Phone Number Poetry

(This a post which I had left in draft form for a couple of months. Something about it wasn’t quite finished and, to be honest, I never really got round to it. So, to clean out the ashtrays a bit, here it is. Comments would be most welcome. I would also add that this class were a VERY reluctant class of writers.)

Phone Number poetry is an idea I stole, took, borrowed, was inspired by in Phil Beadle’s book, ‘Could do Better’. I’m a big fan of Mr Beadle. As a constant thorn in the side of establishment, his often bizarre approach, his seemingly ‘two fingers to the norm’ attitude disguises a genuine compassion for the kids he teaches. His ‘How to Teach’ from 2007 is, perhaps, the first book I would recommend to any teacher, especially of English. But enough of the fawning. I digress. Phone number poetry. As Beadle says:

‘Come exam time, to save your child time thinking up sentence lengths, remind her to use her mobile phone number and write it at the top of the page…Where there is a zero suggest she replaces it with a 9, join 1 to its nearest neighbour.’ page 194

Okay, so this is not necessarily a task which requires a phone. There need be no phones in the room- in fact, I would doubt that your school even allows them. What it does need, however, is a series of numbers. This is a lesson about varying sentence lengths. Part of the difficulty for some young writers – and subsequently their noisy teachers – is often the inability to move beyond the simple sentence. ‘John walks to the door. He opens it carefully. He looks down the corridor. He sees some thing unusual.’ Potentially not a bad story but the repetitive structure of the sentence beings to get a little tired and predictable. Phone number poetry helps get over that problem.

In his book, Beadle claims, ‘Being able to write with a variety of sentence lengths…is pretty much the definition of a stylish writer; it shows your child is aware of rhythm of her write into, and it’s will come across to a reader.’ page 193

So, what happens? You can do this two ways. You can ask, firstly, for five numbers between 1 and 5, preferably with a few the same. (2, 3, 3, 4, 1). Then ask for another five numbers. Phil Beadle says between 6 and 20 but I narrowed it down to 10 for this class. (6, 8, 8, 7, 6). Mix the ten numbers up and you get something like this: 2, 3, 3, 4, 6, 8, 8, 7, 6. The task is to write a paragraph with ten lines. Each number will dictate the number of words in each sentence. You next have to choose a class topic for modelling purposes. My class, being the culturally aware bunch they are, shouted out, ‘McDonalds’. It was just before lunchtime after all. We had loads of fun going round the room getting contributions form every one in the class. Some better than others. We ended up with this:

Tasty, cheap.

Drive-thru, always loud and crazy, fattening.

Colorful but beautiful

Filling, great value chicken nuggets, amazing enjoyable too.

greasy fingers…gooooood!

Yellow clowns, red seats, green uniform, white tables.

Exciting, time for ice cream.


Some good laughs with that Big Mac?

Always when with friends.

All good so far. The class have begun working on a topic called ‘My Favourite Place in Scotland’, inspired by Scottish Book Trust, and had already been thinking about their favourite place in the school. This was their topic and they chose their own numbers for this one. Overall, there were mixed results but every student completed the exercise which was real progress for some of them. They had written a poem.

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