7 ways to encourage poetry writing using Cathy MacPhail’s fiction

In my time as a teacher – more years than I care to remember! – lots of books have proved fantastic for grabbing the attention of teenage readers. From old favourites such as Sylvia Sherry’s A Pair of Jesus Boots and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword to more contemporary choices such as Robert Swindell’s Abomination and Theresa Breslin’s Whispers in the Graveyard, in my experience, young people still love a cracking good read with a fast-paced narrative and exciting incidents.

One author who can be guaranteed to engross young readers whether boy or girl is undoubtedly Cathy MacPhail. Fighting Back, Dark Waters and Tribes have all helped me engage youngsters who previously claimed to “hate reading books.” Recently I took the plunge and ordered a class set of Grass and set to work on generating enthusiasm and high-quality work from one of my classes, fifteen-year-olds who had finished their Standard Grade course and were looking forward to their well-deserved summer holidays. I have always said that walking into a class with a set of Cathy MacPhail books under your arm is, quite simply, brass knuckles for teachers and this novel proved no exception. The twists and turns, the collapse of some friendships whilst others bloomed, the raw power of the writing (particularly the crackling dialogue) soon had the young people on the edge of their seats as they witnessed the central character entangling himself in a web very much of his own making and hurtling himself towards the book’s fitting climax. I used SBT’s Grass learning pack to get the ball rolling but then decided that I wanted the youngsters to get more creative.

Normally when I suggest writing poetry I am met with cries that vary from, “I can’t write poetry” to “I don’t want to write poetry” right through to “Are you aff yer heid Sir?” Not, though, with Grass on the desk. Most pupils were buzzing with excitement as they got the chance to explore one of the novel’s most tense incidents and use that to develop their language skills and to create their very own work of literary art.

Here are the seven steps that I took to get the creative juices flowing and ensure that some fantastic poetry was written. I recommend them to you to help inspire your pupils.

  1. Pick out an incident that sticks in the minds of the readers – in this case the doorstep murder of a local gangster which is witnessed by the protagonist, Leo.
  2. Ask pupils to pick out words and phrases from the text that help create the atmosphere, in this case tension and fear.
  3. Encourage the young people to think of words that they could add to the original description of events to ensure that even more detail is included.
  4. Use thesauri to create a bank of words that most vividly describe the situation
  5. Get the young people to write a prose account of the event using their created word banks.
  6. Instruct pupils to edit from their accounts any unnecessary words, keeping those that are most vivid and striking
  7. Lay the poems out on the page to resemble a “real” poem (this came about from a lesson on the uses of end-stopped and run-on lines and from me modelling my own example).

Attached to this blog are two examples of poems that were submitted and I am sure you will agree that they are fantastic and that the girls who wrote them have done very well indeed. We have created a display in the school for visitors to see and already we have had some very positive comments from visitors to the school.

Further Reading

The Consequences by Catherine Watson

A Terrifying Springtime Night by Chloe Benson

Gordon Fisher

Gordon Fisher is the principal teacher of English at Lochend Community High School.