Poems by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Kate Milner
Published by Otter-Barry Books, £6.99
Recommended Key Stage: 2
Year Group: 5/6
When I first read Overheard in a Tower Block by Joseph Coelho, I absolutely fell in love with it. I have since read it over and over again and feel it is full of poems that you gain more from each time you read them. It is a beautifully-written poetry collection that tells the story of a young boy whose parents split up and it came as no surprise to learn that it was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2018.
Award-winning poet Joseph Coelho grew up in a tower block in London himself – with his mum and little sister. His wonderful compilation of poems gives an insightful child’s-eye-view of what life was like growing up in an urban tower block, ‘gazing at the stars from five storeys up, smelling the bins from five storeys below’ whilst Kate Milner‘s intricate, quirky line drawings elucidate the observations of the child, breathing life into the words on the page.
Balancing a recollection of unhappy childhood memories (a missed father, sobbing mother and overheard arguments) with happier and often more humorous times, Coelho brings London to life through the eyes of an extraordinarily observant young child. Poems such as First Kiss, Cross-Country School Run and On Exam Results Day evoke our own childhood memories, reaching out of the page to touch readers on a personal, heart-felt level.
It is a powerful, moving and, at times, uncomfortable poetic narrative about growing up in the city, sensitively covering themes of love, family, bullying and loneliness but ultimately acknowledging the power of strength, optimism and resilience in difficult times. It’s an accessible and ‘current’ book that has the ability to connect and resonate with city children (and adults) everywhere.
Why is this book brilliant for the classroom?
This collection of poems is ideal for classroom discussions that ignite children’s curiosity about words and language. The poems are brilliant for enabling students to understand how detailed use of language can open up new meaning. You can read and discuss each poem with the children in your class, finding examples of interesting words and phrases, including figurative language such as metaphors, similes, alliteration and sibilance. It allows them to explore why the author is choosing and using particular techniques and the impacts of these devices on the reader.
Coelho clearly loves playing with words and especially loves homophones. One of my favourite poems is The Duelling Duo (mentioned previously in my post Spelling in a Reading Rich Curriculum). The Duelling Duo has many homophones hidden within it, perfect for a lesson investigating homophones. At this point in the story, Coelho explores the theme of tension and arguments and I love this brilliant video that can be used to accompany lessons in the classroom:
As if you needed any more reasons to use Overheard in a Tower Block in your own classrooms, the CLPE has created a brilliant Teaching Sequence that will absolutely save you time planning lessons. Instead, you can focus on producing excellent resources and scaffolding to support and extend learners in your class. It is designed to be used over 15 sessions (a 3-week unit) although this can obviously be tweaked to suit the needs of your own class.
The sequence includes a variety of teaching approaches and strategies such as: reading aloud, book talk, visualisation, performance, role on the wall, debate and discussion and conscience alley to enable all learners to participate and engage with the poetic narrative. Writing outcomes within this unit of work also includes illustrations (related to poems studied), written responses to poetry, performance poetry, drafting, redrafting and writing poetry, as well as publishing and sharing poems. Lessons are lively, engaging and are bound to ‘hook’ those reluctant readers and writers too.
You can even watch Joseph talk about his writing process and the importance of re-drafting (he often re-drafts his poems up to 15 times!) in the video below, which I think is incredibly useful for encouraging children to engage in this part of the writing process.
I would suggest it is used with children aged 10+ (UKS2) as the content is often sad, although brilliant, requiring a higher level of emotional maturity for those wanting to explore the relevant themes and delve a little deeper into some more complex issues.
My top tip! It is well-worth purchasing this great activity book How to Write Poems by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Matt Robertson. This was recommended to me by a colleague at the National Literacy Trust and is the perfect companion for teaching this sequence in the classroom. Joseph Coelho’s fun, accessible exploration of poetry (from laughable limericks to poetic puns, and from ridiculous rhymes to silly sibilance) is jam-packed with fun games and activities to inspire children to generate ideas and write their own poems.
Have you read this book? Did you like it? Hit the like button below, add a comment or find me on twitter. I’d love to hear about your thoughts and how it’s taught in your own classroom!