonderful leveller.  Poetry, like physical art, is subjective.  Everyone can have an opinion.  So long as you can back it up, it is valid, and there is great power in that for a child.  


So how do you start to analyse a poem when the overall reaction is a unified groan?  


Reading poetry



Start small.  No-one is going to get enthusiastic about deep-diving into Kubla Kahn if they've not had practise first!  I begin with a smaller poem.  Again, The Rose that Grew in Concrete is a great place to start.  Or even smaller poems like the first stanza of Antigonish (Yesterday, upon the stair / I met a man who wasn't there...).  Anything will work.  Then I like to use an exploration grid to get things going with four simple questions:

  1. What do you like?
  2. What do you dislike?
  3. What patterns can you spot?
  4. What questions does it create?

That second question by the way is very important because a lot of children are under the impression that they have to like poems.  In fact, I usually include a poem that I can't stand just so I can be the first person to say what I don't like about it.  Again, the subjectivity of poetry allows for this provided they can justify their opinions.  Just saying they don't like it because it's boring is not enough; we have to force to delve into why it is boring.  At the same time, we have to ensure that they don't retract their statement for fear of being wrong.  Use gentle questions (is it the use of words? the rhyme scheme? the imagery?  Does it remind you of something you don't like?  this sort of thing).  

Some children, some adults, simply won't like a poem, or perhaps won't know why they don't like it... initially.  I remember during a poetry seminar at uni, we were studying How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix by Robert Browning.  I really enjoyed the poem and said so to the lecturer but when I was tasked with justifying my opinion, I couldn't put my finger on it.  Eventually, I said that it was just fun to read because of its bouncy, iambic rhythm - it reminded me of Longfellow's Paul Revere’s RideFrom that realisation came the understanding that it was the rhythm echoing the galloping of the horses' hooves and the Saturday serial-style narrative that I was enjoying.  

Two important things to note here.  1) I did eventually manage to justify my answer but only after the pressure to do so was gone. 2) I knew of other, similar, poems that I could latch on to for help.  And it's not like I had a particularly classical upbringing.  I learned about Paul Revere's Ride from  The Animaniacs!  But it is so important that we read poems to the children and that we tell them the poet and title.  They need this repository of knowledge.  And no, I don't think it's enough to just have poetry anthologies available in the book corner.

Anyway, where was I?  Yes, asking the children what they think of the poem.  Encourage debate; play devil's advocate; introduce vocabulary like stanza, quatrain and imagery.  If one of them blurts out an alternate line or rhyme, celebrate it!  Write it on the board next to the original and discuss whether it is better or worse.  To appreciate poetry, children have to not be afraid of it.  

Also, don't leave it at just one.  I think a whole week should be devoted to exploring, reading, analysing and enjoying poetry.  Ideally, across the whole school.  If you are an English lead, try to introduce it as a first-week-back sort of thing.  Otherwise, it just won't happen.  Build up a whole collection of go-to poems that span the whole school so that the conversation can continue beyond the classroom.  Because if you can get the children to talk about poetry, you can get them to write it.


Writing Poetry

We live in a golden age of poetry writing.  By which I mean that writing poetry has never been easier.  I have a whole day-long programme that teaches a love for reading, writing and performing poetry but that is too long to go into here.  Instead, I will share with you some quick-start ideas for getting those poetic juices flowing.

First up, Fridge Poetry.

mistofrigo.altervista.org

I'm sure you've seen this in one form or another - packs of magnetic words that you can arrange on a fridge to create a unique work of lyrical art.  Well, this is a great premise for getting started with writing poems because it removes the fear of failure by creating obstacles from the beginning.  

That might sound a bit counter-intuitive but knowing that there is only a finite number of words seems to relax children (and adults for that matter) and encourage experimentation.  If you write a 'bad' poem, it's not your fault, you didn't have the right words.  Even better, you can simply tell the children to create the word that they need and use it instead.  They are already playing with words and fighting for the best one in the best place.  That's the essence of poetry.

You don't even have to buy packs of magnets.  In the classroom, you can create a whole bunch of draggable words on an interactive whiteboard; you could have the children find 20 random words from their reading book and write them on individual post-it notes; you could even head over to Eric Curtis's website and use his Google Drawings template.  Children can work alone or in pairs and their final poems can be screengrabbed or photographed for an instant display.  You can even discuss the use of symbolism, imagery and effective word choice.  I love Fridge Poetry.

But maybe you want to do something a little more... organic?  A little less obvious?  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Organically Grown Dada Poetry


Dadaism is an absurdist movement that seeks to deliberately subvert expectations and embraces the irrational and the non-traditional.  In short, it is entirely random by design (if you can be random by design).  It's also a different style of poetry (remember the curriculum?  Children need to be aware of different styles of poetry) and one that is really easy to create.

Here's what you do.  You take a whole bunch of books.  Ideally all of them.  You get the children to riffle through the pages and stop at any of them.  Then, opening the book at the page, they wave their finger over the words with their eyes shut.  After some waving around, the children land their finger, open their eyes and trackback to the beginning of the sentence.  Then they write that sentence down and repeat the whole process with another book.  Rinse and repeat until they have a desired number of lines.

What's crazy about this is, even though the process is devoid of reason and entirely based on chance, the poem will somehow make sense.  Or at least, some sense can be derived from it.  Once it's been read aloud (this is important) a couple of times, the child can give it an appropriate title and boom, you have more for your instant display.  If you are going for a whole-school poetry celebration, this is a great one to have in a central place with a selection of books and pencils.  Allow all year groups and parents to participate (you can always post some sensible children to oversee things at break times).  It's so effective and it gets people talking about what poetry is.

A brief footnote to this one, I have had a couple of children request that they alter some of the words or move some lines around to help emphasise their intended meaning.  Strictly speaking, this should not be allowed; however, since this is again evidence of them thinking poetically and striving to force their words to work hard, I usually allow it.

What about children who hate writing?

Blackout Poetry has you covered!

atlantamagazine.com

Blackout poetry is where you have a piece of text and everything except the words you want are blacked-out.  This can be a bit tricky as i involves being about to find the poetry within a piece of writing, so it's a good one to use for paired work.  What's great about it is that you can use a piece of text that is directly related to your current topic from another lesson.  So, you might grab a page from a science book or a geography or history book.  It's a fun way to integrate the children's wider learning environment into their core education (I am all about cross-curricular learning as well so this makes me happy).  

It is neatest when done on a computer but the same effect can be achieved with a marker pen and some paper as well.  You'll need a decent chunk of text (you might want to remove any paragraph breaks to get maximum chunkiness).  Then the children look for the words they are going to use as their poem.  If working on paper, they should lightly shade these with a normal writing pencil (note, lightly - they will need to rub this out letter).  

Once that's done, they take a marker pen and blackout all the words they haven't used, leaving only the words they want.  Rub out the pencil marks and give the poem a title.  Done.  While the execution is simple, deciding which words will make up the poem takes a lot of discussion.

If you're going to use a computer, then I will share this link with you as, again thanks to Eric Curtis, it explains the process via a video which means that I don't have to make one myself!

So that's three different ways to get children writing poetry without necessarily having to think too much about it.  Like I said, I have a whole programme on how to get children to write deliberate poetry but that's something for another day (contact me if you want me to visit your school with it).  I would like to leave you with just one more method of creating poetry.

This one is a little more involved, so if you have children that like a challenge, this is for them.  I don't know the official name for it but I like to call it:

The Moon is a Random Noun

goodhousekeeping.com

This style of poetry was introduced to me by one of the writers of a podcast called Welcome to Nightvale, itself a rather absurdist creation, and it plays with the idea of that game where you draw a head then fold over the paper, then someone else draws the arms et cetera... well, apparently that game comes from a surrealist art movement known as Cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse).  I was always told it was called Consequences, but what do I know?  

The way we use it with poetry is thus:

You, or the children, write The moon is a and then you go to your reading book and flip through to a random page.  On that random page, you look for the first adjective you see.  I've just used a random word generator on the internet, which gave me expensive.  Now, we repeat the random page finding (or get a different book, or hand over to a partner, there are so many ways this can play out) and we generate a random [concrete] noun: manager.
We have the first line of our poem:

The moon is an expensive manager.

The rest of the poem is making that metaphor make sense.  Why is the moon an expensive manager?  Well, what does it manage?  It manages the tides... it could be argued that it manages the light at night time.  Or maybe I go a little more fictional and argue that it manages when people will become werewolves?  Okay, so why is it expensive?  Well, I guess there is an emotional cost to turning into a crazed beast against your will so I'll go with that.

The moon is an expensive manager -
Doggedly dictating when I will change
It cares not for my feelings
Nor for the cost of my transformation.
It simply arrives.  Shines. Then leaves without a word.
While I, lupine, destroy everything I have built.
It's not my fault...?

Or maybe something about football, I don't know, I'm not really sports-y.  

But you can see how it is a) quite a challenge, and b) pretty rewarding.  This game always gives children a sense of elevation in their work.  And again, thanks to subjectivity, they can write a short paragraph on what it means to them, why they wrote it, like they've been interviewed for a magazine.

If the totally random nature of the words is a bit of a push, then curate a bunch of words that are linked to a topic, or a spelling list, or simply a list that you know won't immediately crush them.  It's not an easy game but the reward is worth the effort.

You could also change the subject - there's no reason it has to be a moon other than the innate poetry of the moon.

I'm going to wrap things up here, mostly because I don't plan these posts beforehand and it takes a while for me to go back and rewrite the beginning to fit more pleasingly with the ending but also because I've gone on for a while now.  But before I go, I want to leave you with a couple of immediate poem generators.  They're not great but they are AI-powered and could be a fun segway from reading to writing.


The first is Google's Verse by VerseThis project allows you to select a poet (at the moment, they're all American poets), write a first line and have AI generate the rest of the stanza in the style of the selected poet.  I've tried it, it's not bad.  If nothing else, it's a good starter and there's is nothing better than when a child says 'I can do better than that'!  

The other is another of Google's experiments: Poem PortraitsThis one requires just one word and uses over 20 million words from 19th-century poets to generate a single line of poetry.  The fun thing with this is that you 'donate' the word (any word) to the programme and your line becomes part of a larger poem (in a similar way to the dada organic poem described earlier).  Again, it's not going to set the world on fire but it is a good place to start.

For anyone disappointed that this wasn't a more in-depth look at how to teach children to write poetry - if enough people ask for it, I'll write it.  As I have said a couple of times, I do have a programme specifically for that so please feel free to contact me for details.

Thanks so much for reading this far, if you have, it's been a crazy year but we seem to be slowly edging our way out of it.  Stay happy and healthy and remember that if you feel like nobody understands, talk to someone - you might just be surprised who does.

Carl Headley-Morris

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