I must admit that, as well as being excited, I was a bit apprehensive about the day on the Reading Bus. I just had no idea what to expect. 90 11-year olds? (Not all at once, of course! 3 classes arrived at different times throughout the day and we split each into two groups of about 15 students each.)
I hadn’t really had a point of reference for an 11 year old for quite some time. I certainly haven’t ‘hung out with’ that many 11-year-olds since I was 11. I had nothing to worry about: they were great. Very excited and interested; they came up with some really creative ideas!
After Marie, the Director of the Natural History Centre at the Zoology Museum building (part of the U of Aberdeen campus,) introduced us, the lesson began.
To kick off each ‘session,’ our ‘Pigeon man,’ Ian McKay, president of the Aberdeen Federation of Racing Pigeon Societies, took out three gorgeous and very different-looking pigeons to display for the students. This was to show that Darwin collected and bred pigeons, and was very interested in the variation among the birds.
Then Iain brought out the fourth and ‘star’ pigeon, who was a gift from Her Majesty the Queen. This pigeon famously was entered into Iain’s One Loft pigeon race, against 40 pigeons from his own loft– and the Queen’s pigeon won!
A very special thing about these pigeons is their ID bracelet on their legs. The Queen’s pigeon had an ‘ER’ to identify the pigeon. Ian showed the students this, and some of the braver children got to stroke the pigeon.
Moving on from the excitement of the pigeons, I got to go on the Reading Bus with Director Jenny Watson. The Bus, a converted coach, is a very fun space, brightly painted on the outside and with seats and, of course, a lot of books inside. There is also a handy big screen, where we displayed a few of my poems.
After I talked briefly about how I studied things just like what the children saw in the Zoology Museum, I read the poem, “Shadows in Chalk,” which is also the first poem in the book.
Shadows in Chalk
at the White Cliffs of Dover
Silken outlines on a wall with scars and scrapes,
crystallized and hidden places.
Shadows leaning hard against a white cliff face
above a channel, splitting continents.
Silhouettes in sediment, of a hundred thousand years,
sea creatures crushed to dust, soaked with rain and blood.
Shapes unchanging only while the sun remains,
immortalized in chalk, lines we scrape and wipe away.
We especially focused on chalk. Since their teachers use chalk every day in the classroom, I wanted the children to think about what chalk actually is and where it came from. Chalk actually is lots and lots of crushed dead sea creatures, technically. In fact, much of it is the picture on my book cover– radiolarians. Then we began to talk about the relationship of chalk and coal, which is a very different thing, but also an ‘everyday’ object (on the barbecue,) and also made of lots of crushed dead things.
The second poem we looked at was ‘Bones,’ which inevitably raised giggles from some of the boys…well, we carried on…
Bones in the rock
in the ice
in the dirt
in the water.
An island made of bones.
A planet made of bones,
bones of ancestors
fallen from wars,
from never having stood.
into sea floor,
which we use to heat our bones.
With ‘Bones,’ I wanted the children to think of chalk and coal, and also of pattern, or how the poem is laid out and what I do with the words and the lines. We passed around a sea turtle skull and shell as well as a chunk of coal, and brought out blackboard tablets and chalk for the children to write their own ideas on. We focused on description and sensory experience– how does it feel? What colours and textures do you see? Does it make you think of anything?
This got us into metaphor, and there were some really good ones! The skull was ‘like a pair of binoculars looking into the past,’ and the sea turtle shell (the hit) was ‘like a suit of armour,’ ‘like a sledge,’ ‘like a boat,’ ‘like a leaf in autumn.’
We had the children transfer all of their great ideas from their chalk tablets onto a sheet of paper which I gave them, outlining some ideas and tips for writing a poem. I hope and am pretty certain the teachers were planning to carry on with the poem-writing back in the classroom! I will post this worksheet separately and teachers (or anyone!) are welcome to use it, though I’d love to know if you do.
Back in the Natural History Centre, where the fantastic Marie, Sandra, Gillian and Yashka had spent the other half of the time showing students human and ape skeletons, beetle and butterfly collections, and stick insects, among many other cool critters, we presented each class with a Darwin Birthday Cake (made by Gillian’s friend at http://www.heatherscakes.com). Well, that drew applause!
It was a very rewarding day and I only hope everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks again to everyone!
I should add that I returned to the Natural History Centre on Friday before my flight home, and got to spend more time enjoying the fantastic critters, both dead and alive, that they have there. The Centre plus the Zoology Museum literally down the hall are a wonderful combination. I was particularly smitten with the Leopard Gecko who was docile and squishy and licked my bracelet. The stick insects were also awesome– the Centre had two very different species; there are apparently hundreds.