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Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary,Elementary and Early Years EducationPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rett20
Poetry in the primary schoolDavid HarmerPublished online: 30 Jul 2007.
To cite this article: David Harmer (2000) Poetry in the primary school, Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary,Elementary and Early Years Education, 28:2, 15-18, DOI: 10.1080/03004270085200151
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004270085200151
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POETRY IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL
The author, a primary school headteacher and poet, offers some personal and practical advice for developing the use and joy in poetry
within the classroom. He selects, as a form of case study, ideas and examples from his own school and from his work in other LEAs. The article also provides an extremely useful list o f resources for teachers
which will enable them to support their teaching of poetry and language skills.
I'm not one for controversy but let's be open about this; poetry is as natural a process for primary children as swimming, running, breathing or eating chips. Most of them burst through our doors each day with a head full of it. If it isn't nursery rhymes, it's jingles, adverts, raps, songs, The Back Street Boys and very often - poems. Primary-aged children consume huge amounts of poetry annually. Macmillan's children's books have 35 titles coming out this year (2000), published 20 in 1999 and expect each to sell thousands of copies.
Some cynic within me wants to add, yes and sometimes they even get to read all this poetry in a school. In fact, many children do now get to write, chant, sing, perform poems and meet real poets in their schools. In some classrooms, however, poetry is still viewed as it was in the past; as a precious and secret rite practised only by bardic folk with an obsession with beards, daffodils, rhyme schemes and the pathetic fallacy.
For many years now, poets have battled away to make their work accessible to children and their surrounding adults. We have used rhyme (like Shakespeare did), non-rhyme (like Shakespeare did) and many other forms o f verse to capitalise upon children's love of music, rhythm, beat and fun. Still there continues to be a pretentious and snobby end of the critical food chain which loudly whines throughout the educational press about ' low quality, meretricious poems aimed at
children'. Even on children's Radio 4, poetry books that children buy in cart-loads and simply love to read get criticised for being populist. However, the brutal fact remains. Children love poems. They love to learn them, read them, write them and perform them. They don't care if they rhyme or not, scan or not, are old or not or are easy or not; they love them.
Of course, now we have a Literacy Strategy. And the strategy says (DfEE, 1998) we must read and write many types of different poetry. The good news is that increasingly this is happening; unfortunately that can be the bad news too. For the non-specialist, but yes-I'll- have-a-good-go-at-it (my view of numeracy actually), the range of styles flung into Key Stage 2 must be bewildering. Unless approached with some measure of sensitivity, life will get very dull and mechanical in some places as poetry is bolted on, ruthlessly work- sheeted and then coloured in. Why is the government so keen on young children mastering the Zen-like qualities of the haiku? Is it because they, like Basho before them, see the universe as the reconciliation of order and chaos, of stillness and change, o f the frog disturbing the mirrored pool; or is it because they think children need to learn about syllables? In other words, does Mr Blunkett want to teach the mechanics of counting the sounds or the delicacy and lyrical intensity of profoundly imagistic verse? Forgive the repetition.
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Life is getting very dull and mechanical in some places. Haiku are fine, but there is vast richness of poetry from many countries and beliefs that don't demand three lines and 17 syllables. Chinese verse or other Japanese verse in translation is a wonderful resource, especially at the top end of the junior school where the children really do begin to respond and write their own imagistic poems.
South West The grass twitches the wind fiercely blows trees churn bright lights are blinding I wait excitedly for flowers to bloom
Ella Pettman, 11
At my own school, we have established a school culture in which poetry in all its many and varied forms is written, read, performed and valued. Obviously, there is the time and space there to develop long-term projects with colleagues, to encourage children to work confidently in poetry, to develop resources and to build in the children a real sense of what poetry is. This is done by all staff, both in structured and in unstructured contexts. As well as during Literacy sessions and in our regular, extended writing lessons, we use assemblies, the end of the session, two minutes before the bell goes and so on as opportunities to share poetry. The school now rocks along with 'The Jumblies' and Nick Toczek's 'Dragon In The Cellar' as well as many other favourites. The whole issue of boys and reading is as real with us as anywhere, yet they all relish Brian Moses' (1998) anthology Aliens Stole My Underpants and David Orme's four football anthologies. The poems are short, varied in style, tone and form and very entertaining. Poetry is popular in the school, and very many of the children move to more demanding texts and show respect for more complex work.
When I work in other LEAs, a day in a school has to be more streamlined and compact. I work with two or three classes but always insist on a session with the Literacy co-ordinator and if possible, the headteacher. We discuss the strategy, its implications, how to approach poetry with children so that they don't write 'school is cool/I 'm no fool ' all day. It usually culminates in a discussion of resources. Poetry is not expensive. The most important resource is a commitment from the headteacher. Needless to say, there is a direct correlation between the success of the day and the time and money the head puts into releasing colleagues, buying books and talking with me.
If the days begins with 'Sorry, got a football match at 3.15 but Sarah is very keen' you know where the day will end. It will end with frustrated and dedicated colleagues unable to push through initiatives they believe in because senior management doesn't think it's important. I 'm glad to say it usually begins with a short staff meeting introducing me to one and all and telling them who 1 am and why I 'm there. I then work with a number of very efficient, pleasant and positive teachers and their classes. The best days end with a staff meeting where the colleagues I have worked with share their experiences and we look at the children's work. I also suggest buying in a writer to the school, especially around National Poetry Week. Again, the impact of the headteacher on this cannot be over-stated. The third experience is 'Oh at last you're here, it's Y5. Simon has had a breakdown I 'm afraid, but they're not too bad'. Happily I was able to clarify which of us huddled by the fish tank under the stony glare of the secretary ( 'You ' l l want a coffee I suppose') was the supply teacher and which of us wasn't.
In the classrooms I break the ice with some of my poems. It is very important to note that I am not a Literacy expert. I am a headteacher without a full-time teaching load, and therefore I am totally de-skilled. However, I am the poetry guy and that's what I do. In any case, the management of the literacy hour is the concern of individual schools.
Then I spend half the remaining session making whole- class oral poems, usually generated by something in the classroom or an idea I suggest. A strong one is using the children's playground games oft iggy (a fascinating sideline here is the linguistic variations nationally on the names, the rules and ways of being safe. What do you call it? Crossed fingers? Fainites? Croggies? Kings? Skinchies? Barley? If you're posh you'll call it 'pax' and if you're nine and watch a lot of basketball on Sky, you'll call it 'Time Out!'). Using a dip as the chorus, because they know it, we then list their games of tiggy, the thoughts of the chaser and the chased and then arrange it all into a class performance poem. I teach the idea of creating a simple text to be heard once and understood - repetition, verse, chorus, beat and rhythmic variation from found language. We then begin learning how to organise the poem out loud, leaving it to subsequent sessions for the teacher to begin to polish the performance.
For the next section of the lesson, I use a printed poem as a model. Working in Sandwell schools, I have discovered the strategy of mixed-ability writing pairs or trios, which I use as much as I can at this stage of the lesson. It could
16 EDUCATION 3-13 June 2000
ARTS IN PRIMARY EDUCATION
be a list poem, eg John Foster's 'What is Sharp?' (in Harmer and Tregenza, 1999, Poetry Works), a winner in
Y2 and Y3, which just expands one simple idea. Or, I
might take in a three-verse frame about, for example, monsters (see Figure 1). The fwst part is a very detailed set
of questions about the monster and its physical characteristics, using similies as much as possible.
The Monster poem
My poem starts when I f ind my monster
This is where I find it .......................................... My monster is as big as ....................... ................
It has ............................... teeth as sharp as .......... It has claws as sharp as ........................................ Wings as wide as ................................................. Its skin is .............................................................. Its horns look like ................................................
[The subsequent sections are less structured,
trying to be more open]
This is my second verse
The monster eats .................................................. It drinks ................................................................
This is how my monster moves ...........................
Here are some loud noises my monster makes .........................
Here are some quiet ones ..................................... [Both these are lists of verbs, not cartoon noises]
This' is my third verse
At the end of the poem my monster goes somewhere ........................................................
These are my thoughts .........................................
Other models include advert poems, riddles, thin poems, tongue-twisters (lots o f alliteration and
repetition of lines) or anything from the Literacy Strategy that is appropriate. Each model has its rules and that is what is taught to the class and then they
write their own. Hardly a revolutionary idea, except now one is teaching structure not 'creative' vocabulary. That is what the strategy is so good at; it teaches form and structures. It does not teach children to write poems like adjective trains chugging over the paper. You remember. 'The tall dark desolate castle/Stands in the
cold, dark gloomy, desolate night/Once alive, now dead' and so on. It does not focus on words but on different forms and how to make the poems work well and freshly. There are only so many ideas from which
poems can be made. The challenge is to make the
writing contemporary and exciting.
The work in the early years tends to be more oral with myself as scribe, teaching finger rhymes and choruses, but I have begun to work with simple frames in Y1.
These can get a bit prescriptive but do begin to teach basic structures, such as verse chorus verse and lines.
This basic unit of poetry is of course, a difficulty for children and here their understanding of what a poem is becomes crucial. If 'doing' poetry is a trick for the third Friday in the month, many children will be forced
like toothpaste through a product-driven process and learn nothing. This is when, characteristically, the adults in the room import 'creative ideas', 'good words' and 'this is what lines are' so that the baffled and frustrated children make something corresponding more or less to what the adults around them think a poem should be.
It's a bit like technology can get like if you let it, or bad infant art ( 'I ' ll show you how to mix brown dear and
this is what a dragon really looks like'). Poetry has to be more frequent an experience and more fun than that. Most children will begin to get the idea soon enough if they write poetry often enough. Old lags like me call it learning through first-hand experience.
All arts processes need technique and craft; they need an understanding of form and the discipline of their
materials. Poetry is no different....