It must be a priority, despite schools' busy timetables, argues poet Joseph Coelho
I was in a primary school hall in Havant, Hampshire. I had a day to work with a group of very bubbly infants on the theme of emotions. The aim was to get them to create work to feature in a short video raising awareness about mental health. I can’t deny I was scared. There is something about talking about emotions that brings out the fear in all of us. The knowledge that I would later have to do similar workshops with juniors and teens was also adding to my anxiety.
I found myself worrying that the infants would find the activity boring or that their vocabulary would be too limited to talk effectively about emotions. How wrong I was. The infants were in fact hungry to have space to talk about their feelings in a non-threatening way.
I invited them to wander around the room, adding sentences and similes to large sheets of paper titled with emotions like ‘excitement’ and ‘sadness’ – words we’d chosen together as a class. The infants quickly produced lines such as, ‘Worrying is as weird as wobbly jelly.’ The challenge of writing lines using poetic devices took the focus off them and their emotions and allowed them to think instead about these abstract nouns in a more methodical way. We started to build poetic sentences for the different emotions and because everyone was feeding into the poem, no one felt exposed.
By the time I started the same workshop with the juniors, I was confident that the children would happily spend an entire session creatively exploring their emotions, so I upped the challenge. First I performed my poem The Moreraps (tinyurl.com/ tpcoelho). This verse gives example of eight different poetic devices, such as metaphor, onomatopoeia and alliteration. Once the students were familiar with them, I invited them to use them when writing their sentences. They didn’t hold back. ‘Excitement is the lines of a multi-coloured rainbow’, one wrote. ‘The sunrise smiles with happiness’, added another.
Poetry deals with the units of language. It consists of concentrated ideas and images boiled down to their chunkiest broth. It is prose made tangible, bite-size. It was this aspect of poetry that drew me to it as a young man. I liked the fact that I could express myself in bold colours without fear of judgment. Poetry provides a mask for us to either emerge from or momentarily peep from. I think this is why the cliché of ‘teen-angst’ poetry exists – when we’re young, emotions are raw and mean everything to us. Poetry is a fabulous outlet and can be incredibly versatile – suiting both young writers who wants to scream and shout and recluses who want to squirrel sonnets away in dog-eared notebooks.
I ended one of the sessions by asking pupils to write emotion poems on disposable lab coats. One child included the phrase, ‘Paranoia eats my stomach’. Another compared sadness to drowning. Some students chose to rip and tear their coats and one child turned her coat into a character called ‘Ann-xiety’ that she could decide to wear or remove.
The exercise was relatively simple and used resources that were easy to obtain. Once it was over, we sat down to share our thoughts on the day. Some pupils revealed that they saw poetry differently now. They’d realised that they were not alone in their thoughts and feelings. Their sense of empathy had been strengthened from something as simple as exploring emotions through poetry.
I’ve been running writing workshops in schools for 16 years and poetry’s power never fails to surprise me. I’ve seen its impact again and again, even witnessing elect mutes choose a poetry session as their opportunity to finally share their voice with the class. For me, using poetry to explore emotions is not something that is simply ‘good to do’ or an activity for a rainy day. Instead, it’s something we should make a priority. I fear in this current climate it’s something we can’t afford not to do.
Joseph Coelho has collaborated with Discovery Education Espresso to produce new poetry resources for primary schools. The curriculummatched content includes videos and classroom activities for KS1 and KS2 pupils. Find them at the below website. discoveryeducation.co.uk