Ning, Nang, Nong?: article by Helên Thomas

A recent Ofsted report, Poetry In Schools, stated that schools rely too heavily on a limited number of poems as resources for teaching poetry. A survey of schools revealed a top ten of poems which included "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes; "On the Ning, Nang, Nong" by Spike Milligan and "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. Interestingly, all of the poems in the top ten were written by men, most of whom are dead.

Ofsted was especially critical of primary school teachers whose lack of subject knowledge leads to an over-reliance on lightweight poems with little attention being given to classic and multi-cultural poetry. The report concluded that teachers are playing safe by using the same poems again and again while steering clear of anything challenging.

I have a vested interest here. Along with primary school teacher and literacy specialist, Kate McGann, I provide poetry performances and workshops for primary schools. In our performance piece: We Are Poets! we adopt the roles of posh poet Penelope Page and grubby, street poet Gabby Mouth. Throughout the show, Gabby and Penny bicker about what is and isn’t poetry while taking turns performing their poems. Penelope’s poems are fantastical flights of fancy whereas Gabby’s autobiographical verses are full of childhood grot, grime and scabby knees! Kate describes it as pantomime meets poetry; I call it the performance versus page poetry debate for the under 12s.

All of the poetry in the show was written [by me] with the literacy strategy in mind. That said, I didn’t allow the strategy to stifle my creativity, and sought feedback from teachers and children along the way. Children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has been quoted as saying: “The literacy strategy has been disastrous for poetry. Children spend their time counting metaphors and proving what makes a poem effective.” He has a point, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The strategy is open to interpretation; with a bit of imagination, it is possible to teach children about the nuts and bolts of writing while illustrating that poetry can be lively, evocative and thought provoking.

Despite the arid nature of the literacy strategy, I think I have managed to use it to produce a variety of poems that are relevant, inspiring, accessible and at times challenging. I say this because these are all words that have been used by teachers when feeding back. Many teachers seem to fear poetry; according to Ofsted, “poetry becomes a chore rather than a pleasure”. This resistance to poetry is illustrated by a quote from a KS2 teacher referring to one of our workshops: "I was dreading the poetry, but that was excellent!"

I believe that the We Are Poets! package of performances and workshops takes the pain out of teaching poetry. We demonstrate that anyone can write poetry about anything they choose whether that be the stuff of daydreams or grim reality; that poems can be long, short, complex or simplistic; that poems can tell stories; that poems can be accompanied by music, actions or a simple drum beat; that poetry can be loud and energetic or quietly contemplative.

It’s fair to say that we don’t qualify as multi-cultural and none of my poems are classics (yet). However, unlike most of the poets in the top ten, we’re not men and we’re certainly not dead! We’ve encountered lots of interested, dedicated teachers who make the most of our visits using them as a starting point for future work. When we leave a school, the children are fired up and can’t wait to read and write more poetry; some of the children even go home and write their own poems, quite independently, just for the fun of it. Imagine that! We’re doing our bit to keep poetry alive in schools. I think we’re doing a good job.

by Helên Thomas