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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Creative Writing with Young Learners - Poetry

By Enokson on Flickr

Many teachers are reluctant to spend time on extensive reading or writing in class. There are various reasons for this, some being:

  1. I don't have enough time to get through the syllabus as well as doing extra work.
  2. My students want/need to learn how to speak English, not read literature.
  3. I would rather teach my students how to function in real-life situations.
  4. I don't know much about literature myself.
  5. My students don't like reading.
  6. My students don't like writing.
  7. This is a language class, not a literature class.
These are some of the possible reasons that I can imagine would prevent teachers from introducing poetry into the classroom, though I'm sure there are many more. I myself have been guilty of the first answer - I have been teaching for eleven years and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have used poetry or literature for any other reason than to introduce a new structure, to focus on forms or as an intensive reading task.

Time is extremely valuable and the fact that doing creative writing in class is time-consuming is an important factor. However, if you can spare ten to fifteen minutes each lesson over several days, it does not have to run too much into your heavy schedule. Below is how I introduced poetry with a group of nine and ten year olds, with the final objective of having my learners take part in an international poetry competition.

Lesson One: Reading Poetry

We discussed poetry - whether the learners ever read  or wrote poems, at home or at school. They seemed to have the opinion that poetry was something very difficult to both understand and write. In Spain it is very rare for children or teenagers to do much creative writing, and if they do it tends to be very structured and limited by the teacher. When I told them that we were going to look at some poems in English before writing our own poems, they seemed gobsmacked. "We don't know how to write poems in Spanish! We can't write them in English!" So I gave them the following poems written by children to read, taken from The Poetry Zone.  First, I gave them a copy and read it aloud myself, twice. This was so the children would get a feeling for how the poem sounded, instead of concentrating on what each word or line meant.

When I look at the sky,
I remember a bird in the air
It came on my finger,
but now it isn't there,
after I looked in the sky
it was exactly where it was
I looked at the clouds
and my bird was flying around in the air
and it was always there.
By Madeeha Saher, age 8

The Poem about an Insect by Joel Oram, aged 12
I am really small
I wish I could be tall
I get covered in leaves
From the huge, huge trees
One side of the wood to the other takes forever
Climbing over mountains which to you are weeds
When the strong wind hits me I fly over the trees like an aeroplane
When I get really cold, I hide under fallen branches
Wherever I go I have to try not to get lost
I don't want to get stepped on
So I shoot off and then I'm gone
I am so small, you will not find me
Hiding in the woodland.

These poems are written by children of around their age. For each poem, we then created actions to go with each poem, focussing on the meaning of the lines. I then asked them to look at the poems and asked them what they noticed about punctuation (there wasn't any in the second poem) and if that was ok in a poem. We discussed that normal rules like punctuation and capital letters aren't necessary in poems (this didn't stop them from using punctuation in their own poems). I then asked them if the poems rhymed and if they thought rhyming poems were better or not. We decided that making poems rhyme is difficult, and for our first poem we would not make it rhyme.

Lesson Two: The topic, preparation and first drafts

I told the learners that the poems they were going to write would be entered into a competition. I had printed off a copy of the poster that can be found, along with lots of useful information and resources, on the British Council's Teaching English Website. We looked at the poster and I explained the rules of the competition.
I then told them that the topic was HOME. I told them to think about what the word HOME meant to them and what they imagined when they heard the word. We brainstormed some vocabulary relating to the topic on the board. Because they were concentrating on their own idea of home, I then asked them to think of the homes of other creatures. We discussed the homes of fish and insects amongst other animals. I made sure that they were aware that it wasn't necessary to write about their own home, if they didn't want to. They could imagine they were somebody or something else and write from their point of view.

Each learner then had a blank sheet of paper on which to write any words that they associated with HOME. They could write whatever came into their heads - as long as it had something to do with the topic. I encouraged them to focus on one aspect of home - Whose home is it?  What is it like? What is there? Why does it feel like home? As they were working, I monitored helping with vocabulary and ideas for those who were finding it hard to get started. I also made my own  personal brainstorm, trying to stick to words that the learners would understand.

When everybody had written what they could, I wrote my words on the board. Then, as a class, we wrote a poem using my words. I started it off by choosing one of the words and writing the first line, and we built it up bit by bit. Here is a Wordle of the words I chose:

 Unfortunately, I didn't make a copy of the poem we created and I don't remember enough to reproduce it here, but you can get an idea of how I imagine home (nothing, in fact, like my real home but a fairly common British idea of the word, I think!) Of course, the students' words were nothing like mine - since it was September and we had recently com back from the summer holidays, many of them wrote about the beach, which is their second home.


The children then drew a picture that represented their idea of home and the words they had written. This was to get them focussing on the different words, and grouping them together to form complete ideas. For example, with my words, I would draw myself sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea, reading a book in front of the fire. Having a disorganised list of words, they would need to bring together their ideas. They could draw circles around groups of words that went together, or that talked about the same thing.

The learners then started working on their first draft of their poems. Luckily, I have found the rough copy of Violeta's work, including her notes. Here is a Wordle of her ideas:


I will be including a link to the children's poetry, but I'm having some formatting problems with the document. I will share the link as soon as I can.

Lesson Three: The finished product

It can be useful to view a first draft with fresh eyes, so we came back to them after the weekend. The students re-read their drafts and made any changes they felt could improve it. I helped correct spelling mistakes, and revised verb forms and agreement (more for the competition than anything else). The learners then copied up their poems and drew pictures to illustrate them. They also had to think of a title that best described their poem.

I entered their poems into the competition that evening. One of the students was eleven and was too old to enter the competition, so I decided to have a parallel competition within the class. My colleague, Stephen, who is actually writes novels when he isn't teaching, was to be the judge. He would choose the three best entries. I then made a booklet on the computer which included all their poems, and gave each student a copy to take home, whilst displaying another on the wall for everyone else to see.

The learners were really proud of their work. The competition element helped motivate them into doing it well, but I think they enjoyed the writing process too. Spelling and grammar were important, but not the be all and end all. The important thing was the content. The poems were judged on content and sound, rather than accuracy. I think it is essential to have students, whatever their age and level, sometimes work on tasks where their ideas are what matters, rather than how they express them. If we constantly focus on form, they will pay much more attention to grammatical accuracy and vocabulary than the planning process and ideas, and to be honest, for a piece of writing to have the desired effect and to be "successful", the ideas and points made can be more important than the way in which they are expressed.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you don't have to spend full lessons on this. You could do a little each day for several weeks. I wouldn't drag it out too long, as the learners may get bored, but it could be something they could work on if they finish their work early.

I hope you have enjoyed these ideas and found them useful. They worked for this particular class, but may not work so well with a different group of learners. I will get the link to their poems up ASAP.

5 comments:

  1. Hi Michelle,
    I love the idea. I've always liked working with creative writing and literature in the classroom - for the same reasons you give here - and as I've mainly worked with teens and adults, it was interesting to see how it works for younger learners. I'm looking forward to seeing the poems.

    by the way, did you get a chance to present the idea at the tefldelsur swapshop? I'm sorry I had to leave early - parental duties were calling!
    Ceri

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  2. Hi Ceri!

    I didn't share it in the end - as everyone else's ideas were about warmer/filler type activities, I didn't think it fit in so well and time was running short. I've posted the link to the post on the Tefl del Sur website so everyone will be able to read it anyway. Hopefully some of the others will add links to their templates too.

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  3. Hi Michelle,

    I could not agree more. While the creative process is necessarily time-consuming, the dividends that it pays always make it worth it (when I've implemented it properly, of course).

    As a first grade teacher in my second year, I've been really trying to develop my writing block to make it much more genuine for students and to provide lasting, positive experiences for them.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts at Educated Exchange, where there's already a discussion on the topic!

    http://www.educatedexchange.com/topic/22/How-to-provide-genuine-and-interesting-experiences-with-writing

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  4. Thanks for your comments, Educated Exchange!

    I applaud your intentions to create memorable experiences for your learners - as an adult I can remember several such experiences during my own high school education which I think made me more interested in language and literature.

    A couple of my English teachers had brilliant ideas which really worked with teenagers and I loved their classes. One of the creative writing activities we did was a guided visualisation, which we later had to write up as a kind of story. This is great for students who have difficulty in coming up with ideas (quite common amongst teenagers) as it allows them to experience a situation in their heads without thinking, which they just have to remember and find the words to describe it.
    It is also an excellent way of trying to get students using a wider vocabulary.

    I also teach younger children and your community looks very useful - I will be joining!

    Thanks again for stopping by :)

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  5. You rock.

    Used this to inspire my writing for fun class today.

    ReplyDelete

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