Poetry By Heart Blog

P is for Poetry

12th November 2020

In our blogpost today, we hear from Naomi Cortes about her thriving poetry programme for primary schools, P is for Poetry. There are lots of great tips in here about working with poetry aloud with a class – from making the first moment when you read a poem magical, to warming up voices and confidence with tongue twisters, and having fun with a whole class performance of a poem. Remember – whole class performances can be entered for the Poetry BY Heart Celebration competition and we’d love to see more! Talk to us about how to get started. But first, here’s Naomi…

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Tell us about your P is for Poetry programme

In the morning I wake up and I say, “Ms Naomi, today’s a poetry day!” And off I trot with poems in hand – contemporary and classical, narrative and rhyming, nonsense or acrostic, haiku or sonnet, from all around the world.

Every week my poetry programme – P is for Poetry – engages with over 600 children in three Southwark primary schools. I share the power of words with pupils from Early Years through to Key Stages 1 and 2. The children reflect the diversity found within any city school – additional languages, varying abilities, disadvantaged backgrounds – but all with a need to express themselves, and through poetry they are able to do this with me.

What kind of moment do you create for poetry?

Magical! It has to be just right, that first moment when I bring a new poem to a class. I have one chance to pitch it perfectly. I would have read this poem to myself a couple of times… But out loud? No. So, this is the moment I have to connect a child with the power of poetry. I ask my children to close or cover their eyes and they know now is the time. All they have to think about are the words and images of the poem I am about to share, and the feelings it is evoking within them. And then, we share with the others in our class how our poem makes us feel, how it resonates with each one of us.

This is a huge part of the magic, and it’s my most challenging task: to ensure that every single child connects with the poem I’ve presented; that they can relate to the words, the theme, the tone, the expression within the poet’s own creativity; that they think to themselves, “Yes, I understand this,” and they feel ownership of the words placed before them. This is the starting point, where we will all leap together into the world of the poet’s vision.

How do you help children to really connect with the poem?

A visual language that works with the written word is vital to enabling all children to have a relationship with poetry. Whether an action is reflecting the meaning of a word or phrase, or is telling the audience how it makes us feel, this added form of expression encourages pupils who may feel a little reluctant to speak the words out loud. Including every child is a key to success, and being aware of each child’s method of learning is what inspires me. It’s so much fun, bringing this visual language to life. Sometimes an action can be very literal and I might say, “Give me something a bit scrummy.” Pupils will then take the imagery of that word further, and create something quite imaginative and complex. That is an absolute gift that adds another level of understanding and gives the children other ways of expressing what’s within the work.

How do you make it fun?

I have approximately twenty-five minutes with each class, so I have to make a big impression quickly, and create a fun environment which encourages all the children to want to learn and engage with poetry in their own way. This is where my experience and understanding of theatre comes centre-stage. Starting from Tongue Twister Challenges and the inclusive Venga-Venga Game, I am able to set the scene: a safe place where we can all learn something new, together. Performing poetry for the children with enthusiasm and dynamic interaction places them in front-row seats for the Ms Naomi show, the hottest seat in school that day!

What do young people get from performing poems?

Pupils enjoy the challenge of a new poem, and when I introduce their “Class Poem” – the one they will be exploring, learning and performing – there is always a huge cheer. Here is their opportunity to contribute to a poem which is just for them. Every Class Poem is a poem that’s “new” to me, that I haven’t taught before. During our time together we explore the ideas and the feelings of the poem, and incorporate all of this into our own expression of its meaning. Using gestures and movement, intonation and articulation, each child enjoys this expressive way of engaging with their poem. I encourage them to be bold with their choices and believe in their abilities to perform in front of others. This confidence grows in differing ways, from raising a hand in class, to sharing their ideas about a word or an action, to standing in front of others, with no text in front of them, performing an entire poem from memory. The children find that they enjoy the acting and the challenge of remembering the words and actions.

Recent months have obviously been very unsettling for children, but I have found that poetry has been a wonderful gift for them. Discovering techniques to deal with the difficulties we face has become so important, and pupils are able to lose themselves in the world of poetry and find calmness amongst it all. They tell me that, “Remembering a poem and the actions that go with it helps me to feel calm,” and, “When I sit on my own and think about my class poem it relaxes me.”

And what’s in it for you?!

I get a huge sense of achievement watching a class of thirty children embark on a fantastic voyage with a poem – watching them realise the worlds of their imaginations, their “lightbulb” moment as they clearly see a word, and their confidence as they share with others the power of expression through words. I love doing what I do in my poetry programme because I see it has an impact: it empowers children to use their voices to make sure that they are heard.

Find out more on my YouTube channel and my website naomicortes.com

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