Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Children's Literacy - Performance Poetry

Children's Literacy - Performance Poetry

Because April is Poetry Month in the USA, I've been writing about ideas on children's literacy and poetry. I started my poetry celebration early, in March actually, on World Poetry Day with Online Inspiration for Young Poets. Then in Children's Literacy Through Poetry, I told you about some of my favourite children's poetry books, and gave some ideas for Poem in Your Pocket Day. On The Book Chook Facebook page, I've been discussing favourite poets and poems.

Today I'd like to share some ideas about performing a poem. These might be useful to anyone conducting lessons or workshops with children, and can be adapted for home use with one child.

Poetry originally was meant to be performed. I have a special place in my heart for all the poetry I've performed in my life. It's helped me internalise wonderful language, great rhythm and rhyme and important themes, as well as given me so much delight and comfort over the years. I very much believe in learning poetry by heart, and repeated practices for performance is one way to do this. At the very least, it helps kids develop reading fluency, but the benefits to a child's heart and mind are incalculable.

If you're introducing your kids to poetry performance, one way to get them to think about what's important for a successful performance is to model a disaster. I like to find a great rhythmic, fun poem and declaim it in a monotonous voice, head down, body slumped, ridiculous breaks and pauses, no movement. Aside from my personal enjoyment of the children's horrified silence moving into nervous giggles and culminating in relieved guffaws, I love the way this gets kids to think about features of a good performance. They've mostly noticed, if not articulated, them already.

Next we develop some ideas that will help me improve my performance, and end up with a list involving actions and movement, expression, sound effects, posture, eye contact, voice, (pitch, rate and volume) etc. We look at the poem again, and discuss its meaning, and aspects of it that will need to be interpreted eg the mood, the way a character might feel, look or move, words that might need emphasis. I ask the kids to form groups and work out a way to perform my poem (or a section of it) creatively, incorporating as many of the criteria as they can. They then perform in groups for the rest of us, and we evaluate performances, looking for what worked well, and offering suggestions for alternatives.*

With one child, you could use technology for performance. Use one of the "talking" photograph sites like Fotobabble or Blabberize to record your child via computer and microphone, or use a video camera to capture the performance for evaluation.

In subsequent lessons/workshops, I explore other poems and other ideas to enhance performance (add music, props, costumes, lighting, backdrops, improvised scenes), have kids choose poems they would like to perform, have large groups choose a favourite piece to perform and polish it to a high standard.

If you get the opportunity, take your children to poetry performances. Many big towns in Australia have a yearly Eisteddfod where children perform poems alone or in groups. In capital cities lucky people can attend live performances by poets. Youtube is another alternative. I found the video below of Valerie Bloom performing "Sandwich" which I loved. Notice the way she gives her audience a role to play. Michael Rosen also has lots of videos youngsters can enjoy and learn from.

*Because of my background as a drama teacher, I very much believe in performance for an audience. This doesn't suit all kids though, and we need to be sensitive about a child's reluctance to perform. Most kids will enjoy performance if you highlight the importance of a supportive, non-critical audience. Grandparents are great at this; Uncle Ted however might need a reminder that heckling isn't appropriate. At school, I build a climate of trust and equality before I attempt performance of any kind. I expect  audiences to have good manners, and I see that they do.
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