One of the benefits of being a writer who visits schools is that sometimes you get invited abroad to work in International Schools. I was fortunate in making many such trips and on three occasions I worked with Spanish children in Madrid and Cordoba encouraging them to write poetry in English.
As someone who struggled with schoolboy French, being bilingual has always seemed to me to be a kind of linguistic wealth. One boy I met in Cordoba had been born in Turkey, learnt Spanish when he moved to Madrid and was now writing poetry in English. It was all part of a day’s work to him.
I took a few ideas with me from the American poet and educationalist Kenneth Koch. He wrote a seminal book in the early seventies about getting children to write poetry – Wishes, Lies and Dreams.
In one section, he was trying to show children how knowing more than one language could be an advantage, as they would have special insights into language, rhythm, imagination and experience, being the product of two cultures.
An idea of Koch’s that I used was where we first thought of words connected with Christmas. (Fortunately this was November and the idea seemed relevant.)
I wrote the words on the board in English and then asked for their Spanish equivalents to write alongside them… star (estrella), dove (paloma) etc.
The children were then asked to invent a new holiday and write a poem about it. The holiday should have new customs, new ceremonies, new characters (like Santa Claus) and be in a new place. These new ideas could be in Spanish.
Unfortunately I’ve mislaid the examples I had but I’d like to offer one of Kenneth Koch’s:
Christmas on my planet
On my planeta named Carambona La Paloma
We have a fiesta called Luna Estrella.
A funny looking hombre comes to our homes.
He has four heads: a leon head, an oso head, a mono head
and a culebra head.
We do a baile names Mar of Nieve.
On this fiesta we eat platos.
That’s how we celebrate Christmas on my planet.
With the youngest groups there are often a number of translation questions – How do you say this in English? Moving up the age ranges, such questions are fewer as the older children stop thinking in Spanish and then translating, and begin to think in English.
With bilingual children though I really wanted to focus on their peculiar experiences, the moving around, the going from country to country, school to school that many of them would have had.
And so another trigger could be houses.
When you left your house, what did you miss?
I tell them my experiences when I left my house by the sea and then ask for theirs.
When I left my house
I missed the sixth stair that creaked so loudly
when we trod on it at night.
I missed the family of ducks
that appeared in the lane each Spring.
A structure like this also promotes rhythm through repetition of ….I missed, and works with anything you leave behind… street, town, school etc
I tried reversing this too, with children thinking about the fresh insights they have gained from moving to a new country.
Before I moved here
I had never seen…
I had never tasted…
I had never smelt…
One final idea that I used with the very young ones:
Brian Moses writes poetry and picture books for children. His new poetry book Selfies With Komodos has just been published by Otter-Barry Books and a new collection, On Poetry Street will be available from Scallywag Press in February 2024. His website is www.brianmoses.co.uk and he blogs about children’s writing at brian-moses.blogspot.com Follow on twitter for daily poetry prompts @moses_brian
Authors Abroad was set up in 2008 by Trevor Wilson after he was inspired during his time working as teacher in international schools by the impact children’s author and poet visits can have on young people. It has continued to grow and now operates in over 80 countries as well as arranging author, poet, storyteller and illustrator visits for hundreds of schools annually throughout the UK.
Although we arrange a plethora of author visits at a huge range of facilities dealing with a varied age group, poetry holds a special place in our hearts. There is something very magical about a poetry visit and how it can connect with young people who are disengaged from literacy, struggling to express themselves or even help stretch those who are gifted writers. We run the publishing company Caboodle Books and our speciality is poetry, with a range of poetry books from rhyming picture books to traditional poetry collections for young people and poems told via a graphic novel with scannable QR codes to hear the poet performing the pieces on YouTube as you read along. We’ve even managed to win a CLiPPA award, which we are exceptionally proud of, with Karl Nova’s debut Rhythm and Poetry.
In addition to our regular in school poetry visits and our poetry-focused AIM High Days (founded in collaboration with Brian Moses) we have been very excited to launch some Poetry Slam days. We took over the running of Spoz’s Worcestershire slam last year and it proved so successful we have expanded it, also taking on Gloucester and launching in Calderdale, Leeds and London. We are running extra slams in Leeds to support their Leeds 2023 culture programme and are very grateful to the Bearder Minster Trust in Halifax which helped subsidise the slams in Calderdale to allow the maximum of 14 schools to take part.
We know the difference poetry can make and the impact it has on schools. It helps increase reading for pleasure and the confidence boost it can deliver for pupils is immense. That is why we are passionate about getting poetry into schools in various formats and for various budgets. Whether private days in person, bespoke virtual sessions, a subsidised subscription of pre-recorded videos including authors and poets via our brand new Caboodle Classroom offering (with accompanying teaching notes provided by CLPE), which launches next month, AIM High poetry days for gifted and talented or our brand new poetry slams, Authors Abroad are experts at connecting poets to schools to allow them to share their enthusiasm and knowledge about the written and spoken word.
Our specialist knowledge and years of experience means we can find the perfect match for a school which is looking to organise an event that suits them and their learners’ needs. We also advocate for poets, helping well-established names add new schools to their roster and manage their busy schedules, whilst also offering opportunities to those who are newer to the scene and still establishing themselves.
Feedback from one of our poet’s visits:
“Kate Wakeling visited our school for National Poetry Day and was an absolutely wonderful guest. She engaged the pupils from the off, with an assembly to the whole school – from reception to year 6, every student was enthralled. She then ran workshops and poetry readings, bringing out incredible work and creativity from the students.’ St Christopher’s School on their visit with Kate Wakeling.
Yvonne Lang is the manager of Authors Abroad UK visits and Poetry Slams, as well as head of author recruitment. Following over a dozen years working in public libraries, then as Head Librarian at a boy’s grammar school, she joined Authors Abroad and now runs the team booking author and poet visits all over the UK.
On a school visit once, I was asked to work with a Year 2 class whose teacher greeted me at the door and told me in a loud voice that her class had no imagination whatsoever. I was determined to prove her wrong and I handed everyone a marble from a collection that I keep with me. Initially the children all told me that inside their marbles they could see colours, shapes, swirls, patterns and reflections. And then one child said that she thought she could see a fire-breathing dragon. “That’s wonderful,” I replied, “Now can anyone see anything else?” Soon we had aliens, spaceships, oceans, sea creatures, faces, clouds, rainbows and many other imaginative ideas which the children then wrote up into short poems. “Well. they don’t write like this for me,” was their teacher’s reply.
I tell this story as an example of how low expectations will result in mediocre work and ideas.
At KS1 there are always plenty of opportunities for observation. Whilst looking at objects or pictures helps to develop children’s early creativity with questions such as – What does it remind you of? What does it look like? Answers will be quite fanciful at times and may not fit with an adult perspective, but nothing should be dismissed as wrong.
Children worry too about how they should write something down. They have the ideas and the words but can’t always see how they fit together on the page. Simple frameworks can often help the less confident so that the worry of How do I write it down? is then removed leaving the children to develop their ideas.
In literature, many stories come about because their writer has asked the same question, “What if?” What if a snowman came to life? What if you could walk through a wardrobe into a frozen world?
What if a playground number snake came to life? (Use an actual playground snake or show a picture of one.)
Begin by taking children on a walk around the school building. Ask them to note down as many words as they can beginning with the letter ‘S’. Back in the classroom note down more S words.
Next ask the children to come up with S words that describe how a snake moves. Write them down for everyone to see, words such as slide, slip, slither, spin, spiral.
Now write a poem with the class that begins: When the snake slithered into school…’ Tell the children that they should offer ideas that contain plenty of S words, but that sentences should make some sort of sense and be about school activities.
When the snake slithered into school
it scared the teachers in the staffroom,
it left slimy tracks in the sports hall,
it slid up the stairs and interrupted a storytime session,
it squeezed Miss Simmons and Miss Shearsby
and finally, it shed its skin in someone’s sock.
Whilst you are scribing the poem for the children, always ask them which idea or which word works best if there are alternative suggestions. Show them how you are happy to cross out one word and replace it with a more effective one, perhaps one that sounds better when the line is read aloud. Children will then begin to understand the selection process that writers go through and that they don’t always get it right first time.
Once children have been involved in producing a class poem, they might like to try similar poems, thinking of other creatures that might come into school – when the fly flew in through the fire exit, when the cat crept into the classroom, and even when the lion leapt into school. A natural extension of this activity would be to turn the poems into picture books, taking one line for each page.
Brian Moses writes poetry and picture books for children. His new poetry book Selfies With Komodos will be published by Otter-Barry Books in January 2023. His website is www.brianmoses.co.uk and he blogs about children’s writing at brian-moses.blogspot.com Follow on Twitter for daily poetry prompts @moses_brian.
As the first in a new series of poets’ profiles, we asked Brian Moses to talk about being a children’s poet.
Who are you?
Brian Moses, Poet, Picture book writer, anthologist, writer in schools, percussionist.
How long have you been writing poetry for children?
Since I became a teacher in 1975 and started getting children to write poetry. I used to read them all my favourite stuff by Michael Rosen, Roger McGough and later on Kit Wright and Wes Magee. Some of the time I couldn’t find suitable children’s poems for the class topics that we were studying so I started writing them myself and using them with the children. Their responses were often quite favourable, probably because I was their teacher and they were being kind to me. But it did encourage me to keep writing more and more.
How did you get started?
I was drawn to poetry through my enjoyment of the lyrics of rock music, particularly singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Doors. The poetry I was offered in school made little impression on me at the time and it wasn’t until I picked up a book of poems by the Liverpool Poets – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough & Brian Patten – that I realised that poetry could be fun, that it could speak to me in a language that I understood and that it had relevance to my life as a teenager. I wrote my first poem at the age of 16 to try and persuade a girl who lived near me to go out with her. It failed to achieve its purpose.
What do you enjoy about writing?
I love words and the way that poetry allows me to string words together in a variety of ways. I love the rhythms of poetry and being able to underpin those rhythms with a range of percussion instruments. I like the way in which poems can sneak up on me when I least expect them too, the way that they nag at me till I take time to pin them down. I like being able to write in many different places and not being confined to my desk, although that’s where the poems are usually completed.
Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?
Keep a writer’s notebook and always listen in to other people’s conversations.
Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?
It has to be my Best of ‘Lost Magic’ as it contains my hundred favourite poems. The hardback edition from Macmillan with a brilliant cover by illustrator Ed Boxall is something I’m so pleased to have on my shelves. I’m also looking forward to my new book ‘Selfies with Komodos’ which Otter-Barry are publishing in January as it has poems written over the past six years that I’m really pleased with.
Which book was most important in your career as a poet?
I sent poems to Cambridge University Press in 1993 hoping they’d be keen to publish a book and was pleasantly surprised to find that they wanted two books from me, one for younger readers which became ‘Hippopotamus Dancing’ and the other ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for older ones. These were published in both hardback and paperback and were my first poetry books from a major publisher.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?
Over the 34 years that I have worked as a professional poet, it’s the unpredictability of the job that has kept it exciting and rewarding. I’ve never known what was going to happen next or where I’d be invited to go. I’ve performed my poems in many different locations including Iceland, the Edinburgh Festival, Prince Charles’s Summer School for Teachers, an open prison, a New York bookshop , the United Nations Building in Geneva and RAF schools in Cyprus
Anything else you’d like to say about children’s poetry?
On Thursday 21 October 2021, Wes Magee, well-known children’s poet and author, passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Here is a selection of his poems, published with permission, chosen by just a few of those who admired his wonderful work.
Wes Magee was a role model when I first started writing poetry for children. Like me, he was a teacher at that time (later a headteacher) and his classes had inspired him to write his own poems, when he couldn’t find ones relevant to the work in hand. I remember a four page booklet of poems about dinosaurs which the children in my classes loved to hear, and then in 1989 there were two books from Cambridge University Press, Morning Break and The Witch’s Brew.
These were such diverse collections from someone who understood children, their lives and what made them tick. Wes was a master craftsman too. His poems were finely tuned and there was something for everyone – spooky poems, funny poems, sad poems and poems that begged to be read aloud. Reading aloud was something Wes did brilliantly. We shared the stage on a number of occasions and I was always struck by the way he quickly developed a relationship with his audience, no matter what age. He was particularly at home with younger children, and they listened intently as if he was imparting the kind of secrets that they needed to see them through life.
Recently Wes toured Northern Ireland on several occasions. I talked with him once after he’d spent the day in a school in Belfast with 12 classes. “I visited every one,” he said. I envied his energy and his stamina. Fortunately his poems are recorded on the Poetry Archive. Do give them a listen.
I have many favourite poems but for me, this short one is near perfect.
A hot day at the school
All day long the sun glared
as fiercely as a cross Headteacher.
Out on the brown, parched field
we trained hard for next week’s Sports day.
Hedges wilted in the heat;
teachers’ cars sweltered on the tarmac.
In the distance, a grenade of thunder
exploded across the glass sky.
Wes, of course, wrote many school-based poems which children can easily relate to but I’ve chosen something a little different: VOICES, in which all three verses are linked by the voices of different adults calling the children in.
The first verse begins with four friends ‘adventuring’ in an overgrown garden where ‘ … a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds/was our pirate ship, sailing uncharted seas’ … a lovely alliterative image of thewaves of weeds. In the second verse, cousins are rowing on a lake’ssunlit-wrinkled waterand here it is thehand-cupped shoutof the boatmen calling them in from the jetty.
In the final verse the poem takes a more sinister turn with its Hansel and Gretel reference of a crabbed old woman inviting the children lost in the wood to rest in her cottage, with its finalCome in!/dear children./Come in! It is, we learn, a story being told by a teller who mimics the witch’s final invitation … but we are all aware of the power of story and the children stare intently, dry-mouthed, at the teller!
I love poems that change the mood as they proceed and this would be a wonderful poem to perform; I never heard Wes perform this one but can imagine what a great telling he would give it!
My mother’s voice boomed across the backs of houses,
calling me home as dusk fell that July evening.
But still we played, four friends adventuring
at the end of Mathew’s long, overgrown garden
where a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds,
was our pirate ship sailing uncharted seas.
Dirt-streaked, and oblivious of the deepening purple dark,
we played on as first stars blinked like harbour lights.
The boatman’s hoarse voice reverberated
across the lake’s sparkling, sunlit-wrinkled water.
Yet my cousins continued to row towards the reed beds
where ducks, moorhens and coots paddled and pecked.
We laughed as heavy oars dipped and splashed,
and gazed when a flight of geese took off, wings clapping.
The rowing boat rocked in the wind and waves,
and still the boatman’s hand-cupped shout from the jetty,
The crabbed old woman smiled toothlessly
as she invited the children lost in the green wood
to rest in her cottage half hidden in the bushes and trees.
I remember how the storyteller added scary sound effects
— an owl’s wavering hoot, wind hushing in the treetops,
and his fingers snapping like dead, woodland twigs.
Dry-mouthed and wide-eyed we stared intently
as he mimicked the witch’s final invitation,
My favourite poems by Wes are either about Thorgill, winter or the annual Christmas card poem in which I felt that Wes was writing about his life. Elegant and finely crafted, this poem slows time to capture and preserve a moment. And every time the poem is read aloud (preferably in Wes’s wonderful rich voice), the moment is recreated and happens again. The poem draws the reader in with ‘you’ and we are there – in the dales, watching the Moon, car lights, cat and bright stars. The poem draws to a magical and comforting closure; a wonder-struck fragment – a prayer.
This Silent Night
(… … on the North York Moors)
Bathed in the back door’s yellow light
you gaze upon a winter’s night
and view the shy Moon’s misty veil
as car beams flick across the dale.
A black cat pads the patio
to leave small paw-prints in the snow,
and air’s aglitter, stars are bright
this Christmas Eve,
this silent night.
I’ve picked What is the Sun, as it was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was little, and I must have read it at hundreds of bedtimes. What, at first encounter, could be seen as a string of metaphors, is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Each word is carefully chosen and placed so that the lines rise and fall, like a gentle incoming tide, as each soothing image follows the last. It is irresistible to read aloud, slowly, and bathe in its rhythmic calm.
What is the Sun?
The Sun is an orange dinghy
sailing across a calm sea
it is a gold coin
dropped down a drain in Heaven
the Sun is a yellow beach ball
kicked high into the summer sky
it is a red thumb-print
on a sheet of pale blue paper
the Sun is a milk bottle’s gold top
floating in a puddle
Being invited to select a single poem from Wes Magee’s vast collection of poetry for children is like choosing a favourite child! There is so much to admire in his work, so apt, What is a million?, so clever with words, Deep down in the darkness, so sensitive, Tracey’s tree, – and on occasion, so full of fun, Miss Jones, football teacher, that the task is almost impossible.
But here goes! The children in my Years 3 and 4 really enjoyed Down by the school gate. They loved its rhythm, sustained throughout the poem, its fun, and of course, it brings the joy of the countdown. It’s a ‘joining in’ poem and that makes it special for 7-8 year-olds. And indeed, for Special Needs classes who can shout the numbers and thump the floor as it moves to the final triumphant One lollipop man …
In addition, Down at the school gate provides a pattern on which to model the children’s own poems. It is cleverly crafted, yet looks easy – and that shows the poet’s skill.
Wes has left us bereft, we teachers, poets and friends will miss his friendship, his enthusiasm and above all, his way with words.
Many of the similes used in everyday speech have been used again and again, so there is no element of surprise:
When he saw the ghost he turned as white as a sheet.
I looked into the cupboard but it was as black as ink.
Whether we are writers, teachers of writing, or both, our job must be to develop the element of surprise wherever we can. James Joyce in The Dubliners writes of ‘…a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness…’
In my sessions with young writers I often ask them to take a well known simile and stretch it till it says something new. As slow as a snail could become as slow as a snail pushing a brick. Make a giraffe even taller by stretching as tall as a giraffe to as tall as a giraffe on stilts.
Other comparisons might be:
As weird as a dandelion clock saying ‘tick-tock’.
As slow as a farmer pushing his tractor up a steep hill.
As fast as a cheetah on roller skates.
As unhappy as a shoe being worn by a smelly foot.
I oftenask young writers to develop these ideas into a poem which builds on one stretched simile after another. I ask them to choose an animal and turn it into a super creature. Some alliteration can be effective here – my crazy crocodile, my magnificent maggot, my fantastic flamingo.
I always start with a class poem which will act as a model for anyone wishing to follow it, but also emphasise that anyone wishing to adapt the model and take off in another direction should feel free to do so.
Think of a first line, perhaps to do with the creature’s size.
My terrifying tortoise is as heavy as a hippo lifting weights
and as long as the Channel Tunnel.
Then think of its strength and speed:
It is as strong as a weightlifter holding aloft the Eiffel Tower
and as fast as Usain Bolt with rocket boosters.
How noisy is it?
It is as noisy as a howler monkey screeching into a microphone.
We then carry on adding to the poem by thinking about what the creature eats and drinks or how much it eats and drinks. Does it have any special features – claws, wings, a tail? Is it fierce or friendly? Does it need protection or does it protect you?
My Huge Hamster
My huge hamster is as big as an elephant with a pork belly
and as strong as a shark using its tail to lift up the Houses of Parliament.
It’s as tall as a twelve storey building on tiptoe
and as heavy as a brick-eating bull.
It is as fierce as a snake when it is bored
and as fast as a cheetah riding a motorbike.
It is as noisy as a lion in a rock band
and as greedy as a panda that’s been starved for days.
It is as funky as a chimpanzee in a disco
and is mine, mine, mine.
In his book Moon-Whales, Ted Hughes has poems that can provide models and inspiration for further imagination-stretching pieces about space creatures. The Snail of the Moon has a wail ‘…as though something had punctured him.Moon-Heads are ‘shining like lamps and light as balloons’ and Moon-Witches are ‘…looking exactly like cockroaches’.
Again find alliterative titles – The Jaguars of Jupiter, the Slithering Snakes of Saturn, the Voles of Venus. This time as well as describing these creatures in colourful language, think of how they interact with others. Do the Monkeys of Mercury visit the Pythons of Pluto or fight with the Newts of Neptune.
Alternatively, come back to Earth again and find nasty creatures in the local environment – the Ogre of Oswestry, the Terrifying Troll of Tring or the Dreadful Dragon of Dorchester…
The Dreadful Dragon of Dorchester
Was as plump as and old oak and tall as a willow.
His footstep was an earthquake,
a mountain was his pillow.
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 I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems and picture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer. Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.
I was fortunate to have my first two poetry anthologies published by Blackie, and then Puffin in the early 1990s. However nobody seemed very keen on my third idea for a book which I called ‘The Secret Lives of Teachers’. One publisher wrote to me and told me that in his opinion it wouldn’t sell.
As an ex teacher I knew it would sell, and fortunately so did Susie Gibbs at Macmillan.
She commissioned the book and then handed the editorship to Gaby Morgan with whom I have now worked for almost 30 years. Gaby completely understood its potential too.
The market for children’s poetry was very different back then. There were a number of school book clubs that regularly took books into schools and these clubs bought thousands of copies of ‘Secret Lives’. In fact we wound up selling 75,000 copies (A best seller for children’s poetry then was 5,000 copies) Gaby and I then put together two more books ‘More Secret Lives of Teachers’ and ‘The Top Secret Lives of Teachers’, and later on, bundled them all together into a big volume.
In all editions, over 200,000 copies were sold in total. At the same time Paul Cookson and David Orme were also compiling anthologies which sold in great numbers.
This was a boom time for children’s poetry. Other anthologies which sold tens of thousands of copies were ‘Aliens Stole My Underpants’ and ‘I’m Telling On You – Poems about Brothers and Sisters.’
In 1998 the National Year of Reading gave a great boost to poetry and the anthologies we produced – often five or six a year – kept on selling.
We were criticised of course, by those who were precious about children’s poetry. I remember one particular event at the Society of Authors which Gaby and I attended, where she argued our case passionately in the face of some quite hostile criticism. We both knew that the poetry we were publishing made children smile or laugh – although in every book there were poems to make them think too. They were sold at pocket money prices and introduced children to a genre which otherwise they may not have encountered.
There seemed to be some notion though that if you didn’t introduce children to a poet like Alexander Pope before they went to school, then you were doing it wrong. This was a big part of the reason why children of my generation left school having turned away from poetry, through inappropriate choices at inappropriate ages.
Getting children hooked on words and how they fit together through humorous poetry, means that they are then more open-minded to other kinds of poetry. They will have already embraced the rhythms of poetry and understood that it could mean something to their lives.,
Today there is a huge interest in poetry through poets visiting schools and through many teachers who are equally passionate about poetry. However this doesn’t translate into sales figures and smaller publishers who are producing some very fine poetry books find themselves struggling.
I don’t know what the answer is, I only know that I was pleased to be a part of that gold rush time for children’s poetry books in the 1990s and early 2000s, pleased to work with Gaby for so long, and pleased to have returned to our roots, as it were, with our latest publication of funny poems.
Brian Moseshas over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems. 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. Blog: brian-moses.blogspot.com Website: http://www.brianmoses.co.uk
The poet Wes Magee and I used to run spooky writing weekends for children. One of them was held in a 14th Century Manor House on the Isle of Wight, another in the old Carnegie Theatre in Dunfermline, and a third at Hellens House in Herefordshire.
Hellens was just what we needed it to be – shutters, faded tapestries, huge fireplaces with roaring log fires, stern portraits, a spiral staircase, minstrels’ gallery, four poster beds, ancient cupboards, loose floorboards and not just one, but two rooms which were supposedly haunted.
Right at the start we paraded the cliches of the horror movies and quickly dismissed them. Nothing was needed but the house itself and the spooky feelings that it engendered. Anything that felt menacing was made more menacing. We gradually built up the atmosphere, layer on layer.
I touched a mirror that was layered in thick dust,
I saw a candle light that was there and then wasn’t.
I discovered a piece of shattered glass
in which I gazed upon what seemed like a ghostly face.
And in the grounds of the house on a dull November day…
I saw a young tree strangled by ivy,
I saw a feather fall and stab the ground.
These were quite ordinary things made to sound sinister using the language of horror with words like strangled and stab.
By starting each line with ‘I’, a rhythm is established without using rhyme, along with a chant-like quality when read aloud.
A similar sort of exercise can take place in the classroom. Switch off the light, pull down the blinds and imagine yourself in the classroom at midnight.
I heard the computer sigh creepily like the wind moaning.
I heard the trees scratch against the window as if they wanted to get in.
I saw scissors snapping angrily…
At Hellens we toured the building seeking out possible spooky observations from each room. A poem then followed a pattern:
We went on a ghost hunt.
We looked into the drawing room.
We didn’t see a ghost but we saw a chess piece move and
heard a snore from a chair.
We climbed the central staircase.
We didn’t see a ghost but a hand passed my shoulder and
a guitar was lightly dusted.
Children then described the resident ghost? Where it dwelt, how it revealed itself, how it moved and what its hopes and fears might be…
His cold lonely face
Begs for company
For fear he would be alone for eternity.
These ideas can also be adapted for classroom use with children remembering spooky places that they have visited in the past.
Finally, consider how the writing should be performed. Some pieces can be made more effective through the use of percussion instruments – the slow beat of a drum between each line, the low notes on a piano. Someone with a keyboard and/or computer skills may be able to compose a suitably spooky backing track against which a poem could be read.
Remember too that the voice is also an effective instrument and that menacing feeling in the writing must come across in the reading for the listener to be completely involved.
Brian Moses is a children’s poet. He has toured his poetry and percussion show around schools, libraries, theatres and festivals in the UK and Europe for the past thirty-two years. Lost Magic: The Very Best of Brian Moses is available from Macmillan and his widely performed poem Walking With My Iguana is now a picture book from Troika Books. A new anthology, The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems will be published by Macmillan in March 2021.
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 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 I 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.
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.
Inject a sense of urgency by giving a time limit for independent writing, to aid concentration.
Children share and polish their ideas.
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 fromunderground 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 MistyMountains; 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 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.
You must be logged in to post a comment.