Literature has a status in the English curriculum which is ‘rarely questioned’ (Goodwyn, 2012, p.212) and poetry is a central part of this. You might hear an experienced GCSE teacher roll their eyes and groan about the sheer amount of poetry they ‘have to get through’; a reference to the pressure of preparing students for national examinations, in which poetry features prominently. This is understandable but regrettable, because introducing young people to poetry could, and should, be one of the joys of the job.
Of course, poetry matters because ‘it lends shape and meaning to our experiences’ (Taylor, 2005, p.210) and ‘restore[s] life to our language habits, because it is language used at its richest and most accurate’ (Holbrook, 1967, p.69). Poetry can encourage students to think and express themselves in deeper and more sophisticated ways than any other area of the curriculum. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that it is challenging to engage teenagers in poetry and to help them embrace it as a worthwhile pursuit, not just for their learning, but for life.
Here are some ideas for making poetry meaningful for students. They should support you as you begin teaching poetry:
- Read poetry. This can sometimes feel a daunting task, even for an English graduate, but it goes without saying that teaching poetry is a far more positive experience if you actually enjoy poetry yourself. Michael Rosen (2012) suggests picking a poem, reading it, and then carrying the book, or a copy of the poem, around so that you can read it again in spare moments. The point is not to feel any pressure to analyse the poem. You need not share your reading of the poem with anyone else; simply spend time with the poem and get to know and enjoy it over time. You might have studied poetry intensively during your degree, but these private poetry readings can widen your knowledge, deepen your understanding and invigorate your enthusiasm for the subject.
- Give a poem time and space. Just as with your own private reading, it is also important to spend time with a poem in the classroom. Often, teachers feel pressure to move quickly from the reading of a poem to asking students to write a response, as this is where the tangible proof of learning can be found.
You might find it possible to resist this pressure if you consider that a student’s written response to a poem, usually in the form of a PEE (point, evidence, explain) paragraph, is there to capture ideas and interpretations that need to exist first. It is almost impossible for a student to write a convincing PEE paragraph if their ideas about a poem have been given insufficient time to develop and, ultimately, students’ reading skills might suffer.
Instead, value those parts of the lesson that give students opportunities to read, re-read, explore, discuss and speculate on the poem (even if it does not involve writing). Try always reading a poem more than once, for example, start with a teacher reading, followed by individual silent reading and/or paired reading. Follow up by giving students open-ended questions to facilitate discussion in groups, ask them to learn the poem by heart (see below) or get them on their feet to role-play or freeze-frame the most striking images in the poem.
Whatever you do, remember there is value in ‘withhold[ing] cold critical analysis and the yearning for certainty for long enough to allow complexity, ambiguity, sound, musicality, verbal and visual patterning to do their sub-, or semi-conscious work on our thoughts and feelings’. (Bleiman, 2018)
- Beware of feature spotting. Providing students with knowledge of literary terms is an important part of an English teacher’s job and can be a rewarding one, as students often enjoy acquiring this knowledge, with its satisfying (and unusual, in English) element of right and wrong.
However, be wary of confusing this knowledge with poetry reading and interpretation, which is a more sophisticated skill, as Bleiman (2018) notes: ‘Literary terms are important, of course, but they can come relatively easily along the way, as part of explaining and exploring what’s observed and finding the precise language with which to express this. If it’s just pinning terms to features, however, then it is a thin gruel of knowledge, compared with the more complex, subtle, rich and intermingled flavours that come from examining ideas and feelings and discovering how they are conveyed through linguistic and literary choices.’
- Speak it out loud. Poetry is rooted in an oral tradition, and it is one that has been re-invigorated by the blossoming of the Spoken Word scene, led by the likes of Kate Tempest. This is a gift for the English teacher trying to make poetry vital and meaningful for students, and there are great benefits to asking students to memorise and perform a poem by heart (not least the fact that it gives students time with a poem – see above). Pullinger and Whitley (2016) claim that poetry memorisation can enable students to experience a poem in a more full and rich way, which ultimately leads to more sophisticated analysis. In addition, their research shows that these internalised poems can stay with an individual for a lifetime and can act as a source of comfort in tough times.
A good place to start is Poetry By Heart, a poetry recital competition for young people (watch the videos of previous winners for inspiration), along with an incredible timeline anthology of poems and plentiful resources and ideas for teachers.
Bleiman, B. (2018) ‘Teaching poetry – recognising what makes it special’. English & Media Centre.
Goodwyn, A. (2012) 'The status of literature: English teaching and the condition of literature teaching in schools', English in Education, 46 (3), pp.212–227.
Holbrook, D. (1967, 2010) English for Maturity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Pullinger, D. and Whitley, D. (2016) ‘Beyond measure: the value of the memorised poem’, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 23 (4), pp.314–325.
Rosen, M. (2012) ‘Poetry is doing and playing: 20 ideas for you’.
Taylor, J. (2005) ‘Teaching poetry in the secondary school’, in Brindley, S. (ed.) Teaching English (7th edn). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.