Breathe Fresh Life into Poetry

Poetry in the Classroom

If you are reading this blog or newsletter, the chances are that you have an interest in literacy, reading and children’s books. It is very likely that you have some favourite poetry books in your special ‘teachers’ collection’ and that you share poems regularly with the children in your class. Your children are the lucky ones.  Sadly, from the hundreds of visits to schools that the Just Imagine team has made this year, the experience isn’t universal. One of the areas of greatest neglect in the school library  is the poetry collection. shelf space  is limited and that the range of poetry  is narrow and the stock is often old and in need of refreshing. Back in 2007, Ofsted conducted a survey on the teaching of poetry in primary schools and concluded:

‘Many teachers, especially in the primary schools visited, did not know enough about poetry and this was reflected in the limited range of poems studied. Classic poems and poems from other cultures were rarely studied and too many of the poems chosen lacked sufficient challenge.’

From my conversations with teachers, it would appear that poetry is still an under utilised resource. Of course there are many reasons. Some teachers report bad experiences of their own education where an overly analytical search for the ‘true’ meaning of a poem has coloured their vision. Others cite perception of priorities and a lack of up-to-date knowledge of poetry and poets as an inhibitor. There isn’t space here to analyse all of the reasons,  so I am simply asking the question, does it matter? The answer has to be a resounding YES.

There are obvious advantages. For a start, poems are generally short.  I would love to see a favourite collection or anthology of poetry on every primary teacher’s desk available for dipping into and reading for shared delight or a moment of reflection.  A good poetry anthology is the best emergency toolkit. Simply pick up a book and read when you want to create a collective buzz, or perhaps want to calm the mood after a particularly windy playtime.

Good choices are Michael Rosen’s A – Z, Carol Ann Duffy’s 101 Poems for Children, Roger McGough’s 100 Best Poems for Children and for younger children June Crebbin’s Puffin Book of Fantastic First Poems

 However, the value in reading poetry with children isn’t limited to its bitesize length. The language of poetry is unique: compressed, richly allusive and patterned. Poems may be polysemic and symbolic inviting readers and listeners to engage beyond the literal. Auditory qualities and visual imagery develop imaginative listening. In short reading and listening to poetry offers a unique reading experience and one which develops children’s language, vocabulary and thinking.

Is poetry a regular feature of group and guided reading in your school? A quick review of provision across the school can be revealing. As a guide, a good starting point would be to have a single poet collection, a thematic collection and a good anthology in each class to ensure breadth. We have put together some group reading packs for different year groups to help guide your choices.

Is there a good range of poetry available in the class and school libraries? Which poets are represented? If there a just a handful of the most widely known poets, then our collections of poetry books for  5 – 7 and 7 –11 year olds are a good start to helping you build a poetry collection. These collections include well known favourites such as Michael Rosen, Allan Ahlberg, Valerie Bloom and Benjamin Zephaniah, with relatively new voices like Chrissie Gittins and Rachel Rooney

Here are some of my favourite ways of engaging children with poetry:

  • Visualisation – after listening to a poem read aloud, invite children to draw or paint a response. This works particularly well if the poem isn’t too literal. Share the drawings and use them as a starting point for discussion about the poem. This is a lovely first encounter with a poem which you ay then discuss in more depth and re-read.
  • Create a soundtrack – using voices as an instrument, create a soundtrack to accompany a reading of a poem. Words and phrases from the poem can be incorporated into the sound track. This works well for atmospheric poems, where you want to create a mood or setting.
  • Multimedia – using images and music, create a multimedia version of the poem. The words can be added as a voice over, or can be reproduced on slides within the multimedia presentation.
  • Make an anthology – encourage children to collect their favourite poems over a period of time. Select which poems you will include in your class anthology. Use some of the best published anthologies to see how they have been presented. What choices have been made about the first and last poems and the different sections? Make a book using the children’s illustrations. Display in the class or school library and read old favourites regularly.
  • Oral performance – develop skills in reading and performing. Introduce skills through variation of pitch, pace, pause, volume, emphasis and inflection. Try reading poems in different ways and reflect upon how this affects meaning and response to the poem. Introduce the idea of Pop-Up Poets or Rhyming Raiders – a band of children who are allowed at specified times to invade other classrooms to introduce a new poem.
  • Withhold a title – read a poem and then ask the children to suggest a title for the poem. Discus the suggestions and vote for the best one.
  • Line by line – distribute lines of a poem to children and in pairs ask them to talk about what the line means. What do they think the poem will be about. In small groups, have the children reconstruct the poem. Read and discuss.

But best of all… read, share, laugh, cry, enjoy.