National Poetry Day Blog

Truth-telling in Primary Schools

In this blog poet, storyteller and teacher Pie Corbett suggests ways to encourage key stage 2 children to start sharing their own poetry on the theme of Truth.

We could start by playing with the truth in order to confess. Use a repeating phrase like a coat-hanger for playful ideas:

The truth is,
no word of a lie,
I leant on the tower of Pisa.

The truth is,
no word of a lie,
I shocked an electric eel.

We could dig deeper into what really is the truth by telling lies. This idea initially came from Kenneth Koch’s wonderful book ‘Wishes, Lies and Dreams’. Select a subject and make a list of all the things that are true. Use this to create opposites or ‘lies’ and turn these ideas into a playful poem. For instance, this grid shows in the first column a few things that are true about the moon. In the second column, I have created a list of untruths and then used these to create a crazy poem.

The moon is fluid as the ocean,
flatter than liquid steel.
My Gran was the first to feel
its strange, sticky surface
as she surfed, cresting moon waves.
Created last Thursday, already
red and white water lilies
blossom like strawberries on snow.

To write the poem, I really had to think hard about the truth in order to fabricate playfully.

We could go one step further. I remember when Sally Vile, 9 years old, explained to the class that poetry was ‘when you had to try and say what things are really like’. We could try to write poems that capture the truth of an experience, that preserve and recreate the moment so that the reader can re-experience something of what happened. For this, we need a focus that matters – an object, an experience or an image will do. For instance, bringing in a rusty bike and placing it at the front of the class gives everyone something to focus upon.

You cannot write the truth unless you have deeply experienced what you are writing about. This means closely observing, not just looking but bringing all of our senses to the occasion and becoming absorbed, noticing details, looking and listening and responding through memory, association and emotion.

When I have used this approach, it helps to get the class to spend twenty minutes or so drawing the object. Usually, I model this by drawing in front of them and showing how to observe carefully, making the point that they do not have to draw the whole bicycle. Provide A3 pieces of paper and ask them to draw in the centre of the page, leaving spaces in the four corners.

Once the drawings have been made, then show them how to brainstorm ideas in each corner, labelled perhaps, ‘Images’, ‘Senses’ and ‘Memories’.  Under ‘Images’, they make a list of similes using ‘like’ or ‘as’. Under ‘Senses’, they should list descriptive notes about what they can see, hear or might feel. Under ‘Memories’, note any significant events. Other ideas, can be stored in the fourth corner – perhaps questions or wonderings, feelings (what I like/ don’t like) or ‘what ifs’.

Drawings and lists are shared and ideas may be ‘magpied’. If the class struggles with the activity then make a class list for each heading together and let the children create their own lists from the class ones, adding new ideas as they arise. Here is a grid showing some possibilities off the top of my head (though with an actual bike in front of me, it would have been easier and more ‘truthful’. To do the activity and be faithful to an experience, I had to draw on memory).

Make a list with the class of the main details that could be written about in order to recreate the experience for the reader. In this case, we could write about the wheels, the spokes, the gears and chain, the saddle and the handlebars. Use the notes to write a poem, trying to ‘say what it is really like’. Here is my first draft.

The bike’s wheels are like broken discs;
thin spokes jut out like strands of metallic spaghetti.
A crust of rusted chrome peels back like a scab.
Its gears grate; the toothless chain hangs
like a strange necklace or metallic snake.
Tufts of rough horse-hair sprout from the saddle
and the handlebars are a cow’s horns.
We’ll no longer feel the wind as we fly
downhill, whooping and yelling, brakes shuddering.

Interestingly, to try and tell the truth of the experience, I have had to fabricate – the chain is not really a metallic snake let alone a necklace! The line ‘tufts of rough horse-hair sprout’ from the torn saddle helps the reader imagine more clearly what it looks like than the prosaic ‘the torn saddle had hair coming out of it’. So it is, that what is not exactly true can be used to help the reader come more closely to experiencing a truth.

© Pie Corbett 2019
Twitter: @PieCorbett