“Teaching” Poetry in Primary Schools

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Many years ago, I was bouncing along quite happily in the middle of a poetry presentation at a primary school, when I noticed with some consternation that the teacher who had booked me, and who was sitting in the audience, was not smiling

My consternation turned to dread when she stood up with stern countenance and left the room, returning a short time later with a man I (correctly) assumed to be the principal. A black cloud hovered above them both as they sat stolidly together through the remainder of my show.

In spite of all this, I felt I did a good job. I could see the kids were happy, too. Nevertheless, I could see these two were clearly not.

I decided to be proactive, and approached them both shortly after the show. “Is there anything wrong?” I asked, with trepidation.

“But you didn’t teach them anything!” came the angry reply.

I was speechless.

I was confident I had entertained – perhaps even inspired – for a good half hour, probably longer. I had very possibly also introduced many to a new art form, and demonstrated the power of performance poetry and rhyming verse. Isn’t that lesson enough? What did they want from me? A technical dissertation on the various forms that rhyming verse can take – iambic pentameter, etc.? A discussion on rhyming patterns? The place of rhyming verse in Australia’s cultural history and geography? Some thoughts on the bush poetry revival? An attempt to unearth the international antecedents of the writing of Paterson, Lawson, et al? All of this I could have attempted, and more…if I had felt it was appropriate, but I didn’t. Indeed, I have always taken the view that primary school is not the time to ‘teach’ poetry to children. I was ‘taught’ poetry at that age, and it is a miracle that my love of poetry survived the process.

So far as the actual ‘writing’ of rhyming verse is concerned, it is really beyond primary school children. I know that from experience, and from discussion with other poets. Sure, children can find rhyming words, but the whole process of metre (the really hard part), of making lines scan, is – with perhaps the occasional brilliant exception – quite beyond them.

These days, if I am asked to perform poetry in a primary school, or conduct a workshop, I spend a fair bit of time trying to talk myself out of the gig by explaining all the things I do NOT do. Even then, trouble can ensue.

“Oh, but I thought you would still do such and such.” (Somebody wasn’t listening…)

So, what does it mean, exactly, to teach poetry? I have always felt my shows are highly educational. I should add that I also always begin them with some discussion of poets and poetry.

To my mind, there is plenty of time in secondary school for a more formal, analytical approach to poetry – if, indeed, it must happen at all.

Sadly, though, not everybody agrees.

What do you think?

 

© Stephen Whiteside   12.08.2014

 

Poem of the Day

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Mother and Child

warren cox

Once … upon a long ago

we sat inside the quiet

and watched the sun-kissed waters drift

beneath the morning light.

 

A place without a number;

a world with no address;

tucked away behind the trees

where Golden Whistlers nest.

 

Where thoughts so soft and gentle

filled my mind with peace.

And locked me in a moment

that I hoped would never cease.

 

But nothing lasts for always

and time will have its way.

The world and I have aged since then

and dimmed my yesterday.

 

Yet still one memory strong and clear

rests safe where it was filed.

A snapshot of the love that is

a mother and her child.

 

© Warren Cox

Poem of the Day

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Silly Shifts

 

All traffic jams jump questions.

No one can lose a dog in a hurry.

Therefore every day has a shape.

******

All fires have a starting point.

There is only one sky.

Therefore clouds surrender at will.

*******

All squares have four corners.

Fish rarely swim in circles.

Therefore the ocean may look flat.

********

© Katherine Gallagher

 

Writing for Children without Writing about Children

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During the recent national SCBWI Conference in Sydney, I heard a quote which stuck in my mind. I am paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “So many writers seem to think children want to read about Nature, but most of all, children want to read about children”.

A pang of guilt instantly swept through me, because I know am one of the writers guilty of that crime — if that is indeed what it is.

Of course I know that children want to read about children, and of course I do often write for children about children. But some of the time – much of the time – perhaps even too much of the time – I write for children about Nature.

So why do I do it?

The first and most obvious reason is that as a child I was introduced to the natural world – the beach, the sea, the forest, the mountains – and the birds and beasts that therein dwell, and loved it. So it is natural enough that I should wish to pass this love and appreciation on to the next generation.

Yet there is an even stronger urge to write about Nature for children, and it is this. So much of what I took for granted as a child is no longer available to children today and, on current trends, the situation will be even worse for the next generation. The reasons for this are complex, and I do not fully understand them all. Indeed, I doubt if anybody does.

The threats to wildlife seem to mount exponentially, and outstrip our ability to deal with them effectively. There was a time, for example, when it was considered sufficient to simply protect an area from development in order to protect the wildlife living there. Now, this is no longer enough. I heard recently of a national park in the Northern Territory (I think it was Kakadu) where wildlife numbers are falling in spite of what would appear to be adequate protective measures being in place.

Off the coast of British Columbia, orcas (killer whales) are no longer physically assaulted in any way (in the past they have been shot at by fishermen, and captured for public display), yet their numbers are falling. Furthermore, it is the young adults that are predominantly dying. It seems quite possible that humans are simply outcompeting orcas for salmon, causing them to suffer from malnutrition.

Across the face of the planet, human numbers continue to grow, and spread into new areas to live. Despite our best intentions, it would appear we are unable to protect animals from ourselves.

Dystopian visions of a world without animals and birds, perhaps with sophisticated robotic replacements, abound. Perhaps this is indeed the future that our children’s children’s children face.

Personally, I hate to think of a world without birdsong, without the blow of a whale, kangaroo footprints on the beach, or a wombat patiently making its way across a snowfield.

Anything that I can do to promote in the children of today a curiosity in and a love of the natural world I will do. I certainly don’t want to preach, but I do want to educate, and perhaps even inspire.

There may come a time when all that is left of the world’s fauna and flora is photographs and recordings, and references in poems, songs and stories. Until that time comes, though, I will continue to search for ways to pass on to the children of today my own sense of wonder and awe at the natural world. Of course, I will also continue to write about children for children.

© Stephen Whiteside   08.08.2014

 

Poem of the Day

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The Electricitree

 

Hello, reader. I am me.

I’m climbing up this mighty tree.

I’ll climb and climb and never stop.

I’ll climb it to the very top.

 

I’m climbing in the dark of night,

With moon and stars to give me sight,

And when at last I reach the crown,

I’ll turn around and climb back down.

 

Why, goodness gracious, who are you?

And why are you a brilliant blue?

Colours in the depths of night? Explain yourself! It isn’t right!

 

I am an electric bird.

It really isn’t so absurd.

What did you expect to see

Inside an electricitree?

 

Electric birds? Electric trees?

Don’t take me for a moron, please!

Power runs along a wire.

You’re a fibber! You’re a liar!

 

Hold your horses. Do not scoff.

Watch me turning on and off.

See my colour come and go.

Don’t you like my little show?

 

By jingoes, I believe you’re right!

You really are a pretty sight.

I’m sorry I was rather short.

Electric birds, eh? Who’d have thought!

 

Not just birds, but also bees

You’ll find in electricitrees.

Instead of blue, they’re brilliant red.

See them buzzing round your head?

 

Electric bees I can’t believe.

You must have something up your sleeve!

I’m stung! Oh, I apologise!

The proof is here before my eyes.

 

It hurts! It hurts! Please help me, please!

I trust in your electric bees!

Please, oh please, remove the sting,

And I’ll believe in anything!

 

Hold quite still now. Do not move.

Let me settle in my groove.

I’ll take the sting out of your hand,

But listen close, and understand.

 

When you say they are not real

It hurts them. Think of how you’d feel

If someone said you don’t exist?

You’d roar and shout and shake your fist.

 

Bees can’t shake their fists, and so,

They do the only thing they know.

They sting. But listen, you’re in luck.

Imagine if they’d run amok

 

And stung and stung, and stung some more.

Then you would be very sore.

You are in their territory

Inside the electricitree.

 

Thank you. I am feeling better.

Your advice, right to the letter,

I will follow. There’s no chance…

Hey, something’s climbed inside my pants!

 

It’s got me laughing like a clown.

I’ll have to pull my trousers down.

There’s yellow dots upon my knees.

Help me! Help me! What are these?

 

Ah! I see electric ants

Have climbed up high inside your pants

Events like this must always be

Inside an electricitree.

 

Electric ants? Are you quite mad?

Or do you think a foolish lad

Like me will swallow any stuff

You throw at him? I call your bluff!

 

Electric birds. Electric bees.

Yes, I believe in all of these.

But now I’m shown electric ants.

Do I believe in them? Fat chance!

 

Oo! Ow! Oo! Ow! I feel a fire

On my legs, and even higher.

Help me, please, to put it out.

Is this a punishment for doubt?

 

Of course it is. You’re slow to learn,

And now, alas, your legs must burn,

But here, now, take this little leaf,

And rub it on. You’ll feel relief.

 

Oh thank you, thank you, little bird.

I promise I will trust your word

From now until eternity.

You’ve been so very good to me.

 

Electric birds. Electric bees.

Electric ants. Please, no more please.

I couldn’t cope with any more.

My hand still stings. My legs are sore.

 

Why, we have only just begun!

There’s lots more creatures, lots more fun.

Electric grubs. Electric moths.

We even have electric sloths!

 

They’re very fast. They love to chase

And jump and skip and leap and race.

Why, if you see a sloth that’s slow,

That means its battery is low.

 

Now, that’s the end! You’ve very mean

To fool a boy as young and green

As me. I simply can’t believe

Your tale, so I will take my leave.

 

I’ll leave the electricitree.

My bedroom is the place for me.

I have enjoyed your little show…

Hey, look! I have begun to glow!

 

Yes, you are young, and you are green.

Why, that’s the nicest shade I’ve seen.

What a treasure! What a joy!

We have our first electric boy!

 

© Stephen Whiteside   16.07.2013

 

 

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Our Village in the Sky by Janeen Brian, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas (Allen & Unwin, 2014)

© Dianne Bates

our village in the sky cover 1 1In Australian over the past five years there have been numerous verse novels published for teenagers and younger children. And, too, there have been any number of rhyming picture books for many years. But more recently a picture book written in free verse has been published here, which would seem to be a rarity. Australian Janeen Brian is an accomplished author and children’s poet (winner of the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature), so she is well served to write this informative and engaging book for children aged 7 to 11 years.

Set in a village in an unnamed country ‘above/the great river,/nestled in the Himalayan mountains’, this is the story of the lives of numerous children during the summer months when ‘school is closed/ for the holiday time’. None of the children are named, except a few, and even then by their occupation. Washer Boy works in the monastery scrubbing clean lamas’ bed clothing and robes. Herd Boy is responsible for tending villagers’ goat herds while Rock Breaker builds the edges of tracks and roads. Other children wash dishes while one girl walks ‘Baby brother on my back/tied with my shawl’ and another gathers cow-pats, which when dried, will be used ‘for brick building/but most as fuel for cooking and to warm us/in the long snow-time.’ Very different activities, indeed, than those familiar to Australian children!

Luckily there is time for play for these holidaying village children. Some climb a flagpole, while others chase goats, jump puddles or build a play house. One boy improvises with a plastic tub, drumming on it as he goes to the pipe to fetch water. A group of children also improvise: with a ladder and stone they make a seesaw.

As the reader works through the book, learning of the activities of these foreign children, there are watercolour illustrations which extend the text by showing aspects of the village – the buildings – some stone, others mud brick, with roofs ‘flat-topped/and fringed with grass for animal food in winter.’ The illustrations also show finer detail – how the children are dressed, their carrying baskets, the mountains surrounding their village, their domestic animals, even clay and metal pots. Both written and visual text work smoothly together to give the reader a rounded view of childhood in a country that is so far away.

There is a lot to enjoy in this book which uses a variety of viewpoints and narrators to cover the child’s working and playing day until ‘…the day is coming to an end/Fathers return from fields/Mountain dogs begin their night cries./Cooking smells drift through the dusk and mothers call us in for the family meal’.

The writing of Our Village in the Sky was assisted by the Government of South Australia through ARTS SA.

 

First Lines of Children’s Poems

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Are The First Lines of Kids’ Poems Memorable?

I just read this post http://www.thinkkidthink.com/are-the-first-lines-of-kids-poems-memorable/ at Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog about favourite first lines of poems, which he says was inspired by this post about favourite first lines of novels.

And I thought to myself, “What is my favourite first line of a poem for kids?”

And then I answered myself, “I cannot think of a single first line of a poem for kids.”

And then I challenged myself “Really? Not a single one? C’mon — it’s the first line — those carefully chosen, agonizingly arranged words that immediately set a poem apart from all others. You’ve read thousands of kids’ poems, thousands of first lines. AND YOU CAN’T REMEMBER A SINGLE ONE?”

And then I flicked myself in the forehead and said “Stop it.” But that must have shaken loose a brain cell, because then I did remember one:

“If you are a dreamer, come in,” – from “Invitation” by Shel Silverstein in Where the Sidewalk Ends Which is a lovely first line, but still cause for concern because it’s the only one* that I could remember among thousands, which led me to only two possible conclusions:

1) I have a terrible memory, OR

2) The first lines of 99%+ of the kids’ poems that I’ve read aren’t very memorable.

So … which is it?

I’m not going to defend my memory in public, but before I blame myself entirely for this embarrassing episode, I decided to consult my growing POEMETRICS™ database for information about first lines. Specifically, I looked for opening lines that were “compelling, urgent, and/or unusual” as Robert Lee Brewer stated in his post as a desired characteristic of a great opening line.

Well, at the risk of flicking the entire kids’ poetry genre in the forehead, I am going on record as saying that the first lines that I previewed were really rather weak across the board. Now, this is not yet a definitive collection of poems or poets, and there is much more to learn over time, but so far the first lines seem to fall into three major buckets:

Introduction to characters (“We are Doodies, smooth as eggs,”)

A problem statement (“There is a spot that you can’t scratch”)

Kickoff of a plot (“This morning I got kidnapped”)

While many of the poems go on to finish quite strong, their opening lines do not set the stage as one might have thought. The poets seem to assume that readers WILL read each poem in its entirety, and that they can therefore get away with a casual first line. In this exercise, however, I read ONLY the first lines, one after another, and very rarely found myself hooked by that first line alone (the above examples are some of the best ones).

What if potential book buyers did the same? What if new technologies emerged that exposed would-be readers or buyers or renters to just that first line prior to committing their time or money? Are kids’ poets missing their opportunity to hook readers on Line 1?

Just something to think about.

What do YOU think? Can you recite any “favourite” first lines from kids’ poems? If so, please share them in the comments. Also, please share your observations/opinions on the first lines of kids’ poems compared to those of general audience poems or of works of prose.

Note: *I do have a decent number of kids’ poems memorized — at the very least my own — but to me that’s not the same as having a stand alone “first line” burned into memory.

© Ed de Cario

 

Prolific Anthologist

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In 2011, Lee Bennett Hopkins was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children, with 113 titles to his credit; that number continues to rise. On this blog you’ll find an interview with him http://poetryatplay.org/2012/11/12/ncte-award-winning-poet-lee-bennett-hopkins/

NOTE: If you are an Australian children’s poet, please feel free to send one of your poems (published or unpublished) to dibates@outlook.com to be published on this blog as Poem of the Day. Poets who have published on this site have been subsequently approached by Australian and international anthologists asking for submissions of their poems. This site gives you a unique chance to showcase your work!

Poem of the Day

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Santa’s wish list

 

I’ve never thought it pleasant

asking Santa for a present

even though I’m really longing for a bike.

So while I’m sitting on his knee

and his attention’s all on me

I ask the man what he would really like.

 

Santa’s taken out a list

just to check that nothing’s missed

and I’m madly writing all his wishes down.

Some snazzy luggage racks

to hold those heavy-duty sacks

he lugs around at night from town to town.

 

He has now gone on to say

that he would really like a sleigh.

His other one, he says, is getting old.

A turbo-charged two-seater

with a super-duper heater

to protect him from the bitter arctic cold.

 

Dasher’s girth has lost its casing,

Rudolph’s harness needs replacing

and he says that he had better add as well

That Donner, Comet, Prancer

and some other deer called Dancer

all need a new and flashy-looking bell.

 

His list just keeps on going,

his demands on me are growing.

This really is becoming quite absurd.

The requests are getting stranger,

now he’s asked me for a manger

that is big enough to feed his treasured herd.

 

He’s still got several pages,

he’s been going on for ages

and I’m not sure I can get him all this stuff.

He’s talking now of brandy

and some special brand of candy

but I’ve hopped down from his lap. I’ve had enough!

 

© Jenny Erlanger

Children as Poetry Judges

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www.thinkkidthink.com

This is the website of Ed de Cario who for the past three years has run an online competition March Madness Poetry (#MMPoetry) which is “an event designed to bring the excitement of the NCAA March Madness tournament to the world of kids’ poetry. 64 poets from around the world participate in the event; together, these poets write 126 new kids’ poems in just 21 days: IT’S MADNESS!”

The rules for the competition and the resulting poems (some fantastic ones!) can all be seen on the website. What I also found interesting was the discussion after the event of voting patterns which emerged. Children were able to vote and their votes were registered separately from adult votes. In the final reckoning they were found to be widely divergent.

There are quite a few posts on the site discussing this fact – both ‘for’ and ‘against’ children as judges. Here are a few of them – and I admit I have selected those I support.

rjschechter

…When the New York Times or Publishers Weekly reviews a book of children’s poetry, they hire an adult to write the review. When book publishers or Highlights for Children or Cricket or Ladybug evaluate poetry submissions, they use adult editors. While it’s superficially appealing and logical to say that the best judges of children’s poetry are children, it’s simply not true. Children are not literary critics and have not been exposed to enough poetry to know the good from the bad. A bad old joke that every adult has heard a thousand times may be a comedy revelation for a child, but the poem that tells it is still bad, and will be recognized as such even by the child when he or she grows up. It’s quite possible that a poem consisting of nothing but the word “fart” repeated 32 times in italicized capital letters and arranged in stanzas with exclamation marks could get enough of a reaction in a classroom to win the kid vote, but that doesn’t make it good poetry (which is what the rest of us are judging).

 

I think we all know that the best children’s poetry are poems that a child will not grow out of when the child grows up, not poems that are good for a quick laugh today but which will seem merely juvenile and embarrassing in a couple of years from now when the child develops more judgment and discernment. In some cases, I believe, children who voted for one poem may well remember only the other a year from now, having voted for the giggle instead of the sigh, or having rewarded the instantly-accessible poem over the superior poem that may take a few more readings to sink in and do its magic.

 

Matt Forrest

While I can’t help but echo the sentiments of my two writer friends, I’d also like to share a thought. As Robert said, children know what they like, but can’t differentiate between what’s good and bad. If a child prefers candy instead of spinach, do we declare that candy is better? Lee Bennett Hopkins once told me he surmised that children would probably love cocaine if you gave it to them…so their opinion of what’s good and bad, while important to understand, is not something upon which we should base our standards. It’s our duty as purveyors of what kids are consuming to provide them poetry that is of the highest quality – whether they realize it or not.

 

rjschechter

Another way of saying what I’ve been trying to say is that the best poems “for” a 7-year old (to give an example) are only “for” a 7-year old in the sense that there’s nothing in them that a 7-year old cannot process because of life experience and complexity. This does not mean that the poem cannot *also* be “for” older readers, and I still maintain that our goal as children’s poets should be to write poems that will be enjoyed by the target age and everyone above it, right to adulthood. Bonnie says that 20 years from now her child will likely not be reading children’s poetry, but I don’t accept that. I agree that she won’t be reading children’s poetry if the kind of poetry we’re talking about is poetry written exclusively for children, but if we aim a bit higher and try to write really good poems that happen to be accessible to children as well as enjoyable for adults, rather than poems that are only meaningful to children, there’s no reason anyone has to outgrow the poems of their childhood. My own goal as a writer of children’s poems (which I have never achieved) is to write truly great and timeless poems that will be cherished by people of all ages for centuries to come, and I’m not much interested in poems whose only ambition is to patronize a given age group for a brief moment in time when they are at a certain age.