Pie Corbett: The City of Stars

This game is one of my favourite surreal poetry games. Put the children into pairs. The first pair makes a list of 5 generic places (by that, I mean not ‘Paris’ but ‘city’) or containers (suitcase, pocket, jar, etc.) and their partner makes a list of abstract nouns – without seeing each other’s lists, e.g.

Generic places: city, cellar, beach, cupboard, attic, town, village, house, shop, cathedral, park, forest, planet, pocket, backpack, jar, musical box.

Abstract nouns: wonder, despair, grief, greed, sadness, joy, death, hope, peace, kindness, jealousy, war, imagination, creativity, anger, anxiety, happiness.

The pairs then put their two lists together in the order in which the words were written. This is to ensure that the combinations are random and not influenced by logic. The combinations that work best are the fresh and startling juxtapositions when two ideas are placed together that have never been heard before. It is this unique combination that catches the imagination. If I use my first five ideas from each list, it would produce:

The city of wonder

The cellar of despair

The beach of grief

The cupboard of greed

The attic of sadness

You could then choose out one idea and create a list poem:

In the city of wonder, I saw –

A serpent with eyes of rubies,

A song thrush flying from a golden cage,

A sunset slipping over the darkening landscape,

In the city of wonder, I found –

A scarlet rug, softer than an eagle’s feathers,

A crimson pen nib, sharper than pirate’s blade,

A scintillating canary, yellow as mustard blossom.

James Walker from a Bristol primary school experimented with his year 6 class. He began by ‘banking’ with the children as many ‘colour’ words as possible plus abstract and ‘magical’ nouns. When randomly combined this gave lists of ideas such as:

Velvet shadows

Ebony whispers

Indigo happiness

Cerise laughter, etc

Of course, the sentences need verbs to provide the power and action for the lists of colours and abstract nouns. Five minutes rapid brainstorming gave the class a considerable list. Rapid brainstorming is an important part of teaching writing. The brainstorm trains the mind to generate possibilities. During the writing, the writer than has to select and judge – what makes most impact, what works?

James then used shared writing on the flipchart to work with the children developing magical and mysterious sentences. It’s important to model the writing of a text so that the teacher can develop writerly habits such as ‘first thought isn’t always the best thought’. The task is fun, accessible and inclusive and encourages children to play with words without fear.

The children moved straight into writing independently, drawing on their lists of colours and abstract nouns, extending their own sentences. The class wrote in silence and at a pace.

Sapphire suns created golden shadows whilst an indigo moon conjured up a velvet nightmare.

A cobalt truth floated gently through the captured eternity as a gossamer spell darted violently through the ashen sky.

I asked James what he had learned and he replied:

– all children love being creative;

 – generating and judging ideas;

– going off at tangents / no limits;

– warming up the imagination.

My thanks to James Walker who is a class teacher and ‘Talk for Writing’ trainer. He runs training and development projects: https://www.talk4writing.com/train-with-us/james-walker/

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

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