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It doesn’t have to rhyme…

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By Kevin McCannfreelance writer and former teacher

Kevin McCann offers some inspiring ideas to get even the most nervous writers creating some magical poetry

Ask an adult to write a poem and they’ll want to know what their objective is. Ask a child and they’ll say: “How long’s it got to be? Does it have to rhyme? How do I start? Is this the right spelling?” All these questions are designed to postpone the moment of putting pen to paper. They are prompted by a fear of failure (the root cause of writers’ block). But this can be overcome. Here’s how.

Warming up

Never begin with just a title. Children, like adults, need the security of recognisable patterns or structures. The simplest of these is the List poem.

I often start with The Treasure Chest (see Literacy Time Years 1 & 2, Issue 27, November 2006 – activity sheet downloadable from the website). I invite the children to imagine a Treasure Chest that is bigger on the inside than the outside (a bit like Dr Who’s TARDIS®), and ask them to list all the things they would like to find in it, putting each new thing on a new line. There are no wrong answers. Unlike maths (where 3×4 always equals 12), the chest contains whatever they want it to.

I also (at this stage) gently discourage rhyme. If your first line is ‘A pair of golden scissors’, for example, that’s probably as far as you’re going to get. Go on, how many rhymes for ‘scissors’ can you think of? But if you abandon rhyme so your first line is followed by ‘A dragon roaring’, ‘Harry Potter’s Spell Book’ and ‘A ladder to the moon’, the list will grow and grow.

And if I’m asked: “How do you spell…?”, my response is: “This is a first draft. Spell it how it sounds and we’ll make corrections later.” This is not laziness. It’s the way I write myself and it encourages both spontaneity and self-confidence.

You might also like to consider (if you have access) making use of ICT. At the simplest level, you could simply allow the children to type up their finished poems (which usually means it’s going to be a long day). Alternatively, you could let them write directly onto the PC. This can encourage less confident children to write more, as mistakes like forgetting to go onto a new line, or spelling errors, can now be easily rectified. Presentation can also be improved by the use of different fonts and typefaces, centring or the addition of some colour. You could even introduce one of the basic notions of concrete poetry – ie, the shape/size of the word on the page illustrates its volume/sound. Simply put, a BIG word is loud, a small word is quiet.

Individual poems can be printed and either presented as a wall display, bound as a class anthology or seen by each child as page 1 of their own individual anthology. Or even all three.

In the treasure chest…

I found a pair of golden scissors

A dragon ROARING

Harry Potter’s spell book

A ladder to the moon …

Developing structure

Again, start with a simple frame. For example, take the title ‘I Love’ and devise a frame based around the five senses.

I Love…

The smell of

Here the children should insert three smells they love. As in ‘The Treasure Chest’, each new smell should appear on a new line – like this:

I Love…

The smell of

Hot chips on a frosty day,

Roses in the sun,

Freshly baked bread.

This would be followed by verses beginning:

The taste of;

The touch (or feel) of;

The sound of;

The sight of.

Again, consider working directly on computers. You could display the frame on an interactive whiteboard or on individual screens if your computers are linked. In either case, try doing verse 1 together first.

Practice makes perfect

The best results will be achieved if the children use such poetry frames frequently. Try repeating the idea with simple titles like:

Winter is…

Birthdays are…

In my Perfect Place…

Once children have become easy with this form, they will often begin to use it instinctively. Then it’s time to try out some variations. Have a look at the Sensational Poetry frames in On-screen resource 2, in Literacy Time PLUS Online this month, for examples.

A great poetry idea for World Book Day

As a variation on ‘The Treasure Chest’, try beginning with the title ‘In Our Perfect Story’. As a group exercise, ask each child to think of a story they’ve really liked. Then ask them to think of one part of the story they remember. If one of them says “the big battle in the last Harry Potter book”, you could translate that into a simple phrase to start another list poem, like this:

In our Perfect Story…

There’s a battle at Hogwarts

Interpret the word ‘story’ quite liberally. For example, if one child mentions Daleks® and another recalls a bit from Little Red Riding Hood, why not include both? It neatly side-steps the ‘don’t know any stories’ response that you sometimes get from less confident children.

You will no doubt find that once three or four lines are there:

In our Perfect Story

There’s a battle at Hogwarts,

Daleks® screaming “Exterminate!”

A big bad wolf in Grandma’s house

...even the most reluctant child will be itching to join in.

One last thought

If you can find the time, it’s often a good move to write a quick poem of your own and read it out. This encourages the children even further and it’s good for them to see adults having a go too.

For more information on Kevin McCann, read our author profile