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Time travel for the Nines and under

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By Kevin McCann — Writer and Poet

The lines of a poem can breathe life into events and people of the past: equally, memories of times gone by can breathe life into the lines of a poem. Kevin McCann explains…

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When I began writing for children, I realised that even though the trappings of my childhood (black and white television, etc) were different from those of today’s children, the things that mattered to me were not.

At seven I believed (secretly) in magic, didn’t like the dark and loved getting presents. I also loved listening to stories about ‘the olden days’. Kings and Queens we learned about in school didn’t seem real. My Grandad’s account of the 1914 Christmas Truce did. He described it all in such graphic detail, that I could see moonlight glinting on the barbed wire, feel the cold mud, hear Silent Night in German drifting across no-man’s land. In my imagination, I was there. Not quite a quick trip in the TARDIS® but the next best thing.

”...imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it.” Ted Hughes Some years ago an Everton school asked me to oversee a local history project. We discovered that Everton, like most place names ending in -ton, began as a Saxon settlement on a riverbank in a heavily forested valley. We talked about the area now and what it would have looked like 1,000 years ago.

Imagination is to space, what memory is to time… C Day Lewis

The children didn’t have any trouble at all imagining trees, birdsong, a clean river, etc. They just remembered their last school outing to a country park. I then provided this frame:

Now Everton is (The sound of) Cars and lorries roaring up and down (The sight of)

Chip papers blowing down the street
But Everton was
(The sound of)
Blackbirds singing in the trees
(The sight of)
Sunlight glinting on a clean river

I gave the children the opening line of each verse then asked them to provide three new lines of their own. Substitute your locality for Everton and try the same exercise. Once first drafts are completed, remove the bracketed phrases.

Using the internet:

Apart from the Literacy Time PLUS website you might find it useful to visit the Nuffield Primary history website, www.primaryhistory.org which is packed with resources, including lesson plans.

”...trust to your imagination…” Samuel Coleridge One of my better poems was prompted by reading the story of Caractacus in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Heroes and History. I imagined a Roman soldier giving an eyewitness account of a battle against Caractacus, his being brought to Rome in chains and finally ending his days as a drunk in some Roman tavern. Later on, as a teacher, I retold the same story: I sketched out the main details as a flow chart, memorised them and then told it in my own words; then I asked my children to pick one incident and describe it as though they were an eyewitness. I wasn’t overly concerned with historical authenticity at that stage; I simply wanted to emphasise the humanity of the participants.

It’s an exercise I still repeat and works whether you’re looking at an actual event – for example, a Viking long ship moving towards you across the sea – or a mythological one, like Beowulf’s fight with Grendel.

”...it can reveal the conditions of living.” Babette Deutsch On a visit to South-West Ireland a few years ago, I went on a boat trip out to an isolated rocky crag that was a major bird sanctuary. On our return journey the weather turned and waves loomed up on either side of what suddenly seemed like a very flimsy craft. The skipper assured me that we’d be fine but advised me to think on “something pleasant… it’ll help, believe me!” It didn’t. The deck was awash and my feet soaked with cold sea water.

Some further reading:

Horrible Histories series (Scholastic) A great source of fascinating facts to set imaginations alight. See a list of titles at www.horriblehistories.co.uk.

Myths of the Norsemen Roger Lancelyn Green (Puffin Classics, 978 01403 67386). Excellent retelling of the Norse Myths as a continuous narrative. Try summarising some and then retelling them to your class.

Horned Helmet Henry Treece (Puffin, 978 01403 02356). Paints a vivid picture of life on board a long ship. Read selected extracts before you try the On board this ship exercise. (This book is out of print, try your local library or the internet)

Dragon Slayer: The Story of Beowulf Rosemary Sutcliff (Red Fox, 978 00999 72709). Excellent saga full of monsters and heroism. (Out of print, try your local library or the internet.)

The Hobbit JRR Tolkien (HarperCollins, 978 02611 02217). Inspired by Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythology… and a good read to boot.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford, 978 01928 35475). For those of you who want to go even deeper.

A while later I was reading Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of the Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’:

'My feet
were afflicted by cold, fettered in frost,
frozen chains.

As a description, it was perfect and helped me when I devised this next exercise. It’s about being at sea and has since worked for everything from Viking long ships and Roman galleys to the Argo and its voyages of discovery.

On board this ship...
I hear seagulls calling
+ 3 ideas of their own
I see white-topped waves
+ 2 ideas of their own
I feel cold and afraid
+ 1 idea of their own
But when I'm sleeping
I dream

For the last line I encouraged the children to write the first thing that came into their heads. Apart from the occasional self-appointed jester who’d put in ‘a new motorbike’ or some such thing, the majority would choose an image of safety and/or home. The results were often surprisingly moving.

“and my conclusion is this..” William Shakespeare As a trainee teacher, the best piece of advice I was ever given was ‘start with the particular’. Now, I’m not suggesting that you should abandon all the other elements on the curriculum and do nothing but write poems and stories. But what I am saying is that poems and stories are a way into the curriculum. By inviting children to imagine history from an individual human perspective, we can enable children to time travel and make it more real.

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