Writing poetry comes out of hearing and enjoying poetry. This doesn’t mean that writing a poem should always be in direct response to reading a particular poem. Rather, that when the classroom is a poetry-rich environment, children will have what Seamus Heaney called “linguistic hard core” to support their writing.
TIP: Most people find writing poetry enhances their knowledge of how it works. Whenever the children write poetry, write alongside them – and share your efforts.
To rhyme or not to rhyme?
Learning to write poetry also means learning the use of certain techniques – and rhyme is one of those. However, as children start to write their own poetry, we want them to experience this powerful way of using language to express and explore their thoughts and feelings. And having to use rhyme or any other device certainly shouldn’t become an obstacle. If children are introduced to techniques such as rhyme – through games and activities, and through imitating models – they will then have them at their disposal if and when they want to use them.
‘Writing poems transformed the way I taught. I was teaching from the inside.’ Cliff Yates, poet and teacher
Being a writer
Do a warm up.
To help children think more creatively, warm up with some poetry games. Try these individually or as class: Write down everything you hear/see/smell right now. Create a list of kennings to describe an object. Describe a person using similes or metaphors. Write an alliterative sentence with a given letter. Generate a list of rhymes, and write some couplets. Generate some lines that all have the same rhythm.
Make a mess!
Writing can be a messy process. Allow children to be as untidy as they like when capturing ideas and drafting.
Give children a poetry journal in which they can note down poems they like, draft their own and capture ideas. Not everything has to be a finished poem – encourage play and experimentation.
Model writing a poem, or write a class poem on the whiteboard.
Paper and pencil can sometimes be a hindrance. Let children try composing in their heads / by ear. Some may find it easier. Poems can be committed to paper later.
NUGGET: The most shocking thing I found out from reading Bishop’s drafts is that her first draft looks nearly as awful as my own-first-draft poems do; it’s what Bishop does after that, and how many times she does it – that makes all the difference”. Brett Candlish Millier, on the poet, Elizabeth Bishop
A poem is a personal response to something – an experience (momentary or epic), a memory, another poem (or music, novel, painting or any other artistic work). But it can help to have some starting points, especially when we are learning to write poetry. Here are some to try.
Imitation is an important part of learning any art. The Children’s Poetry Archive offers a wide range of poems with different forms and styles that can be used as starting points. Spend plenty of time hearing and exploring the poem first.
Supply a first line or line template: “I remember…”. “My xx is a yy” “Inside the xxx … a yyy”
Writing for an audience is a powerful motivator. Children could write poems for a class anthology, for a celebration, for a school competition, or rhymes for younger children.
Avoiding the obvious.
Make a list of words to describe something – then ask children to write without using any of them.
Points of view.
Write from the point of view of an animal, or an inanimate object.
Listen for bits of speech (or text) that could be the start of a poem. Begin the poem with that phrase.
TIP: Get a poet – work with a poet – poets will demonstrate and inspire and take children along with them in the creative process.
From first scribble to finished poem
Keep at it.
Make redrafting and editing a normal part of the process. Let children leave a poem for a day or so and come back to it. Encourage them to read it aloud. Let them read to and discuss it with a partner.
Page to screen.
It’s usually better to begin drafting on paper rather than on screen. A poem has a deceptively ‘finished’ look on screen. It can also be useful to see earlier versions and what was crossed out – which is often just deleted on a computer. But later drafts can be transferred to the computer to produce a final version.
Publishing and presenting.
Finished poems can be ‘published’ to a book or web page, added to a collection, learned, performed, illustrated, put on a poster or set to music.
TIP: Different children will have different ways of working. Some might find it helpful to draw first. Some might want to compose the whole thing in their heads. Again, let them experiment and find what works.