Every year for the last 11, bar one, Carol Ann Duffy has written a Christmas poem. The books are small and square and very desirable, with a different illustrator for each title. This year’s poem Frost Fair illustrated by David De Las Heras tells of the great freeze on the Thames in 1683 when a frost fair was held on the river.
The illustrations are in muted colours with that hazy, yellow light that you can get when it is very cold and a little misty. The narrator has a red jumper and can be seen on many of the pages, standing out although she is incognito, dressed as a poet-spy.
I suggested this book to a school who wanted to write poetry and were going to use the time in between rehearsing for their production to teach English. The thing about the poem that really interests me, aside from the wonderful language, is where Duffy has chosen to start new lines, particularly as many of the sentences are full sentences like you might find in prose.
The school wrote and asked what they might do with the poem for Yrs 5 and 6 and so this is my answer. I have used their headings for the teaching sequence. The ideas are not in any order and I am sure that there will be things you can think if that I should have included, but this is enough to get started with.
Getting to know the text
- Read a non-fiction text about frost fairs to provide some background information and from here, particularly the frost fair of 1683. The children could also look at images of the frost fairs and describe or list what they can see happening. A google search will provide plenty of images. Doug Lemov explains here about reading linked fiction and non-fiction.
- Use the wikipedia page about frost fairs to create‘found’ poetry. I like this explanation because of the use of themes and messages included in it.
- Reading text – consider how best to do this. It might be in parts or all in one go. You might want to scan the images to share as you read. Children in pairs have part of the poem to reread, discuss what they think is happening and identify parts they are not sure about.
- How does the narrator feel about the frost fair? What is the evidence for this?
- Drama to recreate the scenes. One idea might be to create an alley that the narrator can walk down and the class re-enact scenes from the poem. Or, you could have groups create freeze frame scenes from the poem for the narrator to walk around.
- Explore line breaks – how does a poet decide where to break? Read other poetry and discuss what poets do and why. Take a section or two of the poem and type it up as prose. Model deciding where you could make breaks and rearrange the lines. You could offer children a focus for the line breaks such as:
- speed – how would you break the lines to make the poem really quick to read?
- surprise – how can you surprise the reader with what follows on?
- sense – what would make the most sense to the reader?
- space – particularly on the page. How could you make the poem look like a walk down an icy river or the page?
- syllables – choose a pattern of syllables and try to break the poem up using the syllable pattern.
- Read the poems out aloud and discuss what you do and don’t like about them. Compare with another pair. The way Duffy often places line breaks leaves us dangling as a reader and we have to read the next line to get the whole picture. Sometimes the lines are broken on rhymes or near rhymes.
- Language/vocabulary. In the first half of the poem up to the double page spread of the river from the bridge collect the phrases of frozen things, e.g. ink had been frosted, birds too stiff to fly etc. These can be played with by cutting into two after the noun, e.g. a spider’s web / enriched with rime. The children could then pair the noun with a different ending, e.g. a spider’s web too blue to do the crime. See cards and medium term plan duffy for cards. Jot down the examples that they like. Organise them into a list. You may want to create some endings of your own after the nouns.
- How is the poem structured? The poem has a simple structure with the first half describing things seen that demonstrated how cold it was and the second half describing what the activity was on the river into night time and early next morning. It is a walk down the river and a walk through the day and night.
Trying out the text
- Visit the school Christmas market and collect two lists – one of the things that you see and the second of the things you see people doing. Take photos to remind you of important things.
- Discuss the feelings that you want the poem to create – the excitement of Christmas, the bustle of the market. This is the feeling that you want to create in your poem.
- List some of the nouns that were present at the fair and extend them using a verb or with the word ‘too’, e.g Christmas lights semaphoring in the corner, mince pies too delicious to lose a crumb. Cut each one into two, as before, and pair them up to create new and more exciting descriptions.
- Model writing a poem – first part describing what you saw that showed the excitement of Christmas and the second part showing what people were doing. Model making line breaks for surprise.
- Children write their own version of the poem, changing the reason for line breaks if they want.
- Share poems with a partner discussing the feelings created and the line breaks chosen.
Writing your own version
- Children decide what they want to write about. This could be something that they do at home, the playground before school on a frosty morning. Create two lists of things – one about the feeling/temperature and one about what everyone is doing.
- Explore extending the nouns in different ways; use a verb, too or a different method
- Write poem thinking about the line breaks. Improve and proof-read poem and present either orally or written in a little folded-paper book.
The focus for the poems in the second and third stage of this sequence can be adapted to suit each school’s circumstances. You may not have a Christmas market but might have a carol concert or a visit somewhere special.
If you would like some guided reading sessions for Christmas, Babcock LDP have a series based on Christmas carols which you can find here.