Poetry has been a poor relation in English teaching at primary schools for as long as I can remember, often being something to be squeezed in during the last week of half-term…but only if there is time. You might catch the Year 3 team quickly discussing when to do the infamous annual 'poetry unit' while on their way to make a coffee or see Year 6 teachers swapping 'fantastic poetry comprehension worksheets with loads of inference questions’, but I’d argue, as would many others, that this is not teaching poetry. Classroom teachers are not actually to blame for this when you look at the increasing pressures of the timetable and the requirement that headteachers try and squeeze every last percent out of their students during assessments, but it’s unfortunately led to a situation where students sometimes struggle to recognise the inherent value of a poem.
Poems exist to be performed, loved and emotionally engaged with, not just comprehended. Genuinely enthusing a class of children about poetry can have a transformative impact on their attitude to reading and to school in general. It needs to be a valued and regular part of the classroom routine and not a bolted-on extra.
Over the past few years, we've tried to nurture a love of reading, writing and performing poetry across my school, Moorlands Primary Academy, and to make it an integral part of the day. Below are just three of the ideas that we've recently introduced:
The basic premise behind Poetry Post is that pupils deliver poems to members of the local community, sharing their love of poetry as widely as possible. We spend an afternoon reading through our English books and choosing some favourite poems that we’ve written over the year. Whenever possible, we read the poems aloud and then each pupil selects one to copy out and decorate. The poems are put in an envelope, along with a short note explaining what we are doing and the school’s Twitter and email details, and are then posted through letterboxes around the village. Within hours, we generally receive several emails, tweets and phone calls from people who have received a poem and the feedback is universally positive. Previously, several threads have been set up on various local Facebook groups, talking about how much the poems had been enjoyed and appreciated. We share the feedback with the children, who are absolutely thrilled to see the positive impact that their poems have had. This leads to an immediate increase in the number of children reading poetry during independent reading time and wanting to borrow poetry books from the library.
Three minute poem
At the start of each half-term, the children all write down some potential titles for poems (eg Lonely Giraffes, The Cinema Trip, Beyond The Sky) on slips of paper. We collect them in and then, two or three times a week, one of the titles is randomly selected and shared. The children (and staff!) have three minutes to write a poem based upon the title given. The only rule is that nobody can stop writing until the three minutes are up. It was a real challenge at first (I can't think of anything, It's too hard, I've got an earache, etc), but they soon realised it is a fun way of writing without rules which allows their imaginations take off in strange directions. We always make sure that we enjoy reading a few poems together at the end of each session.
Poem of the Day
There is a 'signing-up' sheet by the classroom door where students can add their names if they would like to read a poem to the class the following week. We then free up a five-minute slot, usually straight after lunch, where they perform their poems. The only requirement is that the children agree to spend a few minutes a day practising their poems. No time is spent on analysing words, rhythm, structure or meaning; the poem is read (or recited), the class have a minute or two to talk about it with their friends, and we move on. After performing their poem, the children are then allowed to write the name of the poem and the poet on one of the classroom windows using a chalk pen, another simple way to help familiarise them with the names of different poets (they also love the fact that it's a bit naughty!).
Poetry is too valuable to be side-lined and even ignored in schools and hopefully these ideas show that, by putting aside just a few minutes a day, it can be celebrated and enjoyed by the students, staff and local community.
‘The best thing you can do with poetry is just enjoy reading it together with the children.’ – Michael Rosen
About the Author
Jon Biddle is a senior teacher at Moorlands Primary Academy in Norfolk and has a passion for developing genuine reading cultures.
He is the 2018 winner of the Egmont Reading for Pleasure Experienced teacher award and coordinates the national Patron of Reading initiative, which supports authors and poets in developing relationships with schools.
Jon is also a member of the UKLA National Council, a regular contributor to the Open University Reading For Pleasure website and a reviewer for Books for Keeps and Just Imagine Story Centre.
He writes a blog on building reading communities in schools and talks about books at every possible opportunity.