“Would you like to read out your poem?” I asked a little girl in my after-school poetry club last week.
“Yes!” she said. But she didn’t. She sang it.
True, we’d started the session with a little word-building song, muttered and mumbled along to a couple of twangy chords on my ukulele, but that was half an hour before and I, for one, had forgotten about it. But she hadn’t; nor had the rest of the class, as I soon discovered. One after another, they all sang their poems, each child extending or varying the original tune to fit their lines, styles and messages. One child was a little unsure or perhaps self-conscious, so I clapped along in support, inviting others to join in – not that I expected them to: most were absorbed in decorating their work by this stage; besides, these were children from different classes and year groups through the school, some of whom barely knew each other. But I misjudged them: pencils fell, chairs swung round and everybody clapped, loud and strong – and so we carried on.
We all know something about the power of music in focusing young minds and spurring creativity, but it’s all too easy to forget about that when it comes to the crunch. There’ll be deadlines to meet, boxes to tick, work sheets to be completed… and a tune to be conjured up on top of all that, and plenty more hurdles behind that lot, no doubt. For some of us, the sheer challenge of singing in front of a class may wipe out the very thought. In fact, the embarrassment factor held me back for a while, when I first started toying with the idea of incorporating music into my poetry workshops, so I started off in cowardly fashion by limiting the experiment to the youngest classes. Bringing my battered old guitar into a Reception class one day, I took the plunge with a quavering little song in front of 30 children and – worse still – their teacher. But as soon as I saw their wide, fixed, button-bright eyes (the children’s – I didn’t look at the teacher), and sensed the growing rock and sway of the group, my embarrassment faded; by the end, I realised that music was essential to what I was trying to do, and that that was all that mattered. Now, over a decade on, I sing with whatever I have to hand – guitar, ukulele, tambourine, hand-clap, foot-stamp, pencil-tap on table edge, or with nothing at all to accompany my thin, wobbly notes – except a little prancing about, maybe. What’s more, I’ll sing to any class of any age group, if it helps the poetry to pour.
Children respond to music in any form, including those hidden in the sounds and rhythms of language, and even if we don’t bring it in, they will. Youngsters of all ages, and all categorised writing levels, will weave the lilt and swing and pattern of melody into their poems instinctively, and catch it in those they hear. The more I discover of this magical innate skill in our youngsters, the more I realise the need for us adults to let go of our ‘teaching’ drive and stand back to make room for it. They may not always seem to be listening to you, but they’ll be listening to something, as I find every time when I listen to them.
Mind you, I may need to cover my ears when it comes to next month’s firework poetry!
Children’s poet and workshop leader for schools
Tel. 01446 760124