poetry workshops in primary school



by Pip The Poet (Philip Burton)

As a writer, I have visited over 220 primary schools. Here are some questions and thoughts for you to add your own.

1. How best can a visiting author encourage reading?

2. What do children want from an author’s visit?

3. To what can an author’s one day visit be likened?

The author’s visit to a school shares common ground with the opening few words of a literary work.

What, traditionally, are the first words of a novel meant to achieve?

Bruce L. Weaver (Novel Openers – First sentences of 1100 fictional works, published in London in 1995)* found that the best way to capture readers is to put them instantly somewhere else, and, at the same time, pique their curiosity. The visiting author has similar goals. The visit can indeed be likened to the first words of a novel.

* Guardian 6th September 2010 – wherever@btinternet.com

4. What is a good aim for a day visit?
In a brief encounter the writer is challenged to kick-start, accelerate, encourage the potential of children to read for pleasure and for the enrichment of their lives, or, as Weaver (see question 3.) says, “to put them instantly somewhere else, and, at the same time, pique their curiosity.”

The reader may like to suggest other similar activities (from among the Arts or from other fields) e.g. poster art. Again, a lot must be transacted in a short time. A poster must have impact. How do good posters achieve this?
5. What is the best preparation for a visit? 

How can the writer reach out to the children of a specific school?
Can the writer tailor a day to a school?

Arguably, a visit has most effect if it is part of an ongoing relationship with the school. A very powerful approach is to write something especially for the children in the school to be visited. This can be done though a local history theme where the author responds to stories, newspaper cuttings about local characters and events with which the children already have some familiarity. One great tenet of creativity is demonstrated by an awareness of what the other is doing at the moment and responding to it. 



What is interactivity?

Jot down your take, your feeling about this word.

INTERACT – act so as to affect (i.e. to emotionally move) each other (verb)
INTERACTIVE – influencing each other (adj.)
Derivatives INTERACTIVELY (adv.), INTERACTIVITY (noun)
                                                  - Compact Oxford Dictionary 2008
INTERACTANT (noun) – a person that interacts

For the visiting author INTERACTIVITY (noun) is a means by which the ice is broken, a positive relationship begins, and children become receptive to the story/poem .

Note that interactivity means “to act so as to affect each other”- we are challenged to notice and respond to what each other is doing. This will mean “departing from the script” even during the reading, perhaps even especially during the reading. Interactivity seeks a shared experience, a joint performance. Our pure literary piece may have to take on the contributions of other creative souls, but in so doing it reaches deep into the hearts and minds of its audience. Isn’t that what an author is about?

format (n.) a format which promotes interaction e.g. a rehearsal, a quiz, a pantomime, a magic show, a game, a choral reading, a debate …

activity (n.) actions, mime, repeat chorus, signalling, song, juggling, conjuring, puppetry, drawing, dance, percussion, mime, vocal sounds, chanting, facial expressions, threading beads, tick-list, guided emotional response, free emotional response…

The visit kit is my pet name for the whole bag of props, folding scenery, costumes, percussion instrument(s), juggling hankies, party bangers, etc that aid interactivity and stimulate the five senses.

interactive children's books are not the subject of this workshop but these are books with texture, books with special devices used to help teach children certain tools, computerized books, and movable books (pop-ups etc).

Are there a range of uses to which interactivity can be put during a reading/performance?

Interactivity can be:

- a seamless part of the reading/performance

- an aid to performance
e.g. a running gag to sew the performance or readings together***.

- a bolt-on
e.g. Many author/entertainers will produce an enjoyable item e.g. as a reward for the children having listened well e.g. a magic trick, a display of juggling, the telling of a joke. (Research shows that jokes reliably increase children’s comprehension
levels.) ***

***The use of humour …. has been shown to reduce classroom anxiety, create a more positive atmosphere, as well as facilitate the learning process (Berk, 1996, 1998; Garner, 2003, in press; Glenn, 2002; Hill, 1988; Pollio & Humphreys, 1996).

What’s the most direct and powerful way of getting children participating in a reading/performance?  

- should the author tell children what to do, or show children?
- before the reading of a text?
- in a pause between sections of the text?
- or after the text has been read/performed?
- or as a seamless part of the narrative?

My recommended route is as follows:

A.  - Set the example

 “..almost everything she (the story-teller) said was accompanied by the use of her hands and body. She put on imaginary clothes, took them off, dug the garden, planted the turnip seed, put the tools away, set the table etc…Everything she did was so much part of herself, so natural, easy and alive that the children loved it all.”
 - Literature and the Young Child, Joan E. Cass, Longman 1967

Miming is a natural extension of facial expression and hand gesture that most of us use when reading aloud. Interactivity is a wide church. Authors with a talent for illustration can tell the story while drawing a picture to go with it (e.g. on a flipchart) for all the audience to see.
Other authors might opt for puppetry to liven the reading.

B. - Encourage the children to join in

Successful participation relies on tact and style. “Now it’s your turn!” won’t cut the mustard. Better is, “I need some help with this, children. I think you could do these actions (or drawing, or threading beads, or monkey noises, or drumming….) better than me…”

They could be encouraged to act out the story with puppets they’ve made previously.

They could draw one of the characters bit by bit as the details crop up during the story.

Rehearse with them, leading to “the final show” where everyone contributes.

C. - Don’t be shy of rehearsal
It’s one of those formats (like pantomime, or like conjuring) which buzz with interactive potential.

D. - Finish with a quiz.

Children can be bored by question and answer sessions, but they love quizzes.


Can interactive techniques be ranked in strict order of sophistication and/or difficulty?

“The majority  of interactivity is handed down from author to  children. “(THE REQUESTED RESPONSE ) What do you take this to mean? What alternatives are there?


Most of what we ask of children is, for practical reasons, simple and straightforward
These are simple in that they rely on copying from, or cueing by, the author.



e.g. repetition of chorus or key word, choral reading,
chants e.g. “Let me hear you say, Oggie oggie oggie!”
              or “Everybody whisper, “Please wake up please, Princess!”

where helpers are issued with cymbal, hooter, drum, triangle, rattle, megaphone, washboard, kazoo, as appropriate.

clapping, foot-tapping, clicking fingers, hand waving, hand jive, swaying, gymnastic ribbon, skipping, juggling, repetitive movement.
This can also extend to varying the speed (e.g. walking) as the reader quickens the pace of the delivery.

e.g. by threading or sequencing coloured beads

e.g “Thumbs raised for happy, thumbs down when it’s sad, sideways thumbs when you are not sure.”

- dancing (simple steps) in performing a poem, or bringing to life
a dance scene in a story
- singing (e.g. new lyrics to well-known melody)
- drawing


The usual ploy is to make a deliberate mistake which the children will love to be able to correct.

“I wonder where I left my spectacles.”
“Author, author - the spectacles you lost – they’re on your forehead!”

If as many children as possible should be driven to a keen, even desperate need to communicate with you, then an important object has been achieved; they are participating, and not because they have been told to, but naturally and enjoyably.
“Look out he’s behind you!” of pantomime fame has just such a purpose.


If there is danger of children being too free, then provide a little list:
e.g. If surprised, say oh!
      If you feel sorry for someone, say aaaaah!
      If you like it, then clap at the end. If you don’t clap, I guess I’ll just have to tear it up! (Aaaaaah!)

What interactive devices are guaranteed crowd-pleasers?

Perhaps you would care to suggest some – perhaps ones you have used yourself.

- The clockwork bird

For some reason children are delighted with a clockwork bird. Get one who joins in their applause. Or go hi-tech and fit it with a remote!

- The gizmo
A real thing from the poem/story

- “The running gag”

Take the case where the author arrives in front of the children saying, “I have lost my reading glasses, children!” (The spectacles are in full view on the author’s forehead.)

Later in the performance/reading, the author says that his specs need cleaning and asks for a volunteer. The result is that the lenses appear completely opaque! (The author has sneakily swopped them for a trick pair). “No problem. I have a spare pair!”

Later on the glasses are made to vanish completely in a change bag. The running gag keeps popping up to sew the readings together, or provide structure, interactive possibilities, or light relief.  

- The child as expert

“I’m sure that you can do this better than me.”
e.g. doing a simple wooden Mrs Mouse puzzle.

- The child as spotter of mistakes

If as many children as possible should be driven to a keen, even desperate need to communicate with you, then an important object has been achieved; they are participating, and not because they have been told to, but naturally and enjoyably.

- Juggling handkerchiefs

Juggling provides rhythm.

Volunteer children, or adults, can wave a coloured hankie when a certain word is said, a rhyme occurs, a villain is mentioned or whatever.

Also, three coloured handkerchiefs can be juggled by the author - with the children calling out the colours in the air, or chanting pre-arranged key words.

- Conjuring

It is said that there are two types of children’s magician – those who let the children touch the props and those who don’t! The motto for authors who wish children to “come out and join the act” is to equip with easy-wash, easy-to-carry, durable items:

e.g. a “change bag” (which purports to change one thing into another) can be adapted to a variety of poems and stories. It’s cheap and hardwearing and a child can readily hold it.

- Props

Children love to be treated to a real item from the story or poem e.g. grandad’s pocket watch, or a proper miner's lamp. Check for health and safety before the children handle it.

- Scenery
(the more lightweight and foldable the better!)

- Costume and characterisation items

Children will accept that the performer/reader becomes a completely different character merely with the addition of something as simple as a hat, wig, moustache, eye-patch, beard, blouse or coat.

All that is required is one dressing-up item for each character. Children love to act out a story, or see it acted out with some of their own classmates involved.

Prize giving

A tricky area! Your views are welcome.



Some authors will want to guard the purity and integrity of their work without any response from the audience apart from active listening, and will trust the power of their words to fully communicate; does this rule out all interactive approaches?

What are your thoughts on this?

The pure reading can be bracketed by highly enjoyable interactive sessions of introduction and a final question time.

This is an entirely valid, and in many ways an ideal, position. This philosophy still allows the author to take into school a work in progress, perhaps work especially written for a particular school community, and to be happy to use more seamless interactive approaches to huge benefit.
(SEE 21)

What are the advantages of putting the needs of children above the notional integrity of one’s writing? 

Do you think that an author’s writing can benefit from this approach?

One’s writing must be made to communicate. Literary does not mean dead.  The author should interact with the reader, and on this occasion the readers are the audience. Indeed the author may find that in the heat and rough and tumble and sheer directness and honesty of children there is inspiration for a re-draft or an entirely new book.

Can authors learn from other practitioners how to engage and keep the attention of an audience of children?

Jot down one or two exemplars.

Children’s entertainers are also a great help to any author who wants children to participate in a story or poem, share in its fantasy, and remember every word and every thrill. Even if one thinks that the only true art of entertainers is in capturing and keeping the attention of children to merely entertain them, it is instructive for authors to see how it’s done. Children appreciate an entertaining author and will follow such authors into exciting worlds of imagination and wonder. Crucially, for children’s entertainers, and arguably for authors too, interactive is the key word.


An author does not write interactively so why should a public reading be interactive?

Is writing an interactive occupation?

I am going to say that interactivity is part of writing creatively. The author’s own experiences, especially the fruits of wide reading, interact with the text at each instant. The book is collaboration, a dialogue between the world outside and the inner mind and body: e.g. the idea of a lemon is literally mouth-watering. The author asks, “Where is this character going?” And the character replies!

The author and illustrator, at their best, work interactively. The artist creates a picture which inspires the author to a new chapter.

In his 1993 autobiography, The Agony and the Ego, John Mortimer writes, “The hours spent writing are like giving a performance on the page, a prolonged one-man show which will grip the audience’s attention.” Mortimer talks of  performance rather than reading. Charles Dickens would applaud this.

This hidden life of writing can be shown to children. Gestures and facial expressions, adopted voices, miming each movement, drawing a picture to illustrate the words while reading: these are just some examples of the writer’s interactivity with the text.

On a visit to a school there are other opportunities for exploring or demonstrating this “inner life of books”.

Should an author be encouraged to write stories/poems with interactive possibilities in mind?

Can an author viably borrow from other artistic disciplines for an interactive performance with children?


Should an author be confined to verbal and written activities with children?



It may help to start with some conjectures:

When an author gives an interactive reading, each interactive component should have a  purpose to do with the in-depth communication of the text:

e.g. What is/are the  purpose(s) of 

helps comprehension?
allows child to take possession of the text?
focuses concentration?

DANCE - displays how rhythm works within a poem
and SONG -  allows the form of a poem to shine out loud

MIME - active physical engagement with the text
PAINTED SCENERY and PROPS - to deepen comprehension
 PUPPET - enables explanation (cf Holmes and Watson)

ANIMAL NOISES - bring the story to life


Illustrated books prove that arts can serve literature. There is no objection to an author who is also a skilled artist illustrating the author’s own work.

Similarly an author with a theatrical background may want to use these skills to dramatise a reading. The same applies with juggling, conjuring, dancing, sculpting, modelling and so on.

Who decides whether the practitioner possesses the multi-media skills / artistic sensitivity to select /make appropriate artistic inputs across such a wide field? i.e. should the writer be a writer per se and steer clear of other disciplines? Should an author be confined to verbal and written activities with children?



See also:

Philip's workshop article on formal / informal poetry

poems by Philip Burton

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