A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen

The American Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver once said of poetry, “It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” It has also been called the lava of the imagination, the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits, and a way of taking life by the throat. It is joy, pain, wonder and intelligence with a hint of thesaurus, and a powerful tool for developing children’s literacy skills.

If you want to introduce pupils to the richness and variety of poetry there’s a new school anthology that’s been pooled by poet Celia Warren. A Time to Speak and A Time to Listen is an illustrated collection suitable for Key Stage 2 learners and beyond, featuring 100 poems penned by over 70 authors – classic and contemporary – including Nick Toczek, Hilaire Belloc, Jan Dean, Charles Causley, G K Chesterton, Roger Stevens, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes, Gervase Phinn and Rachel Rooney. It comes with a teachers’ guide and offers full support for helping pupils explore and appreciate the poems on offer.

The poems in the anthology are inspired by the different seasons in life and aim to encourage children to think about and make sense of the world. Although not a religious collection, they all explore themes touched upon by the famous verses of Ecclesiastes (3: 2-8) written in the Old Testament of the Bible. This provides a structure that suggests there is a time and place for everything: to plant, to weep, to laugh, to speak, to hate, to love and to dance among others. It’s a clever way to organise the book and, for those old enough to remember, it echoes The Byrds’ hit,  Turn! Turn! Turn!

The poems are a varied throng. Some are serious, designed to make you press the pause button and reflect. Others are dripping in description and paint glorious pictures for you to enjoy. A fair number cater for comedy, while others might just have you reaching for a box of tissues. Some of my favourites include Sue Cowling’s The Laughter Forecast, Coral Rumble’s Pantomime Poem and Poet-trees by Jane Clarke. In themselves, the poems are just great to read out loud without any fixed lesson plan, but a cracking teachers’ guide is available, packed full of practical and differentiated ideas about how to use each of the poems in the book. 

The teaching notes are a triumph because they really get you to examine the poems and so help pupils to breathe in the words and oxygenate their thinking. There are elastic and easy-to-facilitate speaking and listening activities, which include reading aloud, recitation and discussion.

Part one forms the bulk of the guide and includes very clear, crisp and well-written teaching notes. Information is provided about the background and content of each poem, along with welcome advice about how to read the poem aloud (because we aren’t all Benjamin Zephaniah, you know), and an adaptable lesson plan with a clear emphasis on speaking, listening, interacting and performing. Each lesson plan closes with an extension activity as well. It’s quality throughout with very little fat.

Part two helps children to enjoy poetry to the full and includes activities that allow the freedom to explore personal preferences.

For those souls brave enough, part three centres on the planning and leading of assemblies inspired by the poems – although I’d like to have seen more in the way of guidance here. Completing the guide are a few photocopy master activities referred to in part one.

There are a couple of things I’d like to have seen in this anthology and that is a CD with the teaching notes, and Celia Warren reading the poems out loud. What an opportunity missed. I’d also question whether multiculturalism has been pushed to the perimeter.

Our Verdict

A Time To Read

There’s a time and a place for this book: in your classroom and used often. Highly recommended.

Pie Corbett