Children love poetry, when they get a chance to hear it and make it. Three National Poetry Day ambassadors with years of classroom experience tell us what works for them – and what to do when inspiration fails.
HOW TO MOTIVATE STUDENTS: READ A POEM ALOUD DAILY
It’s my belief that in order for poetry to become vital in a child’s life, it needs to be heard on a daily basis. When I was a primary school teacher, I had my class reader on my desk, and also a selection of poetry collections – both single voice and mixed anthologies, classic and contemporary.
At the same time every day, I’d read a poem out. Sometimes we’d discuss it, sometimes we wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d put it under the visualiser so we could see and talk about the ‘shape’ or ‘pattern’ of the poem on the page, sometimes I wouldn’t.
As the weeks went by, the children began to realise that poetry is indefinable – it’s like mercury, a shape-shifter: that silly two word pun thing the other day that made us all laugh was a poem; so was yesterday’s heart-achingly beautiful free-verse thing about sadness; so was that thing written entirely in nonsense; so was that ancient rhyming thing; so was that Jamaican patois thing.
They also began to realise that poetry is opinion based. It’s not about age-related expectations. A poem doesn’t need to contain ‘x’ and ‘y’ in order for it to be ‘good.’ Some loved the raucous, funny poems that gave their meaning up immediately, whereas some preferred the quieter ones that unfolded like the petals of a flower with every re-read.
Some loved the strange sounds of nonsense poems, rolling the words around their mouths, others preferred the poems written in an ordinary, everyday voice. But the important thing was they were being exposed to poetry every day.
If this happens, I believe that children begin to feel comfortable with poetry, understanding that it’s as diverse as the world around them. And that it has a relevance to their lives, regardless of background.
Often when I visit schools as a poet, there’s a nervousness about poetry, about what it is – from children and adults. The best way to begin to combat this is by getting poetry into classrooms every day, so they can see all the different things poetry does – and also by booking visits from poets, so both students and staff see it happening before their eyes.
During these strange lockdown times, obviously all my work in schools has stopped. I wanted to continue to put content out that allows children, teachers and parents to access poetry.
And also give myself something to do! I’ve been putting two different kinds of videos out and gathering them on my Youtube channel: poetry readings where I read a poem of mine and then a poem by a another poet (there are so many brilliant poets out there), and also ‘poetreats’ – little snapshot writing prompts that allow you to ‘have a go.’ Remember, poetry is not about rights and wrongs, it’s about ‘having a go’, seeing what happens, talking with your pen and following the flow of where the words take you. Good luck, have fun – and stay safe.
THREE METAPHORS THAT NEVER LET YOU DOWN
As a poet whose main source of income lies in leading workshops, I have three metaphors that explain both how some of my own poetry comes to be, and how to get students to approach writing their own poems.
Making a poem is a little bit like baking a cake. First, you need to find what ingredients you have. In a workshop setting, I like to introduce a theme – Space, say – and then get students to brainstorm a set of ideas and associations (ingredients). You want a good list. I then like to introduce various related poems. These are analogous to recipes, which students may or may not like to use as inspiration. The important thing here is to demonstrate that there is more than one type of cake that can be baked using the ingredients the students have gathered, and in order for this to be really effective it is useful to expose students to a wide variety of poetic styles and possibilities. Once they have both the ingredients and potential recipes at their disposal, students can get cooking.
Younger students may prefer to follow a model quite closely; older students should be at liberty to interpret the recipes creatively, and to add and discard ingredients as the mood takes them.
A related but slightly different metaphor is that of a bonfire. A bonfire needs both a pile of wood, and a spark to set it alight. In the case of poetry, the pile of wood is a bit like the ingredients discussed earlier; students can gather together, in a fairly free-form style, lots of ideas connected with the theme in question. Next, the spark. Unlike the ‘recipes’ above, this might be as simple as providing workshop participants with a short prompt, which will set their ideas alight.
Using the Space example, the prompt might be to write a poem from the perspective of a planet, or an astronaut cut loose from her spaceship. Younger students might like some scaffolding or modelling; older ones might like more freedom for exploration.
In terms of my own poetry writing, most of my time is spent editing. For me this is the hardest part of the process to teach, but I liken it to creating a sculpture. The first draft is a roughly shaped piece of clay. The poem is then developed by chiselling away at this vague form, until shape starts to emerge. Sometimes this is done word by word, as adjectives, verbs, nouns, similes and metaphors are reconsidered in their turn, and perhaps discarded for more appropriate ones. The poet’s pen thus assumes the role of the sculptor’s knife, gradually moving the piece from approximation to certitude.
I hope these metaphors prove helpful both in the realms of teaching and writing.
A POEM A DAY, COME WHAT MAY
This is my thirtieth year of being a poet. As a job. I’ve written poems, stories, songs for as long as I can remember – but in 1989 I stopped being a full-time teacher and started to become a poet. As a job.
Since then I’ve been lucky enough to visit thousands of schools, travel the world, perform at festivals, meet some of my favourite poets, writers, footballers, rock stars … all because of poetry.
I’ve also published over 60 titles and have now sold over a million books. In the last couple of years, I’ve been commissioned to write a poem by my beloved Everton – ‘Home’ (it was made into a film and played on the big screens at Goodison Park in front of 40,000 applauding fans), written songs with Don Powell (drummer from my favourite ever band – Slade), and released a Christmas single which got to number 32 in the Amazon charts for an hour one Monday afternoon (look up Don Powell’s ‘Occasional Flames’).
2020 was going to be a great year – a new collection for KS1 out in February – There’s a Crocodile In the House (Otter Barry Books ), a new football collection – Football 4 every 1 ( Macmillan ) and a magical anthology for Bloomsbury – Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble.
All these books are still happening. But of course, 2020 has been a strange year. I’ve not visited a school since March. Whereas my days used to be full of performances, workshops, laughter, busyness, travel – now, well, they’re like anyone else’s.
At first, after the shock, it was quite novel to have time to actually write and look at projects in detail. I started a new creative venture – Paul Cookson’s Pen Pals – with a few illustrators (Korky Paul, Martin, Liz, Ian Beck, Lynn Chapman, Ed Boxall, Nigel Baines and others) whereby they would send me unused pictures to inspire new poems. To date, there have been over 60 new collaborations – some funny, some serious, some cartoon … but all of them happened because of the illustrations. And because I had time to write.
People always ask the same questions – where do you get your ideas from? What inspires you? How do you write?
The answers: everywhere, everything and you just do.
But it’s more than that. It’s time and headspace. Since lockdown, I’ve written a poem every day as a response to all that has happened. Some are very personal, some are angry and some are about those who have passed – famous and otherwise. I post them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Once I started getting the responses online, I just had to keep it going. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of daily writing – but it’s also become like exercising your writing muscles.