Creative Day Inspired by Cambridge's History with Michael Rosen, Helen Weinstein & the team at HistoryWorks!

Cambridge was full of laughter and song when 400 primary children from local Primary Schools had a fantastic workshop of poetry, history, rhythm, and rhyme. It was organized by Helen Weinstein, Director of Historyworks supported by the team at HistoryWorks.  The stars of the show were the participating children joined by the well-loved writer and performer Michael Rosen,  the former Children's Laureate and author of hundreds of books, including the international best-seller, We're Going On a Bear Hunt.  On this occasion, all the children had already learnt some Historyworks songs and had history sessions led by Helen Weinstein, so that they would be ready to collaborate for singing and writing poetry about Cambridge.   The venue was a perfect place for singing together and working together,  the Cambridge Union’s Debating Chamber! 


The focus of the creative writing workshop was to expose the children and their teachers to a variety of ways in which they could write their own poems and songs. The children involved were from a wide range of schools, who all walked to the venue, quite a feat for the young people aged 9 and 10 from Abbey Meadows, Fen Ditton, St Philip's CofE, Morley, St Matthew's, Milton Road, Ridgefield, and St Luke's Primary School.  Helen Weinstein, the Director of Historyworks has shaped the programme of work for the schools, and used funding from a City Council S106 Public Art Award. Helen has commissioned poems from Michael Rosen and songs from the CBBC's Horrible Histories' songwriter, Dave Cohen.  At this workshop, not only was there the opportunity to sing the songs together, but to learn directly from Michael Rosen how he finds inspiration and develops his own ideas to write his own poems.  Often children find it hard to start a poem, and in this picture you can see Michael Rosen showing Abbey Meadow's Primary School students his recent book called 'What is Poetry?' sharing his top tips:


The children all made their way to the Cambridge Union with great anticipation, with many schools walking past a number of historic sights on their journey into Cambridge city centre, which feature on their own bespoke school History trails that are being produced by Historyworks for each school.  Many of the children had been on special history walks with talks before the workshop.  For example, the 45 students in the blended Year 5 at St Philip's CofE went on a special tour of the area with Helen Weinstein to engage them with 'history beneath your feet'. The students explored Coldham's Common, Abbey Football Stadium, the Leper Chapel, and ended down by the River Cam and the Victorian Pumping Station, now known as the Museum of Technology.  They were taken on a detailed tour inside and outside the Leper Chapel so that they could understand the area, and then Helen suggested that they wrote poems imagining that they were a stone gargoyle attached to the roof of the Leper Chapel viewing the changes over time, watching the hustle and bustle of the traders on the River Cam and those coming in the  past to Stourbridge Fair. Other schools will go on their history walks after the workshop, for example, Milton Road Primary School's walk has a Tudor theme!

Here is a photograph showing Michael Rosen, flanked by Mario Satchwell and Helen Weinstein of Historyworks. The workshop began with Helen Weinstein welcoming all the schools individually, and then everyone was invited to stand up to stretch their toes and then their voices. Mario engaged the children with stretching exercises to get moving to music and body percussion to make some noise and feel their collective strength in their voices. Mario, Helen and Michael did their warm-ups for the children’s voices with their bespoke songs, such as the round about Cromwell's Head buried in Cambridge! Warm-ups also included the tongue twister written and performed by Michael called 'The Button Bop'.  The warm-ups ended with the singing of the Horrible-Histories-style song written by Dave Cohen and devised by Helen Weinstein about the Cambridge Coat of Arms, called 'SeaHorses'. Pictures and words helped the children all join in and the singing certainly kicked-off the workshop in a way that the chldren responded to, all engaged and enthusiastic to perform poetry and write a poem about Cambridge collaboratively! 


Then Michael shared his ‘Listening Lion’ poem about the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, inspired by the folk tale Helen found in the Enid Porter Collection at the Cambridge Museum about the lions coming alive at midnight and strolling down to the conduit on Trumpington Street to drink the water to assuage a terrible thirst! Next Mario taught the children how to develop their rhyming by using body percussion, which was performed to our Historyworks adaptions of Michael's poem for ‘Who Made the Lions Roar’ by Mario Satchwell and Tizzy Faller, and the ‘Fitz Lions Trip Trap’ rounds about the lions composed by Kirsty Martin.  It was fantastic to see 400 children joining in with great gusto, especially with the roars, which delighted Michael and all the teachers and carers to witness the young people having such fun with poetry, learning about rhythm and rhyme!


There was then the opportunity for children to share their own poems inspired by 'history beneath their feet' describing what a stone animal may have seen and heard and smelt on their walks and talks with Historyworks.  For example, St Luke's school have been exploring the history of the French family (their school is on French's Road and built on the site of an old farm and mill that used to be called 'Chesterton Mills' owened by the French family) and HistoryWorks made some resources for the school based on the Mill, and even found Mr & Mrs French who helped with photos and stories, and came to meet the children to show them the Mill where they lived as children, to help with the students' creative work. It was great to hear the range of poems and songs inspired by the history of the Victorian Mill to now, and all the noises in rhythm and rhyme!  Michael picked out aspects of the particular poems to give feedback and praise to help everyone with developing their creative writing and performances of their work, which the media team at Historyworks had recorded to show on the big screens at the Union. You can see a range of the recorded poems and songs about Cambridge topics here:


Michael Rosen is photographed here with Year 5 teacher, Amy Rosier, from Morley Memorial Primary School, showcasing her class poetry and song book, because many of the participating schools are making books, gathering together their own publication inspired by their history trail.   Historyworks had carefully selected the running order for the students so that they could be inspired and exposed to a variety of ways in which a poem or song can be constructed in rhythm and rhyme, and so Michael also shared a number of other poems using rhythm in a pronounced way, including some of our absolute favourites requested by the schools, including ‘Down By the Bins’ and ‘NO Breathing in Class’, which the children absolutely loved listening to and joining in with!


After Michael Rosen had thoroughly enjoyed hearing all these fantastic pieces and praised children for their imaginative ideas giving the students feedback about how to develop and complete their poems and songs, we thought it was a good idea that Michael showcase some of the poems which he is also writing to pin on the Historyworks trails for everyone in Cambridge to share!  

Michael performed his new poem 'As I Was Going to Stourbridge Fair: Newton, an Apple Pie, Prisons or Prisms' set down by the River on the path to Stourbridge Fair, and explained to the children how he came up with this idea for a monologue about a conversation between a ghost and the famous scientist, Isaac Newton, who visited Stourbridge Fair to buy prisms, or was it prisons?  The audio for this new poem by Michael Rosen can be found here:

After that Helen shared all the local history trails for the 8 primary schools and explained about the different history topics would be illustrated with photos and drawings and creative writing pieces, describing how the poems and songs written by Cambridge school students, Historyworks and the Horrible Histories songwriters, and the famous poeet Michael Rosen, would ALL be pinned online to the relevant topics to transform a history walk into a piece of public art, freely available for everyone to enjoy!  Helen then also played a voice-over of Michael reading the Cambridge Coat of Arms script, to help explain to children how each of the stops would in addition have a history topic script read by Michael to help the children, their families, and everyone to learn more about Cambridge history.


The last element organized by Historyworks for the workshop was to have 400 children collaborate to write a poem together! Michael challenged the children to co-create a poem around the theme of ‘My Cambridge: The River Cam’. The children first shared their ideas with the children next to them and Michael gave the children some top tips of how to start writing a poem, especially thinking about using repetition and rhythm.  Helen had taken photographs of the river, the meadows, the swans and ducks by the Cam, the visiting dogs and cattle rambling on the commons, and the huge range of boats, both rowing boats and house boats.  All of these were presented into a slide show by Mario to inspire the children for their poetry-writing together.


Michael and Helen then brought the children back together again to mindmap their ideas and then Michael shared how he could take these ideas to transform them into a poem and developed this with the help of the children.  

The key element was a riff which went "Flow River, River Cam" and one hundred children kept up this repetition, whilst others voiced their descriptive words in groups of one hundred to go over this, such as "Swimming Swans, Floating Boats" which sounded fantastic and gave all involved a huge sense of satisfaction and an insight into poetry writing!


The workshop finished off with singing one last song devised by Helen about the history of the Victorian sewage problems and the building of the pumping station, composed by Dave Cohen of CBBC's Horrible Histories, called "River Cam in Queen Vic’s Time" which built up into a round dividing the audience into 4 parts of one hundred.  It was a rousing way to end the workshop before saying goodbye to the children and them heading off to have picnics in the sunshine!    In the afternoon, Historyworks developed their repertoire of works for the public art project, filming and recording Michael Rosen down by the River Cam for his new poem about Isaac Newton walking along the River Cam to Stourbridge Fair.  

Helen also took Michael to visit the Cambridge locations for his next series of poems funded by a Cambridge City Council public art award, and you'll have to listen out for these new poems in the Autumn, when Historyworks will develop the next S106 history trails for schools with a new set of poems composed by Michael Rosen with accompanying FREE workshops for Cambridge children. You can hear the poem about Stourbridge Fair here:

If you would like your school to be involved, please be in touch with Helen Weinstein via 

There is an album of photos taken by the team at Historyworks available on flickr here:


Creative Writing Day  With Michael Rosen On 9th June