In Their Voice, About Their Life
In my opinion, one of the most brilliant and powerful things about poetry is that it can be a vehicle for children to write ‘in their voice, about their life.’ As a former primary school teacher, I’m acutely aware how narrow the writing curriculum can be in some schools, and how much pressure teachers are under to get children writing in a certain way in order to satisfy those incalculable geniuses who set the curriculum.
Poetry can, if welcomed into the classroom, give a space where teachers and children can learn about the enormous breadth and diversity of poetry together – they can read and discuss and perform different poems from different cultures and different times and say ‘Wow, so these are all poems!’ – they can use these as starting points to have a go at shaping their own thoughts, feelings and experiences into poems which are free from the expectations of the rest of the writing curriculum.
Importantly, when exposed on a daily basis to poetry, children begin to understand that poets play with thoughts, feelings and ideas in their own unique voice – and it’s something they can also do too. As a teacher in Manchester, I was forever correcting verbal and written Mancunianisms like ‘Can I go toilet?’ or ‘I went town with Mum last weekend’ into ‘proper English’ – one day a lad in my class who was a pretty shrewd (if awkward) character to deal with stopped me dead in my tracks when he said: ‘Mr Goodfellow, how come you tell me it’s wrong to say ‘Can I go toilet?’ when my Dad says it, and my grandad says it?’ And I got it. I got the fact that the way a family speaks to each other, the way a person thinks is their cultural heritage – and poetry allows that voice to speak.
I see my job as a poet in schools to open the doorway to poetry for both teachers and children and spark discussions that will hopefully continue long after I’ve gone. I read a selection of my poems that range from silly to sad and all things in between – and try to explain to the children that I try to reflect my life when I write – and my life is silly, sad and all the things in between!
Often the most moving encounters I have are when I’ve discussed the difficulties I had in childhood living between two houses that never felt like home, shuttling between two parents who made no secret of their disdain for each other and who had moved onto new relationships with partners that didn’t seem to have time for me and my sister. In every classroom I visit, I am aware there will be children who have the same experience – who feel as lost and displaced and angry as I did – and I try to show that poetry can give a voice to those feelings.
I have been told many times that some of the poems I write that touch ‘difficult’ emotions like sadness and grief are poems which are ‘not for children’. I disagree wholeheartedly. Giving children an invitation to explore their own life in their own words is absolutely crucial.
I’ll leave you with a poem that was handed to me after I’d done a morning workshop in a school a couple of years ago – we’d looked at a model poem and talked about why poetry was different to any other kind of writing and then had a go at our own poems. After the session, the children went out to play and it was as they were on their way back in that a girl handed me a little piece of lined paper – on it was a poem that was nothing like the one we’d looked at in the classroom session – it was her poem, in her voice about her life:
Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. He spent over ten years working as a primary school teacher before embarking on his poetry career. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador and spends his time visiting schools, libraries and festivals where his inspiring performances and workshops open new doors to poetry for both children and adults.