Discovering poetry for the first time, especially when it opens the way between teacher and class, is exciting. Val Downes, a primary school teacher, describes her experience
I don’t suppose I should have been surprised. After all I’d seen it work before in my old school. The Rosen, Wright, Patten, Ahlberg magic enticing, and then entrancing, children. There it had been an easier, familiar, friendly commuter-land school and, looking back, of course I remember it working.
Changing schools last Autumn produced one of the most traumatic moments of my teaching career. My new school was a city school with a wide social catchment area though not one with all the problems you can get in the inner city. I was faced with 29 strange third-year faces and any reputation I might have built up in my previous school counted for nothing. It was like starting out all over again, even if I did have a six-year running start. That first morning was a big confidence knock. I knew they’d had an unsettled previous year; I was, for them, yet another new teacher but I hadn’t been prepared for the ‘we-aren’t-going-to-listen-to-you’ hostility that greeted me the minute I stepped into the room. By the end of the morning I was feeling awful.
I had a copy of Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here but no particular intention of using it that day. The afternoon began with a long, unbroken, two-hour session with the morning problems persisting. After about 45 minutes I was at the stage where I badly needed my new class to listen, to hear me. I reached for Rosen, sat them down on the carpet and launched us all into ‘Eddie and the Gerbils’.
… and suddenly I hear
‘Hallo gerbils. ‘
‘Uh?’ Ignore it. Munch munch munch.
Better have a look.
He’s got a dead mouse in his hand.
Head poking out the top of his fist
tail out the bottom.
And he’s stroking it.
The dead mouse.
And he’s going,
‘Hallo gerbils hallo gerbils hallo
Instant attention! I had to read it again and again, and then the bits that stuck, once more. We moved on to other Eddie poems; more bits stuck.
‘Time for the cream, Eddie.
And he goes,
So I say, ‘Yeah, cream,’
and I blob it on
and he goes, Oooh.’
You imagine what that would feel like.
A great blob of cold cream.
It would be like
having an ice-lolly down your pants.
That’s how it started; quite unexpectedly, through poetry, I began to build up a relationship with my new class – and through the poetry of Michael Rosen in particular. Most days we’d try a new one and always go back to ‘favourites’. A momentum slowly began to build over the first half of term. I had to read them over and over again until the children knew parts of them off by heart. The word spread; I would catch them reading to the dinner ladies or sharing them with a friend in a corner of the playground. Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here became and still is one of the most sought-after books in the school.
Having tasted success, I felt confident to move on to other poets. Brian Patten’s Gargling with Jelly, Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler, and Rosen and McGough’s You Tell Me quickly joined the ranks of firm favourites. They started borrowing books, reading them and then telling me which poems I should read to the rest of the class.
My little sister was truly awful,
She was really shocking,
She put the budgie in the fridge
And slugs in Mummy’s stocking.
(from Gargling with Jelly)
They even made up little sketches which they enacted whilst one child narrated the poem, usually from memory. The final triumph was watching children choose poetry books, not mentioned by me, as their library books and knowing that at least a third of my class read poetry during quiet reading periods.
After half-term, realising that something special was happening, it became very important for me to discover more about what had occurred, how they set about sorting and selecting material, and what their criteria were for deciding upon a ‘good’ poem. Borrowing an idea from Andrew Stibbs*, I presented the children with an even wider variety of material and left them to browse. They had to select three poems: one which they would like to copy out and keep, one which they would be happy to read aloud to the rest of the class, and one which they would recommend to their friends.
I gave them 45 minutes, expecting considerable disruption from pupils I thought would not be particularly enthusiastic. A hushed calm fell on the room; complete absorption! For most of the children, 45 minutes was not long enough. I had to extend it.
What they all had in common was a desire to share the poem which they had chosen themselves. Although I didn’t particularly need them to do this, it seemed so important to them that it would have been terrible to have denied them the very pleasure I was encouraging.
Their biggest difficulty was in choosing only three poems; there were so many they enjoyed. To understand a little more about why they had made their choices, I devised a questionnaire for them to complete. I deliberately kept it very short to avoid confusion or boredom. This produced rather limited but nevertheless interesting results. Only five children selected poems that were new to them and these five were from right across the ability range. I somehow expected this to come from the more able readers. The majority of the children included at least one poem that they were familiar with and many, not surprisingly, selected poems that were by poets that they knew and liked.
I asked the children to give reasons for their choices. Practically every child in the class said they enjoyed humorous poetry. No surprise here that children enjoy writing that portrays familiar playground wit. This is something Roald Dahl achieves so well and both Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts figured very highly amongst the children’s favourites.
The small girl smiles. One eyelid
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
(from Revolting Rhymes)
Another major reason given for their choices was that they liked the author. Many children in my class really feel that they know Michael Rosen and are delighted by the fact that he shares stories about his son Eddie with them. Some have even taken the trouble to find out biographical details about Rosen which they then connect with individual poems. Having this familiarity, the children believe in Rosen and read his poetry as true accounts of actual happenings.
Some children said that they liked it when all the poems in one book were by the same author because they were then able to read a collection as a complete book. In contrast to anthologies, which seemed to require a more complex response, collections more readily provided the children with narrative. This was underlined by the popularity of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes because they tell a story.
Children’s comments also revealed that they identified with certain characters in poems. Everybody at some time has either been, or has suffered, a naughty little brother or sister. Brian Patten’s ‘The Trouble with my Brother’ and ‘The Trouble with my Sister’ were very popular.
Thomas was only three
And though he was not fat
We knew that there was something
When he ate the cat.
Other reasons given were not quite so universal, but nevertheless interesting. For example, the illustrations and visual presentation were important for several children, especially poems written in the shape of the subject. They enjoyed poems that rhymed, many thinking this to be ‘clever’.
The teachers can sit in the staffroom
And have a cosy chat.
We have to go out at playtime;
Where’s the fairness in that?
(from Please Mrs Butler)
Some children were concerned about the actual subject of the poem; some particularly liked animal poems and those that deal with people.
It’s difficult for me to draw concrete conclusions as yet; I’m still learning.
I’m now planning to interview small groups of children in much greater depth. It would also be very interesting to repeat the whole experience but using a different group of poets and perhaps being slightly less ‘accidental’! The important thing for me, however, was that when I read that first Michael Rosen poem to the children, they were captivated. They hadn’t heard the poems before and they didn’t know me, and yet almost instantly they responded in a positive way. Given the circumstances, if the children hadn’t immediately liked what they had heard, they would not have listened and would have quickly made their feelings known. Rosen was the first step for me and my class in the exploration of many similar exciting poems. Even at this end of the year, they still listen to the same poems and are searching out new ones.
It’s been as big an adventure for me too. I came to poetry with and through my children. It’s hard to imagine a better way. I’d used and knew some poetry but the light hadn’t quite dawned. Charles Causley says that he remembers little poetry before the age of 11 and Joan Aiken recalls being given it as a punishment. Not such bad company.
If poetry is given low priority in schools by teachers, it is perhaps due to their own lack of knowledge of, and exposure to, poetry, and not having the confidence to introduce and encourage it. Children too have been put off poems – often used only as a basis for comprehension work where pupils were literally asked to dissect them. Today, a wide range of material is available and it is fun for the teacher to discover the delights of modern poetry along with the children. Modern poets are able to communicate with children. It is in the interest of promoting this kind of sensitive communication that schools and libraries have an obligation to provide children with access to such books, so that they can extend their own personal reading experience and their enjoyment of poetry. Because of such poets and indeed through them, I was able to communicate with a new and hostile class. For that I am grateful and, as a consequence, my class and I will continue to explore new and exciting fields of poetry. It has become important to us.
* Andrew Stibbs, ‘Poetry in the Classroom’, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1981.
Val Downes is the language post-holder at Staple Hill Primary School in Bristol.