Category Archives: Poetry

Check Out Bloomsbury Education’s YouTube!

The Bloomsbury Education YouTube channel has TONS of brilliant videos to get stuck into; from five top tips for surviving in teaching to dramatic readings of poetry, animated trailers for up-and-coming fiction to suggestions on how to incorporate more kindness in the classroom.

Here’s a quick run-through of all the exciting videos on offer:

Bloomsbury Young Readers

Meet the characters, authors and illustrators behind the Bloomsbury Young Reader series, our book-banded stories for children aged 5-7. There will be pirate ships, there will be canine birthday parties, but most importantly, there will be some children flying into space!

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Happiness and Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom

Adrian Bethune, the author behind Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom, brings you a series of videos on how to create happiness, stillness and positivity in the hive of chaos that is a primary classroom! From tips for teaching kindness to writing your ‘what went wells’ at the end of each week, Adrian is awash with ideas on how to foster happy and healthy children!

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Meet Daniel Sobel

Who’s Daniel Sobel, you may wonder. Well, wonder no more. The inspiring author behind Narrowing the Attainment Gap and Leading on Pastoral Care describes his wonderful work on inclusion and how you can apply his ideas to your school.

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Andrew Brodie Apps

We have a have a terrific range of apps for primary learners, written and designed by the legend himself, Andrew Brodie (full range here). These confidence-boosting apps for home and school cover telling the time, spelling, times tables and mental maths, and are a brilliant way of prepping students for SATS. Want to know more? Here’s a video to show you…

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Teacher Toolkit

Want to hear from the UK’s leading education blogger? We’ve got you covered. Ross Morrison McGill, aka Teacher Toolkit, shares tips, tricks and techniques from his bestselling book, Mark. Plan. Teach.!

Ross

Poetry from Joshua Seigal

He’s hilarious, he’s insightful, he’s brilliant…

Joshua Seigal is the mastermind poet behind Little Lemur Laughing, I Don’t Like Poetry and I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, and here he is reading a variety of poems. From Addicted to Chicken to Love Letter to a Lychee, there’s nothing quite like them!

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Make Your School an Excellent One

Rob Carpenter, author of A Manifesto for Excellence, has created a series of videos on how to make your school bloomin’ excellent. From creating an aspirational school environment to the importance of mindfulness and wellbeing, there are a plethora of great takeaways to enhance your teaching and inspire your pupils.

Rob Carpenter

Philosophy: 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking

Fancy a whole lesson at your fingertips, FOR FREE?! Esteemed founder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation and author of 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking and The If Machine, Peter Worley presents a 44-minute video where he undertakes a sentence activity with a primary class, encouraging the children to think about meaning, structure and relationships.

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How to Survive in Teaching

How does one survive in teaching amidst the long hours, endless paperwork, demoralising colleagues, stress and anxiety? Ask Dr Emma Kell, author of How to Survive in Teaching and general unwavering optimist, who will teach you how to survive, nay, THRIVE, in this brilliant profession.

Emma Kell

Let’s Perform!

Loosen those limbs and begin those warm-up exercises, it’s time to get dramatic! Watch Cath Howe’s collection of original monologues, duologues and poetry in action, performed by the shining stars of Fern Hill Primary School!

Let's Perform

Head over to our YouTube channel to browse!

A Hurricane in My Head

Even though I had absolutely no idea at the time, A Hurricane in my Head was technically born on 7 April 2017. I’d been commissioned to write a poem for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum to celebrate their 25th birthday, as well as becoming one of their #Eureka25 ambassadors. At the time I was living in a warehouse in North London, but as I lay in the garden with a notepad, I was instantly transported back to my childhood in West Yorkshire. The hazy Halifax haven that was Eureka – I’d visited regularly as a kid, and in no time whatsoever, the memories came flooding back.

Eureka 1.pngThose of you who are familiar with my work already will know that most of my output is unashamedly political; recent themes including the working-class Leave vote and the refugee crisis. It’s not particularly explicit or anything, but it certainly isn’t what you’d consider to be child friendly. And yet there I was, pen in hand, writing from my childhood – a celebration of the quirky, colourful, creative paradise that lets your blossoming imagination run wild. I absolutely loved it, and fortunately for me, so did Eureka.

On 19 June 2017, Eureka uploaded the poem to Facebook, and later that day, I was contacted by somebody from Bloomsbury – tentatively asking about a poetry collection for children. Now at this stage, I’d been running poetry workshops for pupils aged 7 upwards for 4 years, but for some reason, I’d never thought about writing poetry for children. It seemed so drastically far away from my “adult” output that I guess I just never considered it to be a possibility.

The message from Bloomsbury planted a seed in my head. I developed a clear idea of what I’d want to achieve with a kids’ poetry collection – challenging gender stereotypes, addressing online bullying, channelling playful rebellion, etc. – and with that, the seed continued growing. 9 months to the day after that first message, I had a meeting with Hannah Rolls, and a year after I’d written the Eureka poem, I was commissioned to write what is now A Hurricane in my Head.

Suddenly, I had to completely remove myself from the increasingly tumultuous political landscape. I’d literally just submitted the manuscript for my ‘Two Little Ducks’ collection, and now my challenge was to write something that an 11-year-old might engage with. The initial terror very quickly subsided to pure excitement, as I wrote poems about homework excuses, pulling a sicky and sulking in the supermarket. The older you get, the more magical your childhood becomes, and even though a lot of people will roll their eyes at me suggesting that 29 is a mature age, it definitely gives you a different take on childhood than what your early 20s would.

I’d been so busy completing ‘Two Little Ducks’ and working on other projects that the bulk of these poems had to be written in a relatively short period of time. By now I was living a house in East London, so my plan of action was to take the short walk to Plashet Park, find a tree, and then write until I simply couldn’t write any more. I’d sit there for a solid 4 or 5 hours at a time, and then come home without the foggiest notion of whether I was writing good quality poetry or not. My partner Maria was extremely supportive, and when I finally had 70 poems ordered and ready to submit, I’d completely transformed as a poet and as a person.

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Seeing the world through a kids’ eyes allows you to appreciate things a lot more. You stop to notice the details, ponder the possibilities, question what’s generally taken as a given and reminisce about rule-breaking and (gently) tackling authority. For tax returns, council tax bills and rental contracts, see cinema dates, sports days and footballs over fences. My “poetic currency” had always been political and cultural references, whereas now it was playful imagination, universal truths and coming-of-age struggles. What’s not to love?!

There are obviously huge differences between my childhood in the ‘90s (cue more eye-rolling from some!) and those who are experiencing childhood now. The main difference being smartphones and social media – I was 12 when I owned my first mobile phone, and the thought of you being able to take pictures or go online with it would’ve been utterly baffling. Same with social media; I guess the equivalent would’ve been forums, but even then, it was nowhere near the same, and barely any kids or teenagers used them.

I can’t imagine how tough it must be, being a kid when everybody has Instagram and Snapchat. It must take fear, insecurity and anxiety to whole new levels. It’s also brought a whole new dimension to bullying, manipulation and vulnerability, which breaks my heart. I do regularly reference technology and social media in this collection – hence the tongue-in-cheek strapline “poems for when your phone dies” – but I also hope that it gives the readers a chance to appreciate life away from a screen, and concentrate on the things that really matter. Friendships, ambitions, whatever family you happen to have, if any. And most importantly, your imagination.

When you’re a kid, you presume that all adults know exactly what they’re doing in life. They’re grown-ups; they not only stick to the rules, but they impose them as well, and 9781472963505they always have reasons and answers for things, and they make things happen and they sort things out. What you certainly don’t realise is that we’re basically just kids in older bodies – we generally have a fairly good idea of what we’re doing and why, but a lot of the reasons and answers are either guesses or fabrications, and really all we want to do, deep down, is just be a kid again. Every adult that I know has a hurricane in their head, and if this collection helps to calm things down a bit, even for a short while, then I’ll have done my job. Happy reading…

 

Matt Abbott is a spoken word artist, activist and nationally acclaimed writer and performer. His debut children’s poetry collection, A Hurricane in My Head, is available now.

Why the Golden Horsemen Came Riding

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Baghdad and the Middle East except that an author there had written the 1001 Nights, or the Arabian Nights as my Year 4 teacher used to call it. It’s a wonderful anthology of fairytales that has filled the heads of many a child with the notion of flying carpets, thieves hidden in wooden barrels, genies and magic lamps. I received the Bancroft Classics edition for my eighth birthday, which I re-read endlessly. No author was credited with the work on the front cover but I hardly noticed. I devoured the Sinbad films on telly too, especially the Ray Harryhousen versions which had incredible special effects. But of the real Baghdad, I remained mostly ignorant.

In my teenage years, the Middle East started to feature on the news, but nearly always shown in a bad light. Uprisings and terror attacks flickered across the television screens. News reports showed tanks lumbering across deserts, flat-roofed houses being blown up, grim-faced youths hijacking planes. Not surprisingly I never connected those images with the magical lands of ‘Open Sesame’ and delicious lakoum.

Fast forward a few decades and I am doing an author visit at a school in Bradford where I lived for over ten years. Most of the children were of Pakistani and Indian origin. It was a warm day and we were eating our lunch out in the playground. We got to talking about our most cherished wishes. One boy said in a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

It turned out the boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. It brought images of a magical Middle East flooding back into my head. Not the clichéd magic of genies and flying carpets, but the enchantment of real life still tied to the land and the seasons.

I started reading up on life in Middle Eastern countries, now and in the past and I fell for its charm all over again. Baghdad especially drew my interest. Based around the ‘beyt al Hikma’, meaning ‘house of knowledge’, a world-famous library built in the 9th century, it established itself as a world leader in the arts, science and innovation.

As I started sharing my discoveries in my talks to schools, I learnt that most children, even those of Muslim heritage, were unaware of Baghdad’s glorious heyday, of its massive contribution to the worlds of science, mathematics, medicine, poetry and translation. Without its scholars and their mentors, including the powerful caliphs who built the libraries and schools, much of the writings of the ancient world would now be lost forever.

9781472955999.jpgToday the Golden Age of Islam is part of the National Curriculum in KS2. It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the real history of a culture we in the West so often overlook. My book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was written to accompany the subject. Like my other works for Bloomsbury Education, it’s a rollicking adventure but it is also packed with information and insight into the culture and the period. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is bestselling historical fiction author Saviour Pirotta’s latest novel. Out now!

Poetry in Unexpected Places

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 2016, there was a collective gasp from the literary establishment. While some critics leapt to the defence of the Nobel committee’s decision, others devoted reams of newsprint to the inevitable question: ‘Can song lyrics be poetry?’

Back in 2008, the renowned poet Simon Armitage had spoken for many when he confidently asserted that ‘songwriters are not poets’, going on to say that ‘songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted clichés and mixed metaphors’ (and this was in an article in which he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. Rather than saying that songs were bad per se, he was suggesting that we take them on their own merits).

It is true to say that few children are exposed to much of what many people would consider true ‘poetry’. ‘Poetry’ can so often be seen as something ‘difficult’, and certainly when I was at school a number of teachers analysed the joy out of it, so that what should have been an enriching experience became a dull one. Syllabuses these days focus less on dead white males than they used to, but nonetheless the notion of ‘poetry’ has, in some circles at least, retained that rather elitist veneer.

But what children are exposed to are songs and rhymes, ranging from skipping rhymes in the playground to the latest rap lyrics (and it is worth noting that Seamus Heaney, himself studied on many school courses, praised the ‘verbal energy’ of rap artist Eminem). Take one of the playground rhymes I learned as a child (chanted while throwing balls against a wall):

‘Please, Miss, my mother, Miss,
Forgot to tell you this, Miss,
That I, Miss, won’t, Miss,
Be in school tomorrow, Miss’.

Doggerel? Perhaps. And yet there’s a lot to learn from it. That repeated use of ‘Miss’, providing the verse with its rhythm. The ‘this, Miss’ – two rhyming words jostling against each other within a line, marking both a rhythmic change and one in the rhyme structure. Or how about the skipping rhyme:

‘On the mountain stands a lady,
Who she is I do not know.
All she wants is gold and silver
All she wants is a nice young man.
All right, [girl’s name], I’ll tell your mother,
Kissing [boy’s name] round the corner!
How many kisses did she give him?
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…’

Not much poetry in there, you might think, and it’s true it wouldn’t win any prizes (not least because of the appalling sexism of ‘all she wants is a nice young man’, although in its defence we also sang ‘all he wants is a nice young girl’ on the few occasions when the boys joined in).  And yet the words have a strong beat, and the abrupt change in rhythm in the fourth line is one worth noting.

Or take the lyrics from Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by Your Grace’. I can’t pretend I know much about rap music – my main exposure comes from one of the characters in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty who is an aspiring rapper, and his lyrics are very clever (perhaps unsurprising given that they’re in fact written by a prize-winning novelist whose brother is himself a rapper). But here’s Stormzy with some blinding half-rhymes in Blinded by Your Grace:

On the main stage runnin’ ’round topless
I phone Flipz and I tell him that we got this
This is God’s plan, they can never stop this
Like wait right there, could you stop my verse?
You saved this kid and I’m not your first
It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth
But oh my God what a God I serve

Can we not, when learning poetry, note this and learn from this too? The ‘topless’ juxtaposed with ‘got this’ and ‘stop this’ in the next lines? That repeated use of ‘God’ that punctuates the final line that I’ve quoted?

Whether or not such examples are ‘poetry’, is, for me, something of a moot point. Rather than arguing over genre divisions, perhaps we are better off seeing the potential for poetic learning in so much of the ‘verbal energy’, to use Heaney’s phrase, which surrounds us on an everyday basis. Maybe what we should be doing is using children’s lived experiences – through songs, through rap, through rhymes – as a springboard from which to discover other uses of language (while at the same time not falling into the trap of making value judgements about which linguistics usages are ‘better’).

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Bob Dylan famously dithered over accepting the Nobel prize, in part because of his own doubts about whether he deserved it. Perhaps this could be summed up by the oft-quoted (and presumably anonymous) lines ‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

But maybe all of us, even young children, can say the same.

‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

Precisely.

 

Elli Woollard is a writer of picture books, young fiction and poetry. Her new poetry book for younger children, Perfectly Peculiar Pets, publishes on 21st March 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

 

Back to School English Planning – for Mastery

For many primary school teachers, planning sequences of English lessons – and specifically writing lessons – is one of the toughest jobs on the to-do list; not just in advance of the new term but all year round. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because there is so much to think about when planning for writing, including spelling, handwriting, grammar and vocabulary as well as writing for purpose – all of which are under constant scrutiny by senior leadership teams, not least because achieving and maintaining strong writing outcomes is a constant challenge for many schools.

Where do you start? Good learning is based on practice – but not just any practice. Repeatedly practicing bad habits, which I did on the golf course for years, can actually make you worse. Expertise writer Anders Ericsson says we need a very purposeful and focused ‘deliberate practice’ which is “all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal”.

I suggest that our long-term aim for developing writers in primary school is mastery learning that can be applied to a wide range of contexts with independence and fluency. The baby steps are the curriculum skills children are expected to acquire in each year group. Not just age-related expectations but also the skills that underpin them. Of course, children have different starting points in any given year group. There are skills that should be in place that simply aren’t, and focused practice on these is an important part of their journey.

So, the baby steps to be taken are a mixture of skills addressed through whole-class teaching, and those that individual children need to practise in their writing to remove barriers to their own progress. This means teachers need to be very organized on two fronts: a) sequencing units of learning so that they follow a logical skills progression, and b) ensuring children are always aware of their own next steps (through personal targets). Learning that lasts needs to build incrementally on what children already know and understand, and so the sequence of learning needs to be driven by skills and not, for example, by genre or texts shared in a random order. To make maximum progress during this sequence, each child not only needs to work on the whole-class objective but also to take ownership of personal targets: they need be aware of what successful writing looks like for them in any given task and act on precise feedback as they practise.

Effective writing is, of course, more than the sum of its parts. Skills shouldn’t be taught in isolation but as the means to producing the sort of writing that people want to read. We need children to want to write and have something to say. The skill demanded of teachers is to create an engaging context for writing, often using quality texts, and getting children thinking and talking about ideas and themes that are somehow relevant to their own lives or at least interesting. If we want children to learn more deeply then we have to get them to think more deeply and the ideal vehicle for depth of thought is talk.

Those first minutes, when staring at a blank planning template awaiting inspiration, are hugely important. The first decisions you make will likely frame the sort of teaching and learning diet your class will receive. To avoid getting bogged down in all the detail, or re-using plans that don’t quite do what you need anymore, I suggest getting systematic. Use the following planning pyramid to drive those early decisions:

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Make the corners of this pyramid work and, as you get used to it, you will find that you can quickly get a skeleton unit plan together. Allow the next skills in a logical progression to drive the process, and then think about context. What could your chosen text or other stimulus get your children thinking and talking about? What writing outcome(s) could provide the perfect vehicle for the ideas generated and practise of the focus skills?

I believe that teaching that puts children on a road to mastery needs to focus on the process rather than outcomes. My recipe for getting children to where we want them to 9781472949899.jpgbe as writers has some key ingredients. I call these the F STEPS: Feedback, Skills, Talk & Thought, Engagement, Practice, and Sequence. Find out more in my new book, Teaching for Mastery in Writing.

 

Mike Cain is deputy headteacher at St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School, in St Helens, Merseyside. He was a newspaper journalist and corporate communications specialist for 12 years before becoming a primary school teacher.

Let’s Perform!

I began my teaching career as a secondary school English teacher. When my own children were small, I offered to help in a primary school. I worked with two groups of year 6 children preparing them to compete in a local Performing Arts Festival. I rewrote the scenes they were performing and changed the endings to suit the children in the groups. At the time, I just wanted them to enjoy performing. I didn’t feel especially confident about my writing; I had only ever written for myself or designed materials for classroom use.

When the children eventually competed in the Performing Arts Festival, I was thrilled when they won the silver medal. The school was overjoyed too. The following year, they asked me to do more, so I decided we should enter a Monologue category as well. I wrote about 14 during the summer holiday.

I wanted the characters in the monologues to feel real and contemporary. I thought about children in a fix or puzzled about something. I played with real-life situations but also some fantasy ones. I found I could shape and hone the scripts because I was working in school and had the voices of children in my head, as well as my own family at home. I love listening to children chatting to one another and the ways they comment on things that are going on around them. I especially love the humour which children bring to many things. I often chose everyday things. For example, a child is in a classroom gazing out of the window at others running around in the playground but can’t join them because he/she has a broken leg. A child is lost on a school trip in a museum and wonders what to do. A child thinks their guinea pig might be an alien.

Monologues are huge fun for writers because you are moving right inside a character’s head, finding out their beliefs and dilemmas. We entered many local festivals over subsequent years and one festival judge said, “Where can I get these monologues?”. When I explained that they were my own writing he said, “You have to get them published.”

I felt especially proud of engaging lots of year 5 and 6 boys who had initially been more reluctant and seeing children take ownership of the scripts and make them their own. Within 2 years I had added Duologues to the mix. These scenes for two often had crazy scenarios, like a vampire in a doctor’s surgery and the horrified child who is sitting in the waiting room too.

I began running my own arts festival in the school, so more children could get involved, to really develop confidence in speaking and it continues to this day. In a typical year, over 200 children volunteer to take part. Half of year 6 auditioned last year to do a monologue. I added more categories: Own Poem, Poem by Heart, Public Speaking as well as the Monologues and Duologues. Each year I rehearsed and prepared the children from the end of September ready for Heats at the end of November and finals in the first week of December. The school say they have noticed a significant impact on children’s achievement across Literacy. There is a fantastic buzz in school when the festival rehearsals are underway. For the finals, I bring in external judges who give feedback and award medals. Parents and Governors are able to see the performances in a showcase.

Let’s Perform! is the culmination of more than ten years of working with children in 9781472957252.jpgKS2. The book uses scenarios, language and humour that children can really relate to. It is intended as a flexible resource; I have seen the content used in a number of ways and often adapted it myself. Each script has suggestions for performance and creative suggestions for pupils’ own writing. Learning by heart is part of the National Curriculum. Children can learn the poems and scripts by heart and perform them in a festival-type event in school or outside it as I have described. They are not very long; 3-5 minutes is typical.

Alternatively, the scenes can be the starting points for children’s own creative writing or performing. I often lead workshops where we analyse and perform monologues and the children write their own in response. The scenarios in the book lend themselves to story- writing too. Many of the Monologues, Duologues and poems have been used in class assemblies and end-of-year events. The Christmas poems have been performed by large groups of readers and actors in the local parish church. I’m so pleased the book is photocopiable- it makes it easy to give out scripts and create creative projects.

I hope teachers will find it a really useful and enjoyable resource. One teacher friend commented “This is going to be my go-to Friday afternoon book.”

 

Cath Howe is an author and teacher with a real passion for writing and creativity. She has been working with schools for over a decade, running workshops on everything to do with writing and performing. Let’s Perform! is out now!

 

Bye Bye Billy – Creating Characters in Poetry

By Roger Stevens, poet and co-author of ‘It’s Not My Fault’

The summer holidays are here at last. And I expect you will all be outside enjoying the sunshine, running about in the fields chasing cows or investigating rocky pools at the seaside and hiding crabs in Grandpa’s shoes. Anyway, they are all the things I loved doing when I was at school. The only problem in the long summer school holiday was when my friends went away, to Spain or somewhere exotic like Bognor, and I was still at home. Then I had no one to play with. So I invented an imaginary friend. My imaginary friend was called Billy. He was very different from me. I was very good when I was a child and I never did ANYTHING naughty and I NEVER got in to trouble. But Billy was always getting up to mischief.

Bye Bye Billy

Roger Stevens

Billy left my bedroom in a mess
Billy hid the front door key
Billy posted Mum’s credit cards through the floorboards in the hall
Billy ate the last jam doughnut
Billy broke the window with his ball
Billy forgot to turn off the hot tap
Billy put the marbles in Grandpa’s shoe
Billy broke Dad’s ruler seeing how far it would bend
But now I’m twelve and Billy’s gone
I’ll miss my imaginary friend

The poem’s from our new book, It’s Not My Fault. It makes a good model poem. You could try it with your own children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren or neighbour’s children (when they get bored playing on their i-devices) – or with your class, back at school.

First, start with a few character details. When I do this in a class, often as a prelude to writing a story, I ask a series of questions and encourage the children to write the answers quickly, without thinking about them too much. Is your friend a he or a she? How old is your friend? Is your friend big, small, short or tall? Is your friend blond or dark? What hobbies does your friend have? Is your friend a human? What is his/her name?

Next, I ask the children to make a list of all the things that they would LIKE to do – but are not allowed. This works well either as a class activity, or in small groups, as one idea can spin off another idea. Encourage the children to be as naughty and outrageous as possible; although you will probably need to discourage violent or rude ideas. Tell them you are looking for “clever” ideas rather than simply introducing the word “poo” into the list whenever possible for cheap laughs. They could talk about things that actually happened in their own families.

Now choose the best of the ideas and write them in a list. Look at the list and rearrange the events in the best order. It might end with the most outrageous thing, for example.

My poem ends with the narrator growing up, and Billy leaving. And so you might discuss ways for them to end their poem. Finally, check for spelling and read the poem out loud. It should have a nice flow and sound to it.

And in the meantime, enjoy the sunshine, and chasing the cows. Have a great summer.

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What Happens When a Poem Happens to Happen

By Steven Withrow, poet and co-author of It’s Not My Fault

In my travels to schools and libraries as a visiting poet, I often ask students and teachers if they can tell me what a poem is. I’ve received hundreds of wonderful answers—some serious, some silly. My favorite of all came from a young girl in Massachusetts named Audrey: A poem is when words happen to each other, and you can say it like a song.

Give me a month to come up with a definition, and I don’t think I could outdo that one.

Keeping in mind Audrey’s wise notion, I’d like to give you some small insight into the workings of one of my poems in It’s Not My Fault, my collection with Roger Stevens. Here’s the poem (I suggest reading it silently, once, for the sense, then speaking it aloud, twice, for the sound):

 

Pelican

Steven Withrow

If I can’t get a dog then I guess I’ll get a pelican.

A pelican I’ll get if I can’t get a dog.

Instead of a stick, I’ll toss bright fish right into his pouch.

Instead of a walk, he’ll wing like a kite on the string of his leash.

And late at night he’ll settle his pelican head at the foot of my bed

Dreaming halibut dreams swimming up from the dark sea.

 

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First, let’s think of this poem in terms of the first part of Audrey’s definition: A poem is when words happen to each other. Look closely at this poem, even without reading it, and you’ll likely notice that most of the words are little one-syllabled lumps of language. The relatively few multisyllabic words—pelican, instead, into, settle, dreaming, halibut, swimming—provide contrast, both in sound and sense, from the steady march of monosyllables. The longer words stand out and hold a little more weight in the lines because of this syllabic difference. Poems thrive on repetition, but careful variation is also essential.

Another “happening” among the words in this poem is the way many words almost rhyme…but not perfectly, or at least not in the places you might expect. Think of just a few pairs with linked vowels and consonants: get/guess, walk/stick, dreaming/swimming. And the internal rhymes within and across lines in bright/right/kite/night, wing/string, bed/head. Unity of sound is one of my ideals as a writer, yet here too, careful variation is important.

Next, let’s consider “Pelican” in light of the second part of Audrey’s definition: You can say it like a song. I’d like to think that the interweaving of syllable sounds I mentioned above contributes to the music of the poem, and I hope they help make the poem enjoyable to say. I’d also like to think that the poem is different from, say, a set of song lyrics in that it doesn’t require a specific tempo (time signature or pace) or tune (melody or chord progression) to feel complete. While the tight rhythms of the first two lines might make for a sprightly jingle, the more elongated rhythms of the last four lines feel to me more like speech rhythms than song rhythms. In other words, they are more conducive to being said than sung. But it’s a feeling I have more than a definite division I’ve made.

When I share a poem with students—and I strongly believe that sharing a poem as a gift in itself is a better method than teaching a poem or wringing it of hidden messages—I like to point out two or three happenings in the poem as examples and then ask the students to point out a happening they found on their own. A list of possible happenings in even a short poem is longer than one might expect. Children should be encouraged to contribute their ideas, it seems to me, so long as these ideas do not overtake the experience of the poem.

A poem is when words happen to each other, and you can say it like a song.

Yes, it still holds up. Thank you, Audrey.

I could write much more about my poem and other poems that I love, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how poems happen…and how you’re sharing poetry with your students. Also, I’m happy to respond to questions you might have in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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