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Poetry #4: Cats and T. S. Eliot

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students learn how poetry has inspired other works of art.  Using T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and a few video clips, students will understand how poetry has the power to inspire not only common people, but writers, musicians, costumer designers, engineers, and dancers!  Read, discuss, and then lip-sync along with the felines from Cats!

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



Each child will understand that poetry is so inspiring that other art works are inspired by it.   (AASL 1.2.3, “Demonstrate creativity by using multiple resources and formats.”)

Suggested Time:

40-50 minutes

Success Criteria:

Students will know that T.S. Eliot’s poetry about cats inspired a famous musical named Cats.  Students will be able to sing along with the words to Mr. Mistoffelees from Cats the Musical.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Quickly review what your students have learned about poetry.  In Lesson 1, students learned that poetry is meant to evoke emotion and that poets “paint with words.”  They have also looked at nonsense poems (Runny Babbit) and story poems (The Magic Paintbrush.)

Ask your students a few questions to get them thinking:

  • Could a poem change the world?
  • Could a poem change someone’s life?
  • Could a poem or a group of poems help you earn a lot of money?
  • Could a group of poems entertain everyone for years?
  • Could you dance to a poem?

In this lesson, students discover that poetry has inspired other important works including music and dance.

2. Main:

Show students the cover of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.  Tell the children that the collection of poems was originally published in 1939.  How long ago was that?  Yes, the poems are almost 80 years old!

Ask the children if they can think of any other poems about animals.  They should come up with Runny Babbit, perhaps Eric Carle’s Animals, Animals, or perhaps The Fish Who Could Wish.  Tell the children that these poems are just about cats.  Ask:

  • What do cats do that the poet might mention?
  • What do cats eat that the poet might write about?
  • How do cats behave, that the poet might refer to?
  • How do cats get along with their humans?
  • Where do cats live that a poet might include?

Pass out copies to some of the poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  I usually reproduce one class set per year and include “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser,” “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” and “Mr. Mistoffelees.”

Teach “Mr. Mistoffelees.”  I ask a student to read a few lines, then we discuss/clarify meaning, and then continue until the poem is complete.  Tell the students that the language is hard, but it’s worth it so that they will know the words and story.

Show the “Mr. Mistoffelees” video clip from Cats the Musical, found here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AF2kjla_NbY

Be sure that the kids have enough light to follow along with the words.

If any of the children know the music from Cats, ask them what their favorite poem (song) is.  I’ve had children say Rum Tum Tugger, and if the kids know one of the poems (songs), play the ones they know.

If there is time, I usually teach about Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser next.  These cats were thieves and played tricks on their humans, and the kids love learning about such a diabolical pair.  Work carefully through the text, then play the video clip found here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=861jN3mKE9Q

Be sure to point out that the original poetry inspired music, costumes, and dance!

I doubt you’ll have time to teach a third poem, but if you do, I’d recommend Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat.  If you don’t have time to work through the poem, explain that this cat lives at a train station and rides the night train every night.  The video clip shows the train being made on stage and it’s wonderfully interesting for the children.  Skimbleshanks from Cats the Musical can be found here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEIiqhx3BSk

3. Conclusion:

Normally the children are so wound up that it’s hard to end this lesson.  Try to conclude by asking:

  • Can poetry be fun? (Answer: “Yes!”)
  • Can poetry be turned into music? (Answer: “Yes!”)
  • Can poetry entertain people? (Answer: “Yes!”)
  • Can poetry tell a story? (Answer: “Yes!”)
  • Can poetry inspire dancers and composers? (Answer: “Yes!”)
  1. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.
  2. Computer for an Internet connection
  3. Projector and speakers for video playback.
  4. The following YouTube clips of performances from Cats the Musical:
    1. Mistoffelees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AF2kjla_NbY
    2. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=861jN3mKE9Q
    3. Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEIiqhx3BSk

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats may not be found in the Elementary or PYP Library.  Be sure to check whether the Middle or High School has a copy before you order a new copy.

This lesson can easily be extended by having the children find facts about cats, especially feline anatomy and movement. They see cat make-up and movement in the video clips, so it would be interesting to have them discover some factual ties.  I’ve always thought that Eliot’s poetry would make a nice class assembly but have never found the opportunity to give it a try.  But, I think that the kids will be interested enough that you could extend this material if you wish.

Recommended books for this lesson:

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorley

Key Terms:

Poems, Poets, Poetry, Children’s Poetry, T.S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats the Musical, Cats