'Please Mrs Butler' is the title poem of one of the most popular collections of poems for children in the last 25 years.
The success of the poem, and the book as a whole, is that it speaks directly, humorously and humanely to children about everyday life in a situation they know well and spend most of their lives in: school.
The poem could be used as part of work in Year 3 Term 3 (humorous poetry that plays with language); or Year 4 Term 1 (poems based on common themes).
By the end of the lesson the pupils will have:
discussed the structure of the poem, specifically the effect of the use of rhyme;
discussed the way the poet has organised the poem into sections which develop or move on the 'story' of the poem;
discussed the feelings of the characters in the poem, and how we infer from the poem the changes in their feelings.
Poetry Archive recording of Allan Ahlberg reading 'Please Mrs Butler' screen or whiteboard linked to Poetry Archive website for viewing the text of the poem multiple printed copies of the poem marker pens/felt tips pre-prepared list of statements about the poem
Whole class activities Shared writing. Begin by asking pupils to help you make a list of the things people say in school. This could be divided up into two halves: things teachers say, and things children say. Compare the different statements. What do the children's statements have in common with each other, and the teachers'? How are the two different kinds of statement different? What do they tell us about the people concerned? What kinds of tone of voice are they spoken in? Discuss the feelings of both parties.
Listening. Play recording of the poem to the class once. Take responses. What did you notice about the poem? What did it remind you of? Play the poem a second time. Ask children to focus on the feelings of the speakers in the poem. Take responses. What is the teacher feeling? How do we know? What is the child feeling? How do we know? Aspects to consider: is the poem realistic? Does it remind you of school life? Is the poem amusing? Why? What makes it funny? Reading/Modelling by teacher. Using the OHT/poster of the poem, the teacher models in front of the children the technique of text marking which the children are to use in the next activity.
Differentiated group activities Using the technique of text marking the children are to find and mark the different sections of the poem, identifying any patterns that they notice. This begins with noting the rhymes in individual stanzas; and could lead on to how the six stanzas are divided up into 3 'sections'.
Ask children to note what is going on in each section, and to discuss how they think the story of the poem is moved on in each part. Again using text marking, children are to identify how many 'sections' or 'movements' the poem is made up of. Children to notate on their copies what is going on in each section; and to write in note form the feelings of the two main characters in each section. Questions might include: how do we know the child is frustrated? How do we know the teacher feels very fed up at the end of the poem. Different coloured pens could be used to represent the different feelings of the characters. Responding to statements. The children read and respond to a list of statements about the poem which you have drawn up first. Some of these could be controversial ('The poem is unamusing') or untrue ('The poem is unrhymed'). Some will involve inferential reading ('By the end of the poem the teacher is exasperated'). Children to write responses to the statements, justifying their reasons by referencing back to the poem.
Whole class activity Feedback from group activities. What has each group learned:
about the poetic structure of the poem?
about the feelings in the poem, and how they change and develop through the poem?
about the poem as a description or account of a conversation in a classroom?
Children from each group to share work and comment on each other's work.
Writing activities Big questions Using the writing game on questions and answers described by Sandy Brownjohn in To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme? (Hodder, 1994), ask the children to think of 'big picture' open questions that need answering: 'Where does God come from?'; 'What's inside a cloud?'; 'Why is thunder cross?' They can be on any theme, or a variety of themes. A good source of these is Why do the Stars come out at night? by Annalena McAffee (Red Fox). Model to the children with shared writing the kind of question you think works best, and ask them to suggest them to you. Children then work in pairs (not necessarily grouped by ability), where they write a question down for each other, swap papers, then write an answer; then swap papers again, and do another question, and so on, until they have a good list. A good target to aim for is 10 lines (5 questions and 5 answers). The resulting writing can then be manipulated to create new poems. Words can be changed, lines moved around, themes developed. Speech Look again at the shared writing of statements made by the children in the first lesson. Can it be added to or expanded? Then do a class reading of Michael Rosen's poem, 'Chivvy', which is a list of statements made by 'grown-ups'. Using the poem as a model, suggest other list poems containing speech the children might make: e.g. 'what teachers say'; 'what dads/mums/sisters say'; 'what newsreaders say' etc. Another way of developing this is to suggest the concept of times and places where we say particular things, e.g. 'things we say in the morning'; 'things we say watching football'; 'things we say at the dentist's', etc. Children to work individually, in pairs or in groups to create poems. Substitution Look again at the characters in the poem. How does the poem read if we change their names? Derek Drew could become: Barry Bore, or Timmy Twee; or Sharon Stare or Tracey Tease. Elicit responses to these new characters' names. How would a stanza sound or go if we put a new name in instead? Model for the children, and attempt a class poem, using shared writing. This could lead on to children writing stanzas with new names in pairs, or individually, depending on age, ability and experience. Performance Children to learn and perform the poem using different vocal effects.
Other poems by Allan Ahlberg, especially 'Scissors' and 'Heard It In the Playground' by Allan Ahlberg; 'Chivvy' and 'Why?' by Michael Rosen.