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Poetry on the loose

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By Michael RosenThe Children’s Laureate

Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, explains how to let poetry run free in your school

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen reveals how you can help champion poetry in your school

At present, poetry in many primary school classrooms is, to my mind, stuck in a thorn bush. The National Literacy Strategy laid down when and how poetry should be taught, and following from that, materials and anthologies of poems have been published to fit in with this programme.

I think that this was the wrong approach. Reading and writing poetry shouldn’t be confined to systems of work that slot neatly into boxes with learning outcomes attached. Poetry shouldn’t be a matter of following a nationally-fixed progression from this or that kind of poem in Year 1, to this or that kind of poem in Year 2, and so on, up through the education system. Neither should it be something that is paralysed by the kinds of questions that have only one answer. You know the kind of thing: How many adjectives? Can you see the metaphor?

Poetry is a language

Poetry itself is a way of using language in exciting, musical and surprising ways in order to ask questions of and about the world. Poetry often suggests and probes things, without coming up with fixed conclusions, happy endings or neat resolutions. It’s not a neat and tidy way of writing. Poems often start right in the middle of a scene or feeling without explaining where you are. Sometimes they never tell us and we have to guess. Sometimes one part of a poem is attached to another part without the writer explaining why. This makes them very different from stories, which nearly always explain such things.

Reading and writing poetry shouldn’t be confined to systems of work that slot neatly into boxes with learning outcomes attached

Across the world of poetry, poems are very different from each other. They come out in different shapes, different lengths and talk of any subject. Sometimes they seem to tell stories, sometimes they just seem to be about looking, or hearing, or thinking. Quite often, they don’t appear to ask anymore of its readers than they should just sit down and have a bit of a think. Sometimes, we re-read poems without knowing why. Perhaps it’s the sound, perhaps it’s the pictures in our heads, perhaps it’s because of a feeling that echoes with a feeling in our own lives.

Poetry-friendly schools

To my mind, the NLS’ approach to poetry is so inappropriate. Instead, I think we should value and cherish the way poetry has of giving readers suggestions, and leaving them time to think and wonder. And this needs a different way of working. We need to make our schools and classrooms poetry friendly. This means inventing ways in which schools can possess poetry and make it belong to them. In my experience, I’ve found that the moment teachers are freed up from having to follow the Strategy and are invited to come up with ways of enjoying poetry, there’s no shortage of ideas.

Activities

1. Reading poetry

When it comes to reading poems in class, try to find as many ways as you can for these to be just read and enjoyed, without asking questions. This might mean getting the children to record and perform the poems. Bring in a box of poetry books. Invite the children to go off in threes, each group with a book, and come back in twenty minutes with the performance of one poem. Make it an event and say it’s a poetry show with ten acts. Take a collection of poems (anthology or a book by a single author) and work out a way of turning it into a show for the whole school, using the poems to make monologues, dialogues, choruses, mimes, live music interludes, masks and dance. Don’t be afraid to change and adapt the poems to fit the overall show. Add in poems and lines written by the children inspired by the collection.

2. Performing poetry

Poems are great for reading and performing in assembly – but only if everyone can hear them – so use handheld microphones. Think carefully about how the performances can be improved — many poems benefit from repeating lines in chorus. Some are great with pictures projected behind them or accompanied by rhythms on blocks. Some are great with the children taking up the positions as if they’re in a freeze frame or photo, as the poem unfolds.

3. Displaying poetry

I’ve come across some brilliant ideas for celebrating poetry from my various school visits. For example, corridors and walls are great places to display poems. They provide a canvas to be really creative. There’s no need to restrict the poems to the size of an exercise-book page. Why not make them massive? You could invite the children to add sticky notes containing their questions and thoughts.

4. Pondering poetry

When it comes to asking questions about poems, see if you can restrict the questions to ones that you don’t know the answers to. Put the children into groups with a poem and ask: Does this poem remind you of anything you’ve seen, read, heard before? What? Why? Bring them back together and write up the questions and answers as they give them to you. Talk about these answers. Value them. Encourage everyone to ask or answer something. Ask: Is there anything you’d like to ask anyone or anything in the poem? Write up the questions where everyone can see them and see if there’s anyone who would like to have a go at being the person or object in the poem to answer the questions. Or is there anything the children would like to ask the poet? Who would like to be the poet and have a go at answering the questions? Use the internet and books to help. Show that you take every question and answer seriously. Add in your own questions in a way that doesn’t inhibit the children asking theirs.

5. Trust poetry

Poems should become focal points for discussion and debate, where ideas and feelings flow. When someone notices something strange or significant about a poem, foreground it. I promise you, if you trust this whole process, and if you trust the poem and the poet, children will take you through the processes of poetry too - the alliteration, the rhyme, the metaphors and similes. They will start to notice the patterns of poetry - how one poem is like or unlike another. And indeed, how they can write like this poet or unlike another.

Further information

Visit the Children’s Laureate website for more ideas on creating a poetry-friendly classroom

Here, you’ll also find lots of free poetry resources and great tips. I’m also very keen for teachers to contribute their ideas and work. I think we can all benefit from making this a big conversation.

Reviews

  1. paulwhitnall
    on 9 May 2010

    HOW TRUE

    Thank you Michael for being such an inspiration and for encouraging us all not to feel straight-jacketed by the system that is stifling creativity in the classroom.

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