Brian Moses: Fire Lit Eyes – Running a School Writing Club

Fire Lit Eyes: Running a school writing club

For four years from 1978 – 1982, Pie Corbett and I were teaching in the same primary school, having previously become friends at teachers’ training college. It was a school that served a large estate of houses on the edge of a town that the railway had abandoned under Beeching. There had been very little thought about what those people who lived on the estate actually needed – no shops, no pub, no community centre. Parents brought their problems into school, argued in the playground or sought counselling from the headteacher.

The children brought their own troubles into the classroom and needed sympathetic but firm management. We discovered that many of the children really enjoyed being creative with words. They had imaginations and grasped enthusiastically at the ideas we presented them with. Our own inspiration came from the work of Sandy Brownjohn, from Ted Hughes manual ‘Poetry in the Making’ and from the American poet and educationalist, Kenneth Koch who had produced a number of books featuring the poetry of city kids. We were also impressed with the work of teacher Chris Searle and his publications – ‘Stepney Words’ and ‘Firewords’ which highlighted writing by children in London schools.

I forget whose idea it was but we decided to invite anyone who enjoyed writing to return to school on a Wednesday evening for extra poetry writing sessions with us. We were allowed to run these in the pre-school playgroup hut where we perched on tiny chairs or sat on the floor and wrote from 7.30 till 9 p.m. For our first session 30 children arrived out of the darkness of the estate. Few were brought by their parents, most just walked to school as they would in the daytime.

Pie and I were able to try out ideas that we might have thought twice about using in the classroom. We were surrealists taking our writing beyond the real with no limits to anyone’s imagination. Often we explored three or four ideas each session and children would arrive the next day eager to show us poems that they had completed at home. We wrote with the children too and shared our ideas. They knew that they could comment and make criticisms about what we had written in the same way that we did with their writing. There was no fear of work being marked or graded and the poems were celebrated for what they were. On summer evenings we wrote on location visiting a graveyard, the abandoned railway line, a turkey farm and a spooky house.

We saved many of the poems that were written and put them in a book that we wrote about teaching poetry. We sent it to Oxford University Press as we liked the anthologies that John Foster had done for them. After three months, an editor from OUP range me up and said they wanted to publish it. That was ‘Catapults and Kingfishers’. We were just in the right place at the right time and they’d happened to be looking for a book like ours. It was, they told us, the first unsolicited manuscript they’d published in fifteen years! And that book launched our careers.

Since those days the school has consistently lounged at the bottom of the league table in its LEA and has been in and out of special measures constantly… but we believed our children were as good as any others. We also had some winners in the WH Smith competition out of some 30,000 entries. ITV also made videos of two of the winning poems.

Recently Kate Long got in touch with me about a writing club that she runs at her school. You can find out more about her work here.

The Able Writers Scheme that I started up in 2002 operates on similar lines. We bring children together from different schools for a day of writing for writing’s sake. The scheme has been successfully run by the Authors Abroad agency for the past eight years and we have over 150 host schools from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight who organise such days. Information about the scheme and how your school might become a host school can be found here.

The business man Alan Sugar is always complaining that the candidates on ‘The Apprentice’ often lack imagination and creativity. If those qualities are not fostered in schools, then we shouldn’t be surprised at what he says.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published Spaced Out, (edited with James Carter), plus picture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer.

Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.

Brian also visits schools to run writing workshops and perform his own poetry and percussion shows. To date he has visited well over 3000 schools and libraries throughout the UK and abroad.

Pie Corbett: 16 Things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

16 things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

I developed this idea with Brian Moses about 38 years ago. In those days, we had our children writing lists along the lines of ‘5 things you’d find in Margaret Thatcher’s handbag’. This is the version that I wrote at the time to use as a model for children (Ian McMillan has also written several similar list poems).

Six things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

A wasp’s sting to startle unwary goblins.

Two leather-bound books. One titled, ‘Tunnel digging for beginners’ and the other, ‘Wolves and methods for their avoidance’.

A purse of never-ending wishes.

A pot of gold found at the end of a rainbow.

A pair of twelve league boots.

A fur-lined cape, the colour of rock, for keeping warm in the winter and using as camouflage.

© Pie Corbett

  1. Read the model through and discuss the ideas.
  2. Brainstorm a list of other possibilities.
  3. Use shared writing to create a few lines
  4. Inject a sense of urgency by giving a time limit for independent writing, to aid concentration.
  5. Children share and polish their ideas.
  6. Hear examples. Copy favourites for display or to make a booklet.

This is an example from working with a year six class.

We started with a rapid class brainstorm of possibilities: a hammer forged from underground mines; a dagger for dragon attack; oat cake or seed cake; a small block of hardened cheese; a flagon of water for rehydration; a clarinet, reed pipe or recorder; flint and steel; a map of The Misty Mountains; a quill and slate for writing runes, communication or sending a message; a silver pen for writing which can only be read by the light of the moon; a diamond for bargaining; a sack for treasure; an invisibility cloak and some pork pie.

We then did shared writing of a few lines:

A silver pen for secret statements concealed safely beneath a moonless night.

An enchanted reed pipe to fool your advancing foe by summoning a slither of moonlight.

Here is a list made by four of the year 6 children:

Sixteen things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

Two fire-flies in a jam jar to light up your way.

A book of myths and legends though some would call them truths.

A quill of wise words that writes runes to summon a thread of starlight.

A silver pen that can only be seen by the light of the moon.

Gandalf’s pocket-watch where you spin the hands to turn time.

An enchanted reed pipe for summoning a slither of moonlight to guide you in the night.

A charmed recorder for fooling or hypnotising your foe.

A cauldron of wishes at the edge of an inquisitive mind.

Homely, hard cheese for a fireless night.

A flagon of never-ending water to quench any dwarf’s thirst.

A golden feather, plucked from the finest eagle and a strip of slate forged in goblin mines to contact the nearest village, using an ancient map of The Misty Mountains.

The fang of a dragon to slay fleeing foe.

A completely crystal dagger, able to pierce through any armour and wound even the deadliest of creatures.

A pair of relatively light boots which can endure months of crossing rivers, navigating woods and stumbling through seemingly endless caves and caverns.

A steel-lined cape to protect you from fire, piercing blades and the strongest of incantations.

Of course, the lists could be about what you would find in a troll’s rucksack, a giant’s suitcase, a unicorn’s saddle bags or a goblin’s backpack!

© Pie Corbett 2020

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. Talk for Writing.

Rachel Piercey: Ode to my Tap

Ode to my Tap

With World Water Day coming up in March, I thought I would use my blog to share a poetry workshop which always seems to inspire lovely poems: ‘Ode to My Tap’. The workshop, which I use with Years 4, 5 and 6, explores the importance of access to clean water, as well as encouraging imaginative imagery and metaphors.

Children are naturally passionate advocates for environmental and humanitarian issues and in my experience they really take to this theme, blending the overt message with playful language. It is also an accessible introduction to the concept of an ‘Ode’.

First, I share with the class some of the shocking statistics around access to clean water:

  • 1 in 4 people on the planet don’t have a decent toilet of their own.
  • 1 in 10 people don’t have access to water close to home.
  • 31% of schools around the world don’t have clean water.

(There are lots of useful resources including lesson plans and videos on www.wateraid.org).

I explain that many children have to miss school and skip playing with friends to go and collect clean water, which is often miles away from their home. If children and adults must spend hours each day collecting water, it can prevent them from training for and pursuing the jobs they would like to do.

I tell them that this got me thinking about the importance of something I have always taken for granted – my taps! And so I decided to write an ode, which is a poem in praise of a particular thing. Poets have written odes to all sorts of things – autumn, wind, sadness, music, silence, “a large tuna in the market”… you can write an ode to anything you like!

 

Ode to My Tap

 

My tap is a silver swan.

My tap is a silken roar.

My tap knocks shyly

on its own white door –

drip, drop, drip…

My tap is cold sips.

My tap grows a twisting vine.

My tap is tea-time,

and bath-time,

and squeaky-clean teeth

feel just fine.

My tap speaks tap,

which to the human ear

is a judder in the pipes.

My tap has a hot temper

and a cold shoulder.

My tap is ease.

My tap is a liquid key.

My tap is me being free

to be me.

 

We spend a couple of minutes looking at the different poetic techniques – metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, contrast, use of the five senses, use of rhyme (which I have kept deliberately fluid…pun half-intended…!). Then they are off writing their own poems!

If pupils are having trouble getting started, I ask them to draw a little picture of their tap, then we chat about what the shape reminds them of (e.g. the spout could be a rainbow, a candy cane, a giraffe…the tap handles could be a flower or a hand…). If they don’t want to draw, we might collaborate on some sound effects – a dripping tap, a tap turned on fully etc – and discuss what these sound like.

These Tap Odes lend themselves to illustration – the poem flowing out of the tap is particularly popular. You could also build on this workshop by asking pupils to write a poem in the voice of water, or to write an ode about something else surprising.

If you do write Odes to Your Taps, I’d love to see them! Please feel free to contact me through my website for some class feedback or tag me on Twitter @RachelPoet

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com

Cheryl Moskowitz: In Their Words

In their words

Here we are in January, the first month of the year, and only a week or so into a new decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on time and change and redefine priorities.

January takes its name from Janus, meaning ‘archway’. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways, who presided over difficult transitions, the beginning and the ending of conflicts, and was one who could look backwards as well as forward.

Last year, through worldwide school strike action, young people rose to the surface, inspiring a global movement to fight climate change. Less than a month ago on December 11, 2019, 16 year old Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Speaking at a UN climate change summit in Madrid before the announcement, she urged world leaders to face up to the crisis we are in and take immediate action. The next decade, she said, would define the planet’s future.

The two faces of Janus represent the middle ground between the old and the new, between youth and adulthood.  This dual gaze reminds us we must look to our young as much as to our elders for wisdom and understanding. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to our young people, join forces to find a common language and work creatively with them towards a safe and productive future.

In this second week of January 2020, we are one month on from a general election that children, by virtue of their age, are given no voice in. We enter this new decade still negotiating conflict and in a process of transition, surfacing from an intense period of time where rhetoric and vitriol became the dominant modes of expression. It is vital now that we communicate differently, learn to express ourselves with more clarity, more beauty, more hopefulness, more kindness and more truth. Children and poetry have a big part to play in making that happen.

The Children’s Poetry Summit is made up of adults who believe passionately in the value of poetry and the importance of making it available to children. So, in the spirit of Janus and giving children a voice, I thought I would begin this new decade by looking back at work done during my poetry residency at Highfield Primary School in North London from 2014-18 and publishing a list, a manifesto if you like, written by the children there about why they think poetry is necessary.

As teachers, creative educators and poets writing for children it is always good to remind ourselves, from the child’s perspective, what a child thinks a poem is, what a child knows that a poem can do and why a child believes that the presence of poets and poetry in their schools could play a key part of defining their world’s future.

Here’s what members of the Highfield school council from years 3, 4, 5 & 6, had to say on poetry, in their words.

 

What is a Poem?

A poem is a lie that tells the truth

a poem is a sword, sharp and sly

a poem is a light in the darkness, a single star in the night sky

a poem removes the blindfold so that we can see the world more clearly

a poem is a rainbow leading to treasure, a lost treasure drowned in tears

a poem is a memory, a poem is remembering, a poem is being remembered

and never forgotten

 

What can a poem do?

A poem can blow you away

a poem can be an embrace

a poem can change people’s minds

a poem uses rules, lets you make your own rules, makes you the ruler

a poem can be a doorway to history and new understanding

a poem helps us know the world and our place in it

a poem tells others who we are, what we know, what we want and what we believe…

a poem can change your life!!!

 

Since having a poet in our school…

we are thinking creatively about what we want for the future

we are learning about ourselves and other people

we are sharing memories, spreading messages

we are changing people’s minds about children

we are raising standards, gaining confidence

we are imagining new possibilities

we are feeling inspired

we are making the headlines

 

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent. Cheryl’s website.