The children in my class love poetry. An excitable group of 4 to 7 year-olds, they often ask for poems during our story-time sessions and many will select a poetry book when reading independently. When I ask about their favourite poems their eyes light up as they reel off the names of rhyming texts by Allan Ahlberg, A.A. Milne, Julia Donaldson, Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl. Several of them start to chant poems they learned for the school poetry recital in July. They are enthusiasts. But composing these types of poems for themselves presents a whole range of challenges. Not only do they need to be able to manage rhyme and meter, but it also requires a suspension of some of the usual rules of punctuation that they spend so much of the rest of their time trying hard to master. I am always on the lookout for creative opportunities for poetry writing that they will find liberating and exciting.
And so it was that in the Summer of 2019, on a visit to Edinburgh, alongside taking in the Fringe Festival buzz and touring Holyrood Palace, I visited the Scottish Poetry Library. Head Librarian Maria Carnegie had suggested I look at object poetry as a ‘different’ approach in the classroom and introduced me to some new items in their collection of concrete poetry. I loved Julie Johnstone’s ‘breathe in and out’ and exploring the intriguing contents of the small boxes created by Thomas A. Clark and Laurie Clark. A fusion of word patterns and visual arts, the poems were often deceptively simple in construction but conveyed a poignant, clever and often amusing play on words. They just made me smile. I immediately began plotting ways to transfer these ideas to the classroom.
This Autumn term we are studying ‘Homes’. It provides our very youngest children with a topic on which they can confidently contribute to discussion while the older ones can compare homes in the past and present, homes in different parts of the world and the properties of materials from which houses are built. We talk about what it is that makes a house become a home.
To begin our poem, each of the children creates a mind map of words that conjure ‘home’ for them. We think about the people, the spaces, the smells, the things that happen at home and the way the thought of ‘home’ makes them feel. From these long lists the children use highlighters to select shortlists; the six words that capture the things that would make anywhere they lived feel like home. Each of the children are then presented with their own genuine house brick and, using a variety of colourful markers, write a word from their list and decorate it on each face of the brick. Some favour the names of family members and pets. Others write ‘treehouse’, ‘yummy baking’, ‘relaxing’. ‘Loud’ is written with a wry smile by a child whose older sibling is the owner of a drum kit.
A five year-old girl wants to use the word ‘warm’ and, as I help her to write it, she clarifies ‘I don’t mean warm like the heating. I mean warm because it’s how my tummy feels inside.’ Many have understood the essence of the poem we are creating and which, when we have all our completed bricks stacked together on the carpet, we decide to call ‘Building a Home’.
We spend some length of time exploring all the contributions, with individuals arranging them in different ways that please them and justifying their choices to their friends. We are being, very literally, playful with words. We recall that writing a poem is about doing just this: choosing the very best words and arranging them into the very best order. We also spot patterns of recurring words and acknowledge that, although there are things about our homes that may not be easy, the words we see most often in our poem are ‘love’, ‘safe’ and often ‘bed’. After a recent discussion about the work of Thomas Barnardo during collective worship they are keen to explain their new appreciation of the implications of not having a home.
Teachers often talk about being magpies, spotting things that catch their attention and could be used in the classroom. Poetry is often seen as one of the more difficult areas of the curriculum to teach and I was thrilled to ‘magpie’ this idea. Concrete poetry provided a way for all of my children, no matter their age or ability, to access the fun as well as the literary merits of the genre. It has provided me with a springboard for more poetry work as the year progresses and I know that the children will approach it already full of confidence and enthusiasm.
Infant teacher at South Darley C. of E. Primary School, Derbyshire