As a child, James Carter had a very bad stutter, and flatly refused to take part in any school play because of it. He spoke very rarely in class. Nowadays he says he is a right chatterbox as he’s most passionate about what he does. He is a very experienced poet and excellent performer in schools (I know, I’ve seen him!) and uses his musical friends, Keith, his old acoustic guitar, and Steve, his melodica, to help engage the children. Here he explains the differences in his performances for Key Stage 1 and 2, and whether he is in fact a poet, musician, or comedian…
Are you a Poet or a Guitarist or a Comedian?
I get asked this question a lot. By children. At the end of my assemblies. This is the answer I’d give if there was time…
I’ve now been writing for over twenty years now. Writing books that is. I’ve written quite a few poetry books, a handful of teachers’ creative writing manuals and now a series of verse non-fiction books with the brilliant Little Tiger Press. To be honest, I see myself as a non-fiction writer that happens to write in verse rather than prose. But actually, I’ve been writing things on and off since childhood.
I’ve been a roving poet in Primary and Prep schools all over the UK and abroad for the last 16 years. I must have visited over 1100 schools by now. I absolutely love my job. I love working with innovative, dynamic and responsive teachers and of course children – I so enjoy their vitality, their fresh, wide-eyed sense of wonder and lack of inhibition when it comes to creativity.
I write instrumental music pieces for guitar or piano – and I play these in assemblies or on the CDs I have recorded in the studio. Music I find is a great stimulant for creative writing. Children in the main respond to it very well. It takes the mind out of the here and now, gives you rich mental imagery, and allows you to really take risks with your writing.
And humour? Though I don’t want to stand at the front of the hall just delivering ‘funny’ poems, I try and use a lot of humour. Anarchic, zany humour. Pythonesque as one Headteacher said. It’s essential the children warm to me quickly as I want them to respond to me in the workshop when we get writing. Plus, I relish the creative challenge of finding something amusing to say in any given moment during the day.
With KS1 I only ever do light-hearted material, and all interactive. I will start with a guitar piece and do all kinds of poems about bugs, aliens, funny faces, pirates, travelling the world. All the poems have actions which I teach the children through call and response. Then I do a bunch of animal riddle poems. To finish, I’ll do two more action rhymes, and then I play the melodica – maybe some jazzy stuff or Lady Gaga – and the children might have a boogie for a minute or so.
Schools often ask me to do whole school assemblies. I ALWAYS refuse. How on earth can you deliver age-appropriate material to rising 5s up to rising 11s? If time, I will do three assemblies – one for KS2 in the hall, one for KS1 in the hall, and another shorter one for Reception (sometimes Nursery come along too) in their classroom as they respond much better on the carpet, in an environment they are fully familiar with.
My delivery with KS2 is that of a zany, eccentric professor. With Early Years and KS1 I become a chirpy, avuncular figure. With Infants, I do call and response with every single poem as it keeps them with me. I have a very short attention span myself so I know that I need to keep them on track. I also do actions throughout most of my poems. This again keeps them engaged. One of many reasons I keep Infants and Juniors apart is that if you do anything slightly quirky with Infants, they get excited and giggly very quickly and it’s hard to bring them down again – and this can be annoying for the older children.
I write because I love words, love the whole process of writing individual poems as well as putting a poetry or non-fiction book together. I want children to love writing too – and to really enjoy and explore their creativities, and to want to pick up a pen/pencil and see where it will take them. I can’t go in cold into a workshop in a classroom and start writing on the board, as the children need firing up.
At KS2 in particular – especially Yrs 4 5 6 I want the children to write something incredible, something that will delight and surprise the children themselves as well as the teachers. This means they have to like and trust me. This is where the assembly comes in. After half an hour or so of poems and music (and hopefully having been inspired by that!) in the hall – they will then want to go on and do their writing. Poetry is all about finding new ways to explore and express the world around us, and that’s hard work and takes time.
Children always rise to the occasion. I love it when a child comes up to me and says either ‘Wow! I wrote this!’ or ‘Great, we haven’t done anyway work today’ – as it hasn’t felt like work, even though creative writing is very demanding. One of my favourite ever Finales in a school was in a Boy’s Prep school (though my favourite schools tend to be inner city, multicultural state school, obvs) – in which every member of staff – teachers/Totally Awesomes – were in tears as the boys wrote the most wonderful poems.
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?