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Paul Cookson Poetry Workshop (Part 2)

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By Paul CooksonLiteracy Time PLUS Poet-in-Residence

Part 2 of our Paul Cookson poetry workshop features two short films. An audience with Paul Cookson captures a question and answer session with a group of primary school children while, in One step at a time, Paul explains his writing process and how he gets ideas for his poems.

audience-with-paul-cookson.jpg

Both of these films can be used for discussion about why and how people write, and as a starting point for the children’s own poems.

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

...is probably the question I get asked most when visiting schools. Well, poems can begin from anything – from the little things we all relate to: the way mum brushes your hair, grandad’s habits, playing out – to the things that interest us most. It sounds simple but if we are interested in a subject then we are more likely to see it through and finish a poem. And I never go anywhere without a notepad, so I can jot down ideas as they come to me. I don’t always write lots down and, because I travel a lot, I rarely start and finish a poem on the same occasion. Most are written over time.

How to begin

Start by listing ideas about your chosen subject – phrases you like, puns and wordplays, rhymes, anything really. The important thing is to write them all down – even the ideas you think aren’t that good. Sometimes they’re the ones you come back to in the end. Let the ideas flow. Go where they go. They may take you away from your original starting point but that’s okay – you often end up with a better and more original poem that way. Ideas are like a row of dominoes – you knock one down and they all go down … one at a time.

Now look at the list and see which ideas jump out at you. It might be a phrase or line that could turn into something you repeat, or you might have a line/idea that needs to be at the end or the punchline, or a couple of lines that could be a chorus. Write these down. Say them out loud over and over to get the sound and feel of the words. Try them in different orders, using different rhythms.

This will often lead to the basic shape of the poem, the first draft. Then it’s a case of chipping away, taking out words, adding better words, perhaps changing round lines until you’re happy with it.

Previous learning

Children should have experience of: listening attentively; responding to what they have heard by relevant comments, questions or actions; extending their vocabulary; using language imaginatively.

Key learning outcomes:

  • To listen with sustained concentration to a talk by an adult, remembering specific points;
  • To respond to a presentation/explain reactions;
  • To convey ideas in simple non-narrative forms;
  • To find/use new and interesting words and phrases.

In the classroom

Give the children notebooks, just for poems, where they can jot down ideas, lines, phrases. Next, think of an idea which you could make a list for – eg: Things to find … in a monster’s cave, under your brother’s bed, in the teacher’s bag, in a pirate’s pocket, in a giant’s fridge. The phtotocopiable activity sheet below starts with ‘under your brother’s bed’.

Depending on ability, you could stick with a simple list (socks, sweets, football boot, spider) or think of words to describe each object (smelly socks, sticky sweets, muddy football boot, hairy spider). More able children could try fuller phrases and sentences:

A smelly old fungus-infested sock
Half-eaten sweets covered in fluff
One muddy football boot, dried and dirty
A scary, hairy spider as big as a rat

Two poems

You can find two poems I have written using this list format here on the Literacy Time PLUS website‘Things to find in Santa’s beard’ and ‘Things to find in teacher’s trouser turn-ups’ (from Spill the Beans, Macmillan, 978 03303 92143) – which was inspired one day when I was still a teacher and dropped my pencil. When I bent down to pick it up I saw all the fluff in my turn-ups and got to thinking what else might be there.

Then you can turn your ideas into a poem, choosing four and editing them to make them sound better:

Under my brother's bed I found
An old fungus-infested sock that smells of rotten cheese
Half-eaten fluff-covered sweets
One muddy football boot, dried and dirty
And a scary, hairy spider as big as a rat - and twice as scary!

Write another verse with another four things in. Each verse can start with the same phrase or you could try: There are strange things/You won’t believe what’s/Can you guess what’s … under my brother’s bed? Have fun with it, that’s the main thing, and remember, it’s a poem – anything can happen!

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