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A Visit from Michael Rosen

A Visit from Michael Rosen

The book-signing queue stretched right across the room after Michael Rosen’s performance for Key Stage 2 pupils at Queen Edith Community Primary School in Cambridge.  While they were waiting, some of the children chatted amongst themselves, but most stood with their noses stuck in the book that they had just purchased.

Queen Edith, a school where 34 languages are spoken and there is high pupil turnover, is strapped for cash, yet the resourceful headteacher, Caroline Peet, is determined to give the children the opportunity to love reading. She uses their varied cultural backgrounds as an educational tool and raises funds to ensure they have access to a good supply of quality books.

The visit by Michael Rosen was the culmination of an intense focus on literature in the run-up to the Easter break, following on the heels of a successful literature and drama day entitled Play on Words. That event featured an appearance by poet Brian Moses, storytelling in several languages by parents, the play Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady presented by the theatre company Cornelius and Jones, drama games and workshops.

As Caroline Peet explains, the aim of such days is to get parents involved in reading with their children: ‘It enriches their experience. It all feeds back to give them a really rich experience of literacy. We do lots of live performances of theatre groups and we also go to dance theatre to give them live experience of theatre or drama, which is so helpful to their experiences of writing and of life.’

The pupils were particularly excited by Rosen’s visit because they already knew his work; poetry is embedded in the culture of the school.

‘They grow up with poetry here,’ says Peet. ‘It’s introduced from nursery onwards. When I showed round a set of parents in year 1, there was nobody in the classroom. We found them on the field and they were acting out We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, doing the 'swishy swashy'. I’ll do work in assemblies... We have poetry boxes so we can do whole class or whole year group work, where they’ll all read poetry and they’ll read it out to each other. They’ll sometimes have opportunities to perform their favourite poem. Language is just enjoyed.’

The teachers planned additional activities to prepare the pupils for Rosen’s visit. Jo Irons, a year 3 teacher, found Rosen’s website a useful tool. ‘Because they were Year 3 they had probably heard some of his poems without knowing that they were his poems. But on the website you can actually watch videos of him performing the poems, so we’ve done that in class.’

The reception class heard We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Little Rabbit Foo Foo and their teacher read them an article in which Rosen revealed that he had been a poor maths student. The staff room erupts with laughter at the poet’s mock anger upon hearing that his secret is known by a group of four- and five-year-olds.

Despite the differences in their ages and maturity levels, the material Rosen performs for the two groups is surprisingly similar; it is the subtle variation in delivery that makes the performances age-appropriate. After performing twice a week for 34 years, Rosen keeps his performances fresh by rotating the poems and ad libbing some of the patter: ‘I try new things every day. Every time I do it I ad lib something or try something new or if I missed a thing last time I’ll try it slightly differently this time.’

'Boogy Woogy Buggy' (from Centrally Heated Knickers) prompts much audience participation, complete with arm movements. ‘I made a real effort to learn "Boogy Woogy Buggy"' says Rosen. ‘It benefited from having been learned, because if you try and do it with a book in your hand you can’t get your body going with it, and kids respond to body movement so much. In a good rhythmic poem your body works as percussion. As you say the words they’re seeing the rhythms that you’re doing. You use the rhythm of your arms and your body in order for the audience to pulse with it.’

The children pay rapt attention; Rosen holds the interest of the younger children for an hour without any difficulties apart from having to deal with interjections by children unfamiliar with the conventions of live performance. ‘When you’re standing in front of them, if you’re just talking to them, then very young children, who aren’t sophisticated about the relationship between performer and audience, think you’re talking to them personally. That’s why they call out. If you say "I love chocolate cake" they say "Yes, so do I!" In a way it’s a lovely naivety.'

Caroline Peet was particularly pleased that 'Chocolate Cake' (from Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here) was on the programme. ‘I read it to them on every occasion. At one point towards the end of the session this morning one of the children said, "You haven’t done 'Chocolate Cake', please can you do 'Chocolate Cake?'" And they all were completely there. They did a lot of quoting back to him, which was just lovely. It was embedded already. It was just so nice to see him perform it in the flesh.’

Queen Edith has a longstanding tradition of holding a unit on Michael Rosen’s poetry towards the end of Year 6 every year, in which the children write their own poems in the style of his work.

‘Michael’s work lends itself very well to Year 6 humour,’ Peet explains. ‘The Year 6s engage very easily with it and then produce something of value. There is quite a maturity level that’s necessary for writing in the style. It’s fun, so we do it after SATs. The likelihood is that after seeing him there will be a greater understanding of the way it’s done; they might be able to really live it, in a sense, when they write their own poems.’

She presents Rosen with a volume of the best of the children’s work over the years. One by Raphael, an ex-student, was inspired by ‘Chocolate Cake’:

I could live on doughnuts!
Every time I have one I start dribbling,

It was a dull afternoon,
I came home from school.
There, in a plastic see-through Tesco bag,
Are four doughnuts.
I stare.
I start dribbling,
I get a plate,
And I walk towards them.
I take one,
I scoff it,
I take another one.
I stuff it into my mouth as my mum walks in.
I hide.
She walks out again.
How I’m longing to have another one.
I spit the doughnut from my mouth, onto the floor.
It’s my sister.
I threaten her and she goes away.
My mum walks in.
She steps on it.
I am going to die.
I think of a cunning plan.
She asks me, ‘Did you do this?’
‘Mother,’ I say,
‘How could you think of something like that?’
So I told her the true story.
I was walking into the kitchen when my little sister tripped me up.
I said, ‘Don’t do that.’
She spat at me but missed.
Thank goodness,
She believed me and went to my sister.
‘Die sister, die!’ I cackled.

Rosen accepts the poems graciously. Later, he has fulsome praise for the school. ‘It’s particularly nice going into schools that are really revved up about books and writers,’ he says. ‘I reckon I can create a buzz around my books, but you go to a place like this and you can see all the posters on the wall. They are creating a buzz around all books. I just happen to be one of them. You sense you’re riding the crest of a wave that’s already been created, rather than having to create the wave yourself.

'That was what was particularly good about today. And they’re committed. Every one of those teachers, you could see, was committed. You could tell by the way they were buying the books or had the books themselves. One of the teachers was saying "I loved your books when I was a kid", and that’s wonderful. They’re relating it all: they could come in and say, "I loved this when I was a kid: listen to this." '

Clearly, the school’s approach is working: of around 420 pupils, 350 purchase books after the performance and staff expect more of them to buy books the following day.

Staff and students alike are thrilled with the event. ‘I was absolutely delighted that some of the children who have had books and taken them to Michael to sign are children who perhaps don’t have a culture of reading at home,’ says Peet. 'For them it’s a really exciting experience to take a book home that is really meaningful to them. A visit like this brings to life that writing actually happens with real people. It’s not just something that happens in books.’