You only have to walk into the children’s section of most (not all) bookshops to see it’s a marginalised, hidden-away and maligned genre of writing – after scrabbling around, sometimes on hands and knees or asking a shop assistant, you’ll generally find a handful of poetry books by the same well-known poets and hard-backed big-budget anthologies nestling next to the joke books on the bottom shelf, tucked well away from the brightly lit tables of ‘buy-one get-one half price’ novels.
When I first became a primary school teacher in 2007, it became clear to me relatively quickly that most (not all) teachers dreaded the couple of weeks of bolted-on poetry they had to teach a couple of times a year – and lost count of the number of classes that must have been exposed to Kit Wright’s (fantastic) ‘Magic Box’ as well as Alfred Noyes’ (equally fantastic) ‘The Highwayman’ plus a few others as their entire primary school poetry diet.
Being a former teacher also means I understand the curriculum. And how narrow and joyless the writing curriculum, in particular, has become. Now this has nothing to do with teachers. This is to do with a government who think children are robots and that creativity should be thrown out in favour of a checklist of grammatical conventions and devices that can be learnt by rote in order to create ‘good writers’. This is rubbish. But teachers and speech and language therapists still have their hands tied by the current testing and Ofsted-fearing climate. Poetry is different. It’s like mercury – and nobody can hang age-related expectations on it. It is therefore, in my opinion, the only space within the current education system where teachers can facilitate creativity in a way that allows children the space to write about their own thoughts, feelings and experiences – and do it, should they choose to, in their own voice. I really believe that poetry can put the voices of the community right at the heart of the curriculum. When writing poetry, children can use their own accent and dialect, representing their own cultural heritage. When writing my verse novel The Final Year, I wanted to represent the accents and dialect I heard growing up in Greater Manchester – and also as a teacher in East Manchester. After writing the book, I joined with linguistic academics at Manchester Metropolitan University Dr Ian Cushing, Senior Lecturer in Critical Applied Linguistics, and Professor Rob Drummond, Professor of Sociolinguistics and Head of Research Centre for Creative Writing, English Literature and Linguistics (CELL) to explore how the book can promote linguistic diversity in an educational setting. Dr Ian Cushing comments:
Since 2014 especially, the National Curriculum, along with Ofsted and primary school grammar tests, has put teachers in a position where they are under pressure to reproduce ideologies of language rooted in ‘correctness’ and ‘properness’. These ideologies cause particular harm for children from marginalised backgrounds. The Final Year stands in sharp contrast to this and shows the power in teachers sustaining the natural language practices of all children and in rejecting the government’s views on language.
Having left life as a teacher a good few years ago, I now work as a poet in schools, libraries and festivals, and am delighted to see the way that reading for pleasure has become centre-stage in lots of classrooms and I often see fantastic displays of ‘100 books to read in Y4’ and ‘I’m currently reading . . .’ etc, but most (not all) of these have few if any poetry books.
In my opinion we are currently in a golden age of poetry writing for children and young people, and of course a brilliant starting point for teachers and children to understand this is to get a poet into school. Let them see and hear the fact that poets come from all around the world, reading their poetry in countless different accents. Let them hear the poet’s thoughts on how poetry can be a reflection of life, which in turn allows the reader/audience to reflect on their own lives – some children will begin to realise that whatever their experiences of life up to this point, they are not alone. There is huge power in this. I have spoken to so many children who recognise themselves in the poems I write that tell stories of my own difficult childhood – or those I saw in my own classrooms.
If budgets mean the cost of a poet’s visit is prohibitive, places like the CLPE’s free-to-access poetry section (https://clpe.org.uk/poetry/videos) can be used. Here you can find over 500 videos of a beautifully diverse mix of poets reading poems and talking about why they write. The Children’s Poetry Archive (https://childrens.poetryarchive.org/) is another excellent and diverse free-to-access resource.
We simply need to open as many doorways to poetry as possible. The best way I found to do this as a teacher was to read a poem out every day (I set aside that brief moment just before lunchtime when we were tidied away and focused). It’s not rocket science and is a well-trumpeted idea which has been championed by many more intelligent people then me many, many times over. Sometimes I’d show the poem under the visualiser so we could discuss and reinforce our growing understanding of the way poets are rebels and can pattern the page with their words however they choose. Sometimes we’d discuss how some poems contain punctuation and some don’t; some poems are easy to understand, some aren’t; some poems are funny, silly, sad, thoughtful, weird; some poems are written in very posh, archaic language and some are written in normal everyday language, grounded in the poet’s own dialect. Very quickly the children (and I) began to realise that poetry is not just one thing, and could be relevant to their lives, because they could do the same.
Matt Goodfellow at a school.
When it came to writing their own poems, we’d use a poem we’d found and liked in our daily read-aloud sessions – and would spend a couple of lessons just talking about, annotating and performing that poem: what shapes/patterns did the poet create? Did it rhyme? Did we like the poem? Why? What sorts of word did the poet use? Was there any repetition? Punctuation? What did we think the poet might be trying to say? The brilliant thing for a teacher discussing poems with a class is that the expectation of the teacher having all the knowledge and answers simply disappears as none of the above questions have right or wrong answers – the teacher can say ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ And that is a rebel educator, right there!
Once these initial discussions had taken place, we’d split into groups and start deciding how we might perform the poem: was it loud and rhythmic, needing accompaniment from the dusty music trolley – and big, expressive movements? Or very quiet and gentle, needing a quieter touch?
By the middle of the week, and after our performances had been filmed or shown to other classes, the children would know the ‘shape’ of the poem inside out – and were very comfortable using that shape as a coat hanger or starting point to begin to hang their own ideas. I always used free verse as a vehicle for children to tell the truth about their lives so they didn’t get pulled away from truth by the pressure of need to find a rhyme (and by this stage, they’d heard so many different kinds of poem, the idea of a poem needing to rhyme had long disappeared).
We’d start off with a shared write, together on the board, with me modelling my own choices as a rebel writer about punctuation and patterns on the page – and we’d create a ‘first go’ at a class poem – and we’d discuss it. Then the children would have a go on their own.
It became incredibly freeing for me as a Y6 teacher to not have to have toolkits or checklists for the children to shoehorn into their writing (I remember my daughter, Daisy, now 13 and at high school, coming home one day when she was in Y5 to tell me that she’d been doing poetry and had been taught that all Y5 poems must contain similes and metaphors) – they could focus on writing in their voice about their lives. Poetry writing sessions became a pressure release where they really understood they could write for pleasure and that poetry was the vehicle for that – and I wasn’t going to be standing over their shoulder saying: ‘Well, that’s great, but it’s not at age-related expectations yet because it’s missing X, Y or Z . . .’. In the last part of the week’s sessions, children would get their initial drafts shaped into a poem that was right for them, that looked how they wanted and sounded how they wanted – a genuine piece of rebel writing in their voice, about their life.
Poetry is a problem, but it doesn’t need to be. If allowed into the classroom on a daily basis, it can change lives – it certainly changed mine.
Goodfellow, Matt (illus. Aleksei Bitskoff) (2020) Bright Bursts of Colour. London: Bloomsbury Education.
–– (illus. Yu Rong) (2021) Shu Lin’s Grandpa. Burley Gate, Herefordshire: Otter-Barry Books.
–– (illus. Oriol Vidal) (2022) Let’s Chase Stars Together. London: Bloomsbury Education.
–– (illus. Joe Todd-Stanton) (2023) The Final Year. Burley Gate, Herefordshire: Otter-Barry Books.
Matt Goodfellow was born in Withington, Manchester, and grew up in Cheadle, Stockport. He was a primary teacher in schools in Manchester for over 10 years and since then has delivered workshops in both primary and secondary schools, as well as delivering keynote talks and training to teachers. Early on is his career he was in a band, but realised his ambition lay elsewhere and the songs he was writing became poems for the children in his classes.
Now a full-time poet, Matt visits schools around the UK and beyond, inspiring children and adults to get involved with poetry through his performances and workshops and working with organisations including National Poetry Day, the Forward Arts Foundation, the Premier League, the National Literacy Trust, Book Trust and CLPE. Matt has written several books of poetry including Bright Bursts of Colour and Let’s Chase Stars Together. His picture book Shu Lin’s Grandpa, illustrated by Yu Rong, was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal in 2022, and his poetry collection Bright Bursts of Colour won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award. His collections have been shortlisted four times in the CLPE poetry award, the CLiPPA, including most recently Let’s Chase Stars Together, a collection for Key Stage 2 readers, in 2023. His debut novel, told in verse, The Final Year, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton, is written for middle-grade readers.