Pie Corbett: Lists

Lists

The Japanese poet Sei Shonagon wrote list poems. These were collected in ‘The Pillow Book’, about 1000 AD. Lists are a great way to write as you can have a long list or a short list.  Sei wrote hundreds of lists about shiny things, soft things, hard things, worries, things that make me annoyed, sad things, things that worry me, rare things, cats, awkward things, disconcerting things, things that give a clean/ unclean feeling, things that should be large/ short, features I like and so on. The book contains lists, poems and gossip. I suppose it was an early form of blogging.

During lockdown, I asked children on the radio show RadioBlogging to make lists of secret, special and delicate things. Here is a list of twelve things, sort them into two groups – delicate and strong.

Leaf skeleton   Lace    Butterfly wing   Spider’s leg    Eyeball    Fishing line    Bubble    Snowflake     Dried seaweed    Cat’s tail Snake’s kin    Cloud    Rainbow    Electricity     Elastic band

Delicate things are frail, fragile and easily broken. What would be your list of delicate things? Rapidly jot down ideas. This is often a good way to start writing. Gather lots of ideas very rapidly. It doesn’t matter if they look messy. You won’t use all the ideas when you write. Jot them down in your magpie book or writing journal.

Now choose from your list your special ideas. Choose things that only you know about. Look around the room that you are in. Look out of the window. Look into your mind to places that you know well. Try to spot small, delicate things. Make each idea different and choose your words carefully.

Writing tip:  choose things to write about that only you may have seen or noticed or thought about. That way, your list of ideas will be a special way of capturing your life. Try to avoid the temptation of borrowing other people’s ideas. To get ideas look around where you are, look out of the window and then look inside your head at places you know well. There will be hundreds of things to notice. Make each one special by choosing your words to describe them with care, perhaps revealing a unique detail.

© 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

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.

Pie Corbett: The City of Stars

The City of Stars

This game is one of my favourite surreal poetry games. The initial idea is to put the children into pairs. The first pair makes a list of 5 generic places (by that, I mean not ‘Paris’ but ‘city’) and their partner makes a list of similar length of abstract nouns without seeing each other’s lists. Here I have listed 17 ideas for each:
Generic places: city, cellar, beach, cupboard, attic, town, village, house, shop, cathedral, park, forest, planet, alleyway, motorway, patio, kitchen, classroom.
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 most are the fresh and startling juxtapositions when two ideas are placed together have never been heard before and this unique combination often 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 Knowle Park experimented with this idea. 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

These ideas were then linked and the children wrote extended sentences:

• 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.

Tom Wrigglesworth from Selby Primary has experimented with different categories. In one game, he gathered with the class a list of ‘collective nouns’ and added these to various sinister abstract nouns.

The class selected four and Tom used shared writing to jointly create a sinister paragraph.

A further development of the game is called ‘split definitions’. This involves each child using a piece of paper divided into four. They write down a concrete noun plus a definition and an abstract noun with a definition. Here are two examples:

 

Door is an opening  from one room into another
Secret is something important that you are not going to tell anyone

 

Train is a vehicle with trucks or carriages that runs on tracks
Greed  is when you really want something that you don’t really need

 

Once everyone has completed their grids then the pieces of paper are cut or torn up and a pile of all the concrete nouns is made, a separate pile of the abstract nouns and one pile of all the definitions. The three piles are shuffled and then everyone selects randomly a new concrete noun, abstract noun and two definitions. Given the two examples above we could end up with the following:

 

A door is when you really want something that you don’t really need.

A secret is a vehicle with trucks or carriages that runs on tracks.

A train is something important that you are not going to tell anyone.

Greed is an opening from one room into another.

 

©  Pie Corbett 2019

 

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.