Matt is a good friend who, following one career as a primary school teacher in Manchester, England, is now a fellow full time children’s poet. He’s also a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation. His acclaimed debut collection, Carry Me Away, illustrated by Sue Hardy-Dawson, was released in 2016 and his most recent collections are The Same Inside (Macmillan 2018), written with me and Roger Stevens, and Chicken on the Roof illustrated by Hanna Asen (Otter Barry 2018). He visits schools, libraries and festivals to deliver high-energy, fun-filled poetry performances and workshops. His website is here.
Matt Goodfellow: Poetry in the Classroom
As a poet who spends much of his time working in schools to raise the profile of poetry, I’m often asked many different versions of the same sort of question: ‘What can poetry offer in my classroom whilst I’m under extreme pressure to get children to achieve ‘age related expectations?’
Well, to put it simply: freedom. And the ability to engender children who WANT to write. A space away from the pressure. Speaking as a former primary teacher who worked in a Manchester school for over 10 years (5 of them as a Y6 teacher), I’m acutely aware of the current curriculum and, in my opinion, its damaging constrictions.
The pressures put on schools by the government to get an increasing percentage of children writing at a standard dictated by them, regardless of children’s starting points, year on year, can often mean that stressed out teachers and classes write extended piece of writing after extended piece of writing desperately trying to satisfy the curriculum’s insatiable appetite for clean, cold grammatical features that someone has decided demonstrates ‘good writing.’
Now, I’m not saying this happens in all schools, but I have seen classrooms where creativity and freedom have pretty much disappeared by Year 6. But, boy, do the kids have thick writing portfolios to show the Local Authority moderator. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Ok, so poetry. Due to its mercurial nature, nobody is able to pin-down what poetry actually is – because it is a million and one different things and more – and for this reason, all of those government-imposed ideas of what a ‘good’ piece of writing looks like come crashing down. There is no ‘check-list’ for things a poem must contain. It can’t be forced into a box. Good news, eh?
Well, not in some schools, I’m afraid. For this very reason, lots of schools will marginalise it, knowing it won’t hold much sway in the end-of-Year 6 writing portfolios – again, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not saying all schools are like this, and nor am I assigning blame to beleaguered teachers trying to meet targets in order to move up the pay-scale. I’ve been there.
So, how can poetry provide freedom? Well, as well as being free from all of those horrible grammatical constraints, it’s actually a space where children can write about thoughts, feelings and ideas about their lives in their own words. To steal a phrase from Michael Rosen, children can ‘talk with their pen.’ They can use their playground voice, the one they can’t use in other bits of writing; the voice they talk to their mates and their families with; the voice that they think with. And they can tell the truth. Or they can lie. Or they can do a bit of both! Find a poem you like, talk about it, perform it, act it out (so much drama has disappeared from some schools) – expose them to all different kinds of poems – let them know some are funny, some are sad, some are strange, some aren’t clear, some are nonsense – just like us! Make poetry visible in class. Have poetry books around.
A great starting point for me is what I call ‘tag-line’ poems (I may have nicked that name from someone!). Start off with a phrase and then ‘tag-on’ the rest of the line – and always try to allow the class to tell the truth. Those of you working regularly in schools will know how intimidating it can be for some children to be told to ‘use your imagination’. Here are a few verses of a ‘first-go’ at a poem that a Y4 child I worked last year came up with. We’d used one of Michael Rosen’s ideas, creating ‘what if’ poems – and this child had gone out at lunchtime and innovated, creating a brand new one. Telling her truths – in her own voice:
know how nervous
I get before a test
get to hold
hands with my
a shooting star
Fancy that, not a fronted adverbial in sight!