... is ... a speaking picture, with this end: to teach and delight"
This has been a fascinating newsletter to put together. Poets and teachers are represented, each with something pertinent to say about the challenge of making a connection between the words on the page and the students in our classrooms.
Poetry is natural, instinctive, says Gillian Clarke. Teenagers are alive to poetry (see their reactions to song lyrics) and just need to re-make a connection. But how?
Gillian Clarke kicks-off by saying it's important that readers take ownership of poetry, and it's this principle that underlies each of the following pieces. In some cases it's about identifying with the time/ place roots of a poem or engaging with common human issues raised. In others, the focus is on students becoming active, empowered readers given the freedom to be the experts.
If it's practical classroom approaches you're after you'll find many useful suggestions for making sure this transfer of power takes place. A number of these are pre-reading activities: ask students to improve your 'lame' version of a poem for example, or simply explore themes before meeting the poem itself. Techniques are suggested for helping students to become active and creative readers of poetry rather than passive recipients too. Examples? Get them producing their own poetry based on tricks and patterns they've spotted themselves, use ICT to deconstruct and reconstruct poems or use drama to engage with the text.
Enjoy. And may your poetry lessons be re-energised!
|The thrill, the delight and sorrow of words | Gillian Clarke|
Poetry is natural as song and dance. It's our first human language. Rhythm and rhyme, the fun, the thrill, the delight and sorrow of words, the way they can make you laugh, break your heart and mend it again, are there from the start. Our first words rhyme. It's an instinct to be cherished in the child, a pleasure to be nourished as we grow older.
So where does it go? We who love poetry, poets, teachers, readers, too often meet stony resistance in adolescents and others who have forgotten how language danced when they were small children. Adults remember only that 'we had to learn poetry by heart' - an excellent practice, by the way. Every week at our poetry workshop, someone presents the group with a personal favourite. We discuss it for half an hour. Last night a middle-aged woman brought a poem she had loved since childhood. 'It's because of this poem that I'm here', she told us. It was Alfred Noyes' 'The Highwayman'. She knew much of it by heart, and some of us were tempted to sing along too. It's sentimental, romantic, sad, rhythmic, rhyming, totally un-cool, and we all saw why she loved it: for the story, but more importantly for the rhythm and skill of the rhyme. You could say the same for the Beatles' song 'Yesterday'. (Yesterday/here to stay/gone away).
The answer to those teenage grumbles lies in making the 'story' their own and the language new. Those old ballads are great, but we also need our own stories and rhythms. But I'm not in favour of the 'my Dad said' school of poetry. The language of poetry should be natural but heightened. Poems should step to the edge, look into the void, extend vocabulary and vision. Making the world new - that's what poetry's for.
The voluble teenage response poets receive at Poetry Live gigs, the questions, comments and poems that follow, prove they are alive to language. 'I hated poetry - but now I think it's cool', they say - as if we didn't know it already from their love of song lyrics. They listen quietly to the poems, some of them tough texts, many, on the face of it, far from their own experience: poems set in history, in myth, in landscapes far from the towns and cities where most of them live. But they recognise love, birth and death wherever it happens. They know relationships. The heart is touched, and the world opens. So poets were teenagers too, once! Suddenly they're talking to us, writing to us. It's that connection which can free them to read, listen, think, write, get the best grades they can.
We want to share our passion for poetry. So in February 2005, during an interval between readings at a Poetry Live event, an idea was born: could there be somewhere, if only in cyber-space, where poets and teachers, students and readers, could be partners in the same venture, a place where nobody felt excluded? An on-line poetry resource written by poets themselves, with special sections for students and their teachers. A poetry superstore for everyone from infants to post-graduate students, a place for poets and poetry-lovers everywhere.
Here is Seamus Heaney, on the new web site, writing on the theme of memory in his eight poems in the AQA anthology:
and Simon Armitage on family relationships:
and Carol Ann Duffy on falling in love with poetry after reading Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' in her first term at 'big school':
and a quote from my piece on Emily Dickinson, who showed me that a girl could grow up to be a poet:
Gillian Clarke Sheerpoetry.co.uk
[I grew up in Pollok, an "anonymous" postwar housing scheme in Glasgow. This is the concluding section to a long out-of-print essay in which I posit the idea of a boy growing up in Pollok learning poetry from the archived poets and mapped history of his locality; and with a teacher who believes in the primacy of the human writer-reader relationship before all and any process of categorisation or assessment. T.L.]
A boy is walking by the banks of the Levern. He remembers that a book he was reading says the origin of the word was in "Levernani", a Pictish tribe. There's been some argument about that though. How long after the Ice Age would that be? Pollok was full of those drumlin things when you looked around: the hill up Leithland Road down past the chapel, the hill at the back of the school, the hill over the Green Bridge at Braidcraft Road.
He looked left from the Green Bridge to the tower that was all that was left of Crookston Castle. Of course Mary Queen of Scots couldn't have seen the Battle of Langside from there as Scott had her do; but she'd have been able to see up past Househillwood alright, where that Covenanter was killed. The boy's grandparents wouldn't have known about him, since they'd been brought up Catholics. How horrible it was the way people in the twentieth century had hugged their tribal histories to themselves. No wonder they had never been able to unite, and them on the same land.
He thought of Tannahill's poem to Crookston Castle. Over beyond the Castle around Paisley Road West would be where Hogg and Tannahill parted company shortly before Tannahill killed himself. The boy turned away and looked down Brockburn Road past the roundabout.
Beyond the woods on the left was Pollok House. When was it exactly that the Maxwells first got the land, and why? He wanted to check it out. For a long time theirs must have been the biggest library in the district. The people who were able to visit too, like that religious writer Thomas Erskine of Linlathen-who had influenced Coleridge the poet, his father had told him.
Of course there were the people who wouldn't have got using the library at all. The boy thought of his favourite local poet, David Wingate of Cowglen, going down the mines when he was nine, less than a mile from where Maxwell's house and library was located. It was Wingate who wrote poems about letting children have a day in the country, because they needed the fresh air away from their work. At least now there were none of Maxwell's gamekeepers to disturb the boy's walk.
It was good to read poetry out loud. Your voice was a good thing, wherever you came from. He had enjoyed reading out Dunbar and Gavin Douglas the week before. He knew that although he couldn't understand the words at first, he had been able to say the sounds very easily once he had had a few things explained; words might have gone, but the sounds had still been passed by word of mouth over five hundred years. "Never mind stopping to get every word," his teacher had said to him, "if you like it enough you'll want to find out what it means."
That was the teacher he had seen looking upset sitting reading a book. The boy had meant to sneak away unnoticed, but the teacher had called him back. "I'm not ashamed to be found upset reading a book," he'd said, "and I hope you never will be either." He told the boy he was reading Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, and the bit that always overcame him was the bit where Leontes's wife, as a statue, comes back to life. The play was about a man who was jealous when he had no reason to be, who treated his wife as an object, and, in the last act, she appears on the stage as one-a statue. But then the man saw the difference between an object and a human being, and he saw what a unique human being his wife had been, and how he wished she was only alive again. And then the statue moved.
In a way it was a story about a really basic thing, about how you can wish that someone you loved who has died could only come back for five minutes, if only to tell them that you're sorry for something you did while they were alive. But at a deeper level it was one of Shakespeare's great statements about Art, that he knows he's doing this for you, he knows that you know it, and what he's saying is that Art is so precious because only in it can an object come to have human life in your presence.
|Poetry and grammar | Geoff Barton|
When I started teaching I treated poetry as a shrine up to which I expected students to tiptoe, genuflect and worship. It was all a bit Dead Poet's Society, if you know what I mean. For some students this worked a treat. I still recall the Year 10 girl who after reading Philip Larkin's "To the Sea" told me that it contained a colour scheme of reds, whites and blues and that this underscored its essential Englishness.
For many others, though, it was all much more passive, overly analytical and probably off-putting.
That's why I subscribe to the idea that working with texts should usually encourage students to take on the role of active writers rather than passive readers. One of my favourite approaches is to give them 'bad' models - rewritten versions of texts that aren't actually very good. You then ask them in pairs or groups to see how they can improve the text and to give you a commentary on the changes they make.
This relates grammar and lexical changes directly to effect.
At random: a quick dodgy rewrite of Ted Hughes' first few lines of "Hawk Roosting" in which he enacts the fascist mind-set of a hawk, er, roosting:
It's all a bit lame, don't you think?
So let's encourage students to think about the point of view: what if
we shift it from third person (it) to second (you) or first (I)?
This is good collaborative stuff, with students presenting their versions of the poem on an OHP, talking about the changes they have decided upon, being nudged to use increasingly specific terms to describe both the changes and their effects.
This remains the heart of English - students actively responding to a text, sharpening their own judgements, building linguistic confidence. And then, when they get to look at the original poem, they will be so much more involved because they have already explored their own versions:
It's a reminder also of the way good language teaching builds our response to literature, rather being something separate. The old argument about language versus literature is as outmoded as, say, the style of teaching in Dead Poet's Society.
Look for a poem that has a trick to its construction, some clever pattern, or sequence of metaphors, or some special viewpoint that can be borrowed and adapted. The idea is to use the pattern or trick as a model but to avoid borrowing vocabulary. Style tends to mimic the original, but having a structure to support the creative effort greatly enhances a writer's confidence and allows energy to be channelled into the quality of writing. Choose poems as models that do not rhyme. Rhyme is a ruinous siphoner-off of real inspiration and expression, at least for the majority of children.
Typical lesson preparation might follow this sequence:
The end of this process (it should take about half the lesson) is for each group to report back, via spokespersons, to the whole class, on the meaning of the poem, and its special trick/pattern etc.Next, pupils write a poem, copying form and 'trick' but using entirely their own words.You will be stunned by the results!
Poems used successfully in this way, include:
There are plenty of others. I have written one or two myself
It is always best to teach metaphors actively, that is encouraging students to explore the power of metaphor through writing their own - not as disconnected, disembodied lists of words, divorced from context and purpose, divorced from the act of writing.
Students can be taught to recognise the form of a metaphor through such exercises, but they will also learn a mass of unhelpful, unintended things in the process and they will be scantily aware of the spirit and dynamic of true metaphor. Metaphor is not just a pretty figure of speech, it is a powerful method of expressing concepts that are difficult to articulate, a way even of arguing, as useful in prose as it is in poetry.
My suggestion would be to read and investigate the structure of pieces of writing that use metaphor as their main drive-spring (e.g. 'You are a Box of Chocolates' and 'Wilderness') so that students see the metaphor in action. Then ask them to write poems that use exactly the same form and structure, but with a change of purpose, and of course completely different words.
'Wilderness' uses a series of metaphors, standing for aspects of personality. When the class has discovered this trick, they will realise that any series will do as long as the items are generically linked. Thus one might choose to represent aspects of one's personality through a series of trees - the oak, the willow, the thornbush - or through different types of car -the banger and the Porsche - or through varieties of weather, types of sky, a different selection of animals, types of flower - anything! Once that concept has been discovered by a group of students the writing flows easily and it is immediately obvious that it has power. (http://www.it.cc.mn.us/literature/sandburg/22.html).
'You are a Box of Chocolates' is more complex. Here three metaphors are chosen to represent some other person (lover or enemy, friend or foe) that has a relationship with the writer. These three metaphors define some salient features of the other person. Then the same classes of object are used to define the writer, thus establishing not just another personality but also the contrast between them and hints at their relationship. The results can be highly complex and revealing, saying things that would be impossible to articulate easily without the use of metaphor. It is a good way to show students just how powerful such types of writing can be.
A similar active approach could be taken to the study of simile - use Ezra Pound couplets and encourage students to write them, look at simile in context in prose.
One very successful active method for encouraging children to write using similes is to provide them with a structure that they don't need to think about (so that they can concentrate on the creative writing).
For instance you might ask them to describe a monster giant, listing the parts of its body (the easy-to-do bit) and writing a simile for each part:
(cf Thomas Nash, 'Pierce Penniless his supplication to the Devil' where the writer describes his enemy's huge bulk in similar hyperbolic terms - this kind of simile is well known to children as part of the arsenal of insult: a very wounding weapon too - "your nose looks like Concorde").
Do you like poetry? Are you uneasy with what you're having to do to thrash your students through the Anthology? Want an alternative to spoon-feeding? Feel that you're patronising your younger-than-KS4 kids by asking them to read condescending 'poems' because everything else seems to be written for adults?
It doesn't have to be like that. Here's a four-point plan.
In all these activities, keep the initial emphases on oral exploration -use techniques from drama, lots of group and pair discussion, presentations. Work with your students, and explore together. Give them their 'moments of authority' - their perceptions can be just as sound as yours, and your difficulties as great as theirs.
|Poetry and ICT | Trevor Millum|
Poetry and ICT are made for each other. What other medium allows us to experiment with language so freely? What tool comes close to the word processor in enabling us to play with the possibilities of words? Whether we are helping students to write poetry or encouraging them in their reading and understanding of poetry, there are many many ways in which we can call upon ICT to assist. Here's just one.
ICT provides us with an ideal means of changing or 'transforming' texts. One of the simplest changes involves re-ordering or re-sequencing. Putting pieces of writing which have been de-sequenced back into their original order is a very good way of learning about texts, how they are constructed and how they cohere. Doing this without ICT is awkward and frustrating, as many of us have learnt!
Students can be directed to look for clues in rhyme pattern, sentence structure and scansion as well as in the meaning of a piece. You might like to let them build up confidence with simple verses (even limericks) before moving on to more demanding poetry. Try this:
As in so many of these kinds of activities, it is in the process that the learning takes place. It is satisfying to reach a 'correct' conclusion, of course, but is it better to reach the right answer by luck or to have created a 'wrong' answer in ways which can be discussed and justified?
The following is not the way Hopkins wrote the first part of his poem. Is this version as effective as his? What ways do we have of deciding? The discussion here gets far away from ICT - but it is the experimentation enabled by the ICT which in turn enables that discussion.
This is an activity which works equally well with a sonnet as with a limerick, G M Hopkins as well as Edward Lear - and which brings up interesting questions even (or perhaps especially) with a haiku.
There are several ways in which texts can be de- and resequenced:
I can't avoid mentioning the 'Unlocking Literature' CD, a resource compiled by myself and Chris Warren and sold by NATE. It contains all of the pre-1914 Anthology texts in a pupil (and teacher) friendly form. They are provided in different ways, including (except for the few very long poems) a simple click and drag de-sequenced format, which is ideal for individual or whiteboard use.
However you use this technique, the principle is the same: to help students engage with the words, to enable experimentation and to encourage thought and discussion.
|An update from NATE | Ian McNeilly|
Well, I suppose the first thing I should say is a big hello to all who use the wonderful Teachit site. I took over the post of Communications and Development Director at the National Association for the Teaching of English from Trevor Millum in September. I'm more puzzled every day how Trevor managed to look so laidback about everything! It's a big job and I'm certainly still in the process of getting to grips with everything - from representing the interest of teachers of English at meetings with Government bodies to arranging book displays at regional events. And much, much more - trust me!
It looks like the first significant English issue on the horizon for NATE during my time will be 'Functional English'. The 14-19 White Paper published in February 2005 outlined an intention to have every pupil in English pass a discrete 'Functional English' qualification. What exactly this will entail is not known yet and the speed of implementation of this is frightening - first teaching is scheduled to be from 2008. NATE is a key member of the 'Functional English Reference Group' which first met in October to begin chewing over a potential definition for the term. I'm not sure how much our input will be acted upon, but the very fact that a definition isn't in place by now when teaching of it is envisaged in less than three years shows what a challenge it is for the DfES. It's all driven by business, of course.
Bookings are coming in for NATE's 2006 Conference. I'm pleased to say it has an excellent reputation for inspiring and recharging the batteries of all involved in the teaching of English. It's very much a social event too looking at the programme I see 'Wine Reception' liberally dotted around the timetable! Amongst the many worthy workshops and speakers this year are Michael Rosen, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Eva Salzman. Over a three-day weekend based at the lovely Hayes Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, it's fantastic value with a variety of rates depending on room choice and length of stay. Remember that the cost can often be shouldered by your department's INSET budget! More details available at http://www.nate.org.uk.
Talking of INSET, NATE has two drama events coming up led by experts Ruth Moore and Paul Bunyan. The first is on 'Rabbit Proof Fence' and is at Sheffield on Wednesday 2nd November. The second is in Birmingham on the play adaptation of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'. The National Strategy were so impressed with Ruth and Paul's drama pack that they bought and supplied one to every secondary school in the country! Again, more details available on our website.
NATE has also agreed to a request to become Teachers' TV's review panel for their English-related programmes. If any teacher of English fancies having a look at a programme and filling in a simple proforma (the whole process should only take about 45 minutes - the programmes are 15 minutes long) then drop me a line at email@example.com. Might be a nice little addition to your CV (as is being a member of your professional association, of course - hint, hint!).
See you next time!
|Holes theatre trip: your thoughts please|
Cactus Productions is considering touring a new production of Louis Sachar's
HOLES, produced and directed by National Theatre staff. Tickets would
be subsidised and cost around £6.
We would like to ask you a few quick questions about this.
As a thank you for your time, we would like to give you a FREE copy (one per school) of one of the National Theatre Original Plays. See below for details.
To receive your FREE copy of the National Theatre Original Plays please send responses to Charles.Evans@harpercollins.co.uk, stating which title you would like to receive from the list below, and the school you would like it to be sent to.
The National Theatre Original Plays have been specially developed for
use in the classroom/drama studio and are accompanied by teacher notes.
They are written for young people by some of the best playwrights in the
For further information on the National Theatre, and the National Theatre
drama festival for schools, please visit www.shellconnections.org
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