Page 1

Thinking About Poetry A selection of think-pieces for teachers

Page 2

Thinking About Poetry

Thinking About Poetry A selection of think-pieces and associated resources designed to provide insight into the teaching of poetry in schools Developed as part of the Well Versed Poetry in School project

Contents From William Blake to

Aoife Mannix

p. 3

What We Run on When We Run About Poeting

Nii Parkes

p. 10

Poetry by Numbers

Mark Grist

p. 16

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gadgets

Jacob Sam La Rose

p. 19

Thinking About Poetry

Page 3

From William Blake to

What’s happening in the worlds of poetry, performance and all the places in between. by Aoife Mannix Recently I was running a workshop in a primary school and a nine year old boy asked me ‘Are you a poet?’ I replied, ‘Yes I am.’ Then he said, ‘Oh that’s funny, I thought all poets were dead.’ Which made me laugh at the time but actually it’s rather sad because this is more or less the perception that an awful lot of young people have of poets. That we are white, male, and we lived a very long time ago when people used words that nobody in their right mind would ever dream of texting. In addition we always rhyme, generally about flowers or death or some obscure combination of the two. Actually there’s nothing wrong with rhyming or being William Blake. William Blake was not only an amazing poet, he was in his time a radical visionary who wanted to not just shake up language but the whole of society. The trouble starts when William Blake is spoon fed to us using methods that I suspect would make him turn over in his grave. When poetry becomes not about revolution but about stultification. When I was in school, the way we were taught poetry was that the teacher would go through the poem explaining what the poet had meant by each line. In effect painstakingly translating every metaphor into prose through a mixture of biography, history and some weird kind of psychic ability to read the invariably dead poet’s mind. Even as a teenager, I couldn’t help thinking but if this how the poet wanted us to read their poem, why not write it in prose in the first place? It was an approach to poetry that was not only mind numbingly dull but took away any sense that a poem is a living, breathing text that you can creatively engage with. Instead of being an exciting, imaginative way of challenging how we use language to construct the world, poetry was presented as difficult and incomprehensible. It was at best a foreign dead language that needed to be translated into a series of footnotes. Good for you in that obscure way that Latin is but not at all relevant to the modern world or my own life. Needless to say I did not start writing poetry in school. I started when I was eleven and my family moved from Dublin to New York. I was in culture shock and homesick and one day I scribbled down something about a frog that felt ugly and alien. My mother asked me what I was doing and when I showed her, she said oh what a great poem. Then she took me to Barnes and Nobles bookstore to buy me my first notebook and shortly afterwards to my first ever poetry reading. I still have my signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s North, which bears the inscription ‘Write on!’ because my mother told him that I’d just started writing poetry. At the time, I had never heard of Seamus Heaney but I came away from that reading utterly inspired and excited by the magic a poem read aloud can create in a room of people. The reason I’ve begun with my own experience of this gap between studying poetry at school and writing it is because unfortunately it’s still all too relevant. Many students when asked if they enjoy poetry will look like the idea they might enjoy it has never even occurred to them. Even the mention of the P word is likely to elicit groans and yawns. Yet a huge number of young people actually write poetry. Often in secret, often not even calling it poetry. But whether it’s lyrics or songs or beats or an idea they texted their best friend or a love letter they will never send, often these young people are poets and they don’t even know it!

Page 4

Thinking About Poetry

There is a patronising tendency amongst older people to dismiss teenage angst. Many teachers wrote poems themselves when they were younger and the memory makes them cringe. But the reason adolescence is so painful and awkward and most of us would rather not remember it is because it is the time in life when we are still in formation. When we are still trying to figure out who we are, emotionally, physically, sexually, and spiritually. It is a time of crisis and that is what poetry is good at. Funerals, weddings, all the big moments of life are marked by poems. Writing poetry is raw and vulnerable and it makes us face who we are and who we want to be. This is why underneath the whole ‘whatever, am I bovered’ attitude, many students discover they actually love to write poetry. Many teachers do too. I was recently poet in residence in a comprehensive school in Barking. At the end of one lesson, the teacher asked the students what they had got out it. A fourteen year old boy raised his hand and said, ‘I never knew writing a poem was that easy. I feel like I managed to put into words something that’s really important to me. I never knew I could do that.’ I think this is the key to making the connection between writing poetry and reading it creatively. It’s making it important and relevant. It’s making it breathe. To do that we need to not abandon the classics but to understand the ways in which they connect to how poetry has evolved and continues to evolve over time. Poetry in the twenty first century is very much alive and kicking. It’s developing in surprising and unexpected ways that are allowing it to connect with politics, music, performance and many aspects of youth culture. It’s breaking out of the dusty elitist boxes that for so long have created the false illusion that poetry only belongs to a privileged minority. For the first time ever, we have a female poet laureate. Carol Ann Duffy is no stranger to controversy. The call to remove her poem ‘Education for Leisure’ from the GCSE syllabus because it dealt with knife crime in many ways encapsulates the tension between old and new approaches to teaching poetry. Written from the point of view of an angry psycho, the poem ends with them heading out into the streets with a bread knife. It is not pretty or uplifting. It doesn’t rhyme. It is dark and disturbing and touches on emotions that arguably a lot of young people are struggling with. It is not difficult because the language is obscure, it is difficult because it is all too relevant to a society where violence is used as a common means of expression. Carol Ann Duffy has set up the Ted Hughes Award to reward the poet who has made the most exciting contribution to poetry in the previous twelve months. Last year’s winner, the first winner of the prize, was Alice Oswald for Weeds and Wildflowers, a poetry collection interspersed with etchings by Jessica Greenman. On the one hand, this collection is very much in the nature tradition of Blake, Wordsworth and Ted Hughes himself. On the other, the poems are not so much about pretty flowers as the vulnerabilities of humanity. Oswald’s poem “Bastard Toadflax” begins: “Ponderous, obstinate/cold-skinned person./Very swollen eyes./Gets fidgets often.” The language is playful, surprising and contemporary. The book is also a cross art form collaboration between a poet and a visual artist. In making their selection, the judges considered radio poems, film poems, public art inscriptions and works for the stage. This was because the whole idea of the prize is to recognise that poetry is no longer confined simply to words on a page. It is to be found in film, in music, in visual arts, and in performance. It is on the tube, on youtube, on graffiti walls, on the internet, on TV ads and on radio. Poets can be found performing in theatres, in clubs, in bars, in cafes, in libraries, in schools and at music festivals. Of course this is not actually new, in some ways it is a return to poetry’s roots. Poetry began as an oral

Thinking About Poetry

Page 5

tradition long before the invention of the alphabet. Travelling bards kept history alive through a mixture of poetry, song and myth in the days long before CNN and 24 hour satellite news. Shakespeare wrote his plays as poetry or his poetry as plays depending how you look at it. I attended this year’s Edinburgh Festival where theatrical poetry or ‘spoken word’ shows are proving themselves to be increasingly popular. I saw Molly Naylor’s Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think Of You, a one woman show that uses poetry to tell the true story of the poet performer’s experience of being on one of the trains caught up in the July 7th bombings. The story combined personal testimony, politics, history, culture, film and music in a poetic account of a young woman’s struggle to make sense of life in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century. In this it encapsulated all that modern poetry is about and indeed what poetry has always been about. Poets have always sought to engage with the moment. Poetry’s strength lies in that it is not a fixed, reductive use of language. Poems do not have one meaning; they are continually open to being reinterpreted by the reader. This is why they can say so much to us in such a concise and emotionally powerful way. William Blake was an English poet, painter and print maker. Though not particularly successful at the time, he is now considered one of the leading artists of the Romantic Age. is an American rapper, songwriter, singer, actor and producer. He is the lead singer of the Black Eyed Peas, a hugely successful music group. The two are separated by a vast gap of time in which the world has changed beyond all recognition. Yet perhaps the more things change the more they stay the same. ‘Jerusalem’ by William Blake And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic mills? Bring me my bow of burning gold: Bring me my arrows of desire: Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire. I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land. William Blake

Page 6

Thinking About Poetry

Where is the Love by the Black Eyed Peas Wrong information always shown by the media Negative images is the main criteria Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity Whatever happened to the fairness in equality Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity Lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feelin’ under That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feelin’ down There’s no wonder why sometimes I’m feelin’ under Gotta keep my faith alive till love is found Now ask yourself Where is the love? © Aoife Mannix Aoife Mannix is an Irish writer and poet based in London. Her first novel Heritage of Secrets was published in 2008. She is the author of four collections of poetry; The Trick of Foreign Words (2002), The Elephant in the Corner (2005), Growing Up An Alien (2007) and Turn The Clocks Upside Down (2008). She is currently poet in residence on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live.

Thinking About Poetry

Page 7

List of Resources William Blake’s passionate humanity This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme (Puffin Poetry) Seamus Heaney (recordings of poems) Apples & Snakes poets in education Creative Partnerships poets in education Top exam board asks schools to destroy book containing knife poem Alice Oswald wins inaugural Ted Hughes award Poetry Places Publications Alchemy in Nowhere Town by Byron Vincent – poetry film Poets on the internet Poems on the underground Review of Molly Naylor’s show Lyrics to’s Where is the love?’s Yes We Can - Barack Obama Music Video

Page 8

Thinking About Poetry Black Eyed Peas - Where Is The Love with words Black Eyed Peas - Where Is The Love? Actual video William Blake’s Tiger

Poems Referenced ‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy Today I am going to kill something. Anything. I have had enough of being ignored and today I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day, a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets I squash a fly against the window with my thumb. We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in another language and now the fly is in another language. I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name. I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half the chance. But today I am going to change the world. Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself. I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain. I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking. Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town For signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph. There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar. He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out. The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Thinking About Poetry

Extract from ‘Bastard Toadflax’ by Alice Oswald Ponderous, obstinate, cold-skinned person. Very swollen eyes. Gets fidgets often. Makes passes at unsuspecting lasses. Tips chair, untips chair. Tips. Untips. Sits in damp places flattering and heckling. The Tiger by William Blake Tiger Tiger. burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye. Could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire? And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat. What dread hand? & what dread feet? What the hammer? what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp. Dare its deadly terrors clasp? When the stars threw down their spears And watered heaven with their tears: Did he smile His work to see? Did he who made the lamb make thee? Tiger Tiger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Page 9

Page 10

Thinking About Poetry

What We Run On When We Run About Poeting by Nii Parkes

There was a time when I loved long-distance running. I would head out with no real route in mind and just jog along; staring out at the world, knowing my eventual destination would be familiar, that somehow it would be where I started, in the bosoms of something I knew. Then came a time when I hated long-distance running: I had just started boarding school and a coach, stunned that someone as tiny as I was had the stamina to complete the cross-country course, decided to focus on making me faster. He wouldn’t let me daydream along; he wanted me to focus on my strides, my breathing pattern, the consistency of my pace. With all that emphasis on the technical, the joy just went out of it for me. I stopped running. Years later, I picked it up again with a group of work colleagues – we would just chat as we did a lunchtime run, no talk of breathing patterns, just a leisurely run; a run for the feeling of running, a run to experience the beauty of the fields around us. In time, I did learn about breathing/stride patterns, but it was after I had improved my times dramatically just enjoying myself and wanted to understand how that had happened. My experience with poetry has been similar: love, hate and back to love. And the reason why I relate it to running is the notion of feeling. Writing and printing has, with time, moderated our receiving of poetry through the abstraction of text rather than directly through sound, and that has in turn led to a shift of focus from feeling-first to technique-first. I believe that the feeling should come first, and the exploration of how we feel should lead our study and teaching. Haruki Murakami, in his book about running (with a very similar title to this piece, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which he in turn adapted from Raymond Carver) said that he learned “practical, physical lessons” during the act of running, that running heightened his receptivity to landscapes and shifts in weather patterns. Poetry is similar, in that it CAN heighten our awareness of emotional shifts, the oft-missed nuances of human interaction with the world. Its joys lie in its ability to make us engage with detail, to take the small and magnify it. Poetry works in tandem with its environment and that environment includes the reader. Just as the sensation of running is strongly linked to the world around the runner, so the experience of a poem is linked to the world around the reader. It is so important to remember that. Words are triggers and carry meanings well beyond the scope of the dictionary. A reader or listener who has lost someone close to them whose favourite word was ‘blossom’ will react very differently to an encounter with the word in a poem than someone who does not have that personal history. This indefinable human element is one of the key reasons why we have to let each person develop their own relationship with a poem before introducing any analysis or technical exploration. Beyond text there is sound, and the internet offers us a unique opportunity to bring poems alive by playing videos of poets reading their own work – allowing comparisons between performance and representation on the page. More importantly, it is another way to experience poetry, to engage with the feelings that poetry evokes. Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem ‘We Real Cool’ is a short but very good example of how a poet’s reading can change the feel of a poem. Looking at the text below, it’s hard to tell where her emphasis will be, but when it is heard, the strong emphasis on the ‘we’ at the end of each line, gives the lines the edge and ‘attitude’ of their inspiration – a pool hall. We real cool. We

Thinking About Poetry

Page 11

Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon. Coming back to the central idea of feeling (which is what I run on when I run about ‘poeting’), I would like to touch a little on the concept of ownership in the learning process. By using inclusive learning approaches, it is possible to get students much more enthusiastic about the learning of poetry. It is also important to retain lightness in the approach since poems, after all, are little bubbles of wordplay. For example, I often muddle up poems of great technical accomplishment and then ask my students to reconstruct them according to their own experience of the text. What I get back is very different versions, but with each person able to articulate why they have structured the text as they have. However, the trick is I am able to share with them at the same time, why the original writer’s structure works. The example below is an extract from ‘Facing It’ by American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa: first a version without broken lines and then the poet’s version. My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn’t, dammit: No tears. I’m stone. I’m flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way--the stone lets me go. I turn that way--I’m inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference. My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn’t, dammit: No tears. I’m stone. I’m flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way--the stone lets me go. I turn that way--I’m inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference. In the poet’s version, we can tell – especially in the highlighted sections – how important the breaking of the lines in the poem is to add nuance to each segment. You also sense, by reading out loud, how the breaks affect

Page 12

Thinking About Poetry

pacing, and thus mood. A similar exercise with Tina Chang’s ‘Duality’ (below) shows the effect of stanza breaks, and by changing the length of lines, subtle changes in mood can be felt when reading both Yusef ’s poem (above) and Tina’s poem (below). Engaging in these discussions allow a great deal of poetic technique to be discussed in an inclusive manner, with everyone contributing, but also it gives us the material to use in accented notes. I like to encourage my students to make two columns of notes – one representing accepted critical opinions on the work and another column of supplementary notes representing the opinions of themselves and their peers, which I encourage them to use to personalise any responses that they might have to offer on the poem – underlining the fact that with material as subjective as poetry, every opinion counts as long as it can be backed up with a reason. Those personalised additions become their accent on the work. Duality by Tina Chang Perhaps I hold people to impossible ideals, I tell them, something is wrong with your personality, (you’re a drinker, you’re too dependent, or I think you have a mother/son fixation). This is usually followed by passionate lovemaking, one good long and very well meaning embrace, and then I’m out the door. In daylight, I’ll tip my sunglasses forward, buy a cup of tea and think of the good I’ve done for the world, how satisfying it feels to give a man something to contemplate. The heart is a whittled twig. No, that is not the right image, so I drop the heart in a pile of wood and light that massive text on fire. I walk the streets of Brooklyn looking at this storefront and that, buy a pair of shoes I can’t afford, pumps from London, pointed at the tip and heartbreakingly high, hear my new heels clicking, crushing the legs of my shadow. The woman who wears these shoes will be a warrior, will not think about how wrong she is, how her calculations look like the face of a clock with hands ticking with each terrorizing minute. She will for an instant feel so much for the man, she left him lying in his bed

Thinking About Poetry

Page 13

softly weeping. He whispers something to himself like bitch, witch, cold hearted ______, but he’ll think back to the day at the promenade when there was no one there but the two of them, the entire city falling away into a thin film of yellow and then black, and how she squeezed his hand, kissed him on his wrist which bore a beautifully healed scar, he will love her between instances of cursing her name. She will have long fallen asleep in her own bed, a thin nude with shoes like stilts, shoes squeezing the blood out of her feet, and in her sleep she rises above a disappearing city, her head touching a remote heaven, though below her, closer to the ground, she feels an ache at the bottom In rounding up my thoughts I am compelled to refer to childhood. Watching a child learn language is probably the best instruction of what engaging with poetry should be like; it may take ages for the meaning to become clear to us, but it should not stop us enjoying it. Children begin to use words that they like the sound of long before the meanings become clear to them, and they create beautiful juxtapositions by doing so. It also means that we can engage them with what seems like nonsense poetry and they will make their own sense of it, whereas an adult might seek to draw a specific meaning from the work. This search for meaning is what our educational systems teach us to do, so in a way I guess I am suggesting that the teaching of poetry must be, to some degree, counter-curricular i.e. while the choice of work can be curriculum-led, the teaching of it must deviate from the obsession with logic and fact. Indeed, one of our leading contemporary poets, Don Paterson remarked on this in a recent article in the Guardian discussing his re-reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He makes a distinction between a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ (the analytical kind we tend to do in school) reading of poetry, saying: “a primary reading doesn’t have to articulate its findings. It engages with the poem directly, as a piece of trustworthy human discourse – which doesn’t sound too revolutionary, but the truth is that many readers don’t feel like that about poetry any more, and often start with: “But what does it all mean?” on the assumption that “that’s how you read poetry”. Essentially, raw enthusiasm – what we should run on when we run about poeting – has been lost. I often think that the moment we stop running in corridors is the moment we need to make a conscious effort not to be too analytical when we first encounter a poem. There is something about that abandon, the possibility of bumping into someone, the acute alertness that aids us if we have to swerve or stop suddenly, that contains all the breathless quests that poetry emerges from. The human and the environment, the traveller and the land, the lover and the terrain of sentiment, the child and the family tree – we must run through it all with no harness, no fear. Poetry is an act of faith. © Nii Parkes

Page 14

Thinking About Poetry

List of Resources Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Don Paterson (Guardian, October 16, 2010) Gwendolyn Brooks – We Real Cool (audio) The Art of Poetry Translation: Four Translators Talk About Their Methods Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006: Text of speech delivered by Ali Smith

Thinking About Poetry

Poems Referenced Full Version of ‘Facing It’ by Yusef Komunyakaa My black face fades,    hiding inside the black granite.    I said I wouldn’t,    dammit: No tears.    I’m stone. I’m flesh.    My clouded reflection eyes me    like a bird of prey, the profile of night    slanted against morning. I turn    this way—the stone lets me go.    I turn that way—I’m inside    the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light    to make a difference.    I go down the 58,022 names half-expecting to find    my own in letters like smoke.    I touch the name Andrew Johnson I see the booby trap’s white flash.    Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse    but when she walks away    the names stay on the wall.    Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s    wings cutting across my stare.    The sky. A plane in the sky.    A white vet’s image floats    closer to me, then his pale eyes    look through mine. I’m a window.    He’s lost his right arm    inside the stone. In the black mirror    a woman’s trying to erase names:    No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair. 

Page 15

Page 16

Thinking About Poetry

Poetry by Numbers by Mark Grist

Last year one of my GCSE English students asked how I knew so much about ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney. I replied that I’d studied it 12 years ago when I took my GCSEs. The class inhaled as one, probably out of shock that I was less than 40 years old, but also out of shock that the poem had been on the syllabus for so long. ‘But its rubbish!’ shouted a boy called Daniel. ‘It doesn’t even rhyme!’ Now we all know that Daniel was wrong. ‘Digging’ does rhyme in places. And the question of whether it’s a ‘rubbish’ poem or not is something that I’d normally like to discuss, but I couldn’t. We didn’t have time to consider something as unprofitable as our personal responses to these poems. We had an exam to prepare for. We had a poem to get right. I used to get a lot out of teaching Heaney’s poetry. I think that may be because I grew up on a remote island called Unst and a lot of his work reminds me of my time spent there. Added to this, when I first started teaching Heaney to students, there were times when my old English teacher’s voice carried through me and I remembered what it was like to first encounter poetry; how much I enjoyed digging deeper into the meanings. It’s been a few years and I now get a lot out of Heaney’s poetry in a totally different way. Like his father in ‘Digging’ I am an expert. I can slice those poems a dozen ways and draw meaning out of them from the most reticent of students. I can turn those words and thoughts into A* grades. That must be of more value than just enjoying the poetry, mustn’t it? Well, no. Not really. I hate teaching Heaney now. I dread when it comes up and when it does I spend my lessons following the same routine, often using the same exercises that I completed all those years ago when I was studying the poems. Some other teachers do the Duffy and Armitage pieces and I’m secretly jealous. I find the Duffy and Armitage much fresher and I think that the students would enjoy studying them more. I’d never ever choose to teach them though because I can teach the Heaney and Clarke ones better. Perhaps more importantly, I’m also confident that I could teach them with little to no additional planning time. Which probably sounds pretty awful, but time is a major factor to an English teacher. Particularly when English teachers don’t have enough time to do our jobs. An average teacher works for roughly 4 hours, teaching about 100 students in a day. By the end of that day you’ve got 100 students work that needs marking and perhaps grading. You also have another four hours of work to plan and arrange for. I’ve met very few English teachers who follow a scheme of work to the letter and we need to be flexible in our lessons. A six week scheme of work may take longer if the students are struggling. That means planning on an almost daily basis. It also means that you find easy wins – teaching Heaney and Clarke was mine. And it had been a profitable win. It got the results. And that, over anything, is what I have repeatedly been employed to do. On the first day of my first teaching post I was walked around the school by the (then) Head teacher. She

Thinking About Poetry

Page 17

shook my hand as we got to my classroom and said she was pleased to have me there, then, as I was about to pull away she clasped another hand over mine, leaned in and said ‘Just get the results, Mark, yeah?’ I attempted an absurd grin and said ‘of course,’ before escaping into the safety of my room. Since then I’ve worked in four English departments. Only one of those departments had a poetry scheme of work for Year 9. The others didn’t. Why? Because the students were doing SATs in year 9, and once they’d finished doing their SATs they were on to the GCSEs. None of the departments did the poetry GCSE work until the end of year 10, as they were doing coursework and so in most schools students have nearly two years without studying poetry. When they do finally look at poetry, they have been without it for so long that it seems alien. Unlike the poetry studied in year 7 and 8, it also doesn’t rhyme. Their teachers run through the old routine, telling them how to get the marks for analysing the poem properly, all the while checking the clock and making sure that they got the key themes and techniques across before the end of the lesson. If the teacher has done a good job, then the students will get the poem right by the end of the lesson. And almost every teacher I’ve spoken to knows that this isn’t right. We’re an idealistic bunch, when it comes down to it. We care about creativity, self expression and empowering young adults. It’s infuriating that we’re so heavily bound down to get the results. And the desire for results also brings with it a terrifying suggestion that there is a right way and a wrong way to think about poetry. Nothing made this clearer to me than when we took a load of year 11s to Poetry Live in Cambridge. I enjoyed the event but couldn’t believe how obnoxious the Chief Examiner was. Towards the end of the first half he launched into a lecture on how to analyse poetry and chastised ‘over 60,000 students’ who, when analysing a poem had said that when turned on its side it looked like a cityscape. Whilst I agree that the idea of the poem looking like a cityscape wouldn’t have answered the question being asked, I was deeply concerned by the Examiner’s rant on this form of analysis. His delivery was so condescending I almost wanted someone to throw something at him and he glowered at the students in the room, deadpanning ‘the poem, like any poem turned on its side, looks like nothing more than a poem. On its side.’ Now, my concern is that I think that poems often do look like things when placed on their side. Also, I think that students (well anyone in fact) should be encouraged to recognise and analyse poetry however they want. I’m tired of trying to find the correct way to do things all the time and The Chief Examiner had just exemplified everything that I believed was wrong in our teaching of poetry. During the interval, feeling somewhat deflated, I headed to the toilet. It turns out that someone (I assume a student) had ripped all the paper towels in the gents’ toilets and had spread them across the floor. When I first walked in all I could see was a mess of blue paper. However, much to my amusement, when I turned my head on its side, I could make out the letters T, W, A and T placed one after the other. It must have been something about the head tilting and the extra meaning that this gave the mess on the floor, but it put the Chief Examiner into perspective, along with his ‘correct’ way of doing things.

Page 18

Thinking About Poetry

Apart from laughing to myself in public toilets, my department learnt to tackle the restrictions of the English curriculum in a range of ways. Most of these have involved a lot of extra work, (be warned!), but they pay off big time. We started running an oulipo scheme in year 9 – although we really had to shoehorn it in at the start of the school year to do it! The ‘Boys into Books’ sessions involved being at work late and started quiet, but getting Dads to support their sons reading helped move on their skills and gave a nice boost to the English department’s status. We also entered any and every writing competition on offer and managed to get lots of our students published! That’s when we realised the bonus of high profile events. They take a lot of work, but they go in the school newsletter, they get discussed across the school and everyone knows that the department is doing something extra – this is great for SLT (who in my most recent school were actually very supportive of creative practise!) and as a result, great for us, allowing us to manoeuvre more creatively in future. The higher the status of your guest speakers, your events and competitions, the more freedom you can get as a department. We’ve been running poetry slams, reading competitions and spooky snippets readings for the past few years – as well as getting literacy themes into major assemblies. And all of it just about gives me the strength to go in and teach my Heaney and Clarke. © Mark Grist

Thinking About Poetry

Page 19

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gadgets

Technology in the Classroom: Creativity, Collaboration and Sharing the Work with Others Jacob Sam La Rose What Technology Resources Can Bring to Teaching and the Classroom “Throughout the past few decades, the emergence of new technologies has been paralleled by the evolution of theories on cognition and learning. Where learning and the mind were once viewed as “filling of the bucket,” the “social mind” is now a much more prevalent model. Of course, educators have long been aware that learning is a social activity, where learners construct their understanding not just through interaction with the material, but also through collaboratively constructing new knowledge with their peers.” Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, Jennifer Groff, Jason Haas - Using the Technology of Today, in the Classroom Today Before anything else, let’s unpick the word ‘technology’. It’s easy to think of technology in certain environments as a simple synonym for ‘computers’, but that’s not always the case. Even if we limit the scope of our thinking on technology in this context to computers, there’s still much ground that can be covered - hardware, software, networks, the internet, social media and cloud-based computing... Thankfully, so much of our technology is integrated and embedded that we often have access to a wide range of tools in individual (albeit multifunction) devices, and we often take the technology available at our fingertips for granted. There’s little doubt that technology can be an attractive component of any classroom. Likewise it’s difficult to argue against the fact that technology has a lot to offer in learning activities. Computers facilitate internet based research and the generation and distribution of text, the production, manipulation and distribution of digital media (video, audio), authoring of presentations and animation, and collaboration between students in the classroom and beyond. Beyond computers, technology can manifest in the form of still and video cameras, web cams, scanners, audio recorders, interactive whiteboards... the list goes on. At the bleeding edge, some schools are experimenting with using iPods and iPads to disseminate educational applications for interactive learning experiences, and to provide access to pre-loaded set texts (as ebooks) and supporting media in the form of video and text on the web. Simply take any of the “i” devices into a classroom to see the kind of interest that new technology often receives from students. Beyond the “cool” cachet that new, popular gadgets often engender, each new piece of hardware, evolution or trend in a web-based service can be viewed as a tool or platform - something to facilitate an objective or activity. Consider the iPad and any other comparable “tablet” computer, for example, as a multifunction media device, one that allows for the distribution and reading of books, web browsing and the viewing of other digital media, as well as the authoring of content through applications for writing, drawing and audio recording/manipulation. However, new devices also represent potentially different and compelling ways of interacting (both with technology and, through that technology, people), different ways of manipulating data and information, different

Page 20

Thinking About Poetry

ways of thinking, and by extension, different ways of teaching and learning. What are the challenges and what are the benefits? Neither of the following are exhaustive lists, but compile a series of talking points for further discussion. Challenges: • Authentic and creative integration of available tech resources in a project or activity - not just using technology for the sake of it. • Existing technological infrastructure - what’s currently available in the classroom/school? How well maintained? • Technological proficiency of lead teacher / facilitator for the activity or project, their attitude toward technology, and access to support for the intended use of technology. • School/local IT policies that restrict access to desired websites. It can be difficult or close to impossible to apply for an exemption for specific access. Local IT policy may also limit the installation of useful software. • Cost - budgets are always limited. • Attitude towards technology engendered by students. • Provision for student care - permissions for collaborative activities, particularly with regard to the dissemination of photographic or video content featuring students; monitoring of student-led network based activity and other shared content for inappropriate or potentially offensive material; maintaining the balance between the freedom to interact and engage with the necessary requirements for care and safety. Benefits: • Technology is often perceived as “cool” - the interest around using computers and gadgets can be funnelled into engagement with activities based on or facilitated by those devices or technologies • The potential for personalised learning • Extending learning beyond the classroom as an enjoyable pursuit, rather than an onerous task • Working with multidisciplinary mixed media projects presents new ways of engaging students towards learning objectives • Ease of generating and manipulating content (editing text, recording video/audio) • An emphasis on learning through doing • New ways of valuing the work that students produce – ironically, when work can exist in public domain (as in class projects published online, even if only on a local network) that work can be perceived as more “real”, and thus have higher value • Specifically in the context of working with poetry and technology: supporting interaction with poems in different modes – interactive explorations of traditional forms of poetry and the value of different aspects of poetic form; exploring the value of the poem as visual artifact; exploring the relationship between sound and sense; compelling new ways of rendering poetry activities such as the construction of “found” poetry... • Potential for collaboration – interexchange between physically distant groups, breaking down national and international barriers

Thinking About Poetry

Page 21

How Technology Challenges More Traditional Approaches to Classroom Teaching Contemporary creative use of digital technology typically challenges authority - take for example the challenge faced by copyright holders with regard to remix or mash-up culture (see Larry Lessig’s talk on the laws that choke creativity), not to mention the ongoing war between music companies and file-sharers. In old world thinking, an established authority controls the experience and the audience’s access to it. Simply put, old world thinking can’t keep up with the promise of creative freedom offered by our increasingly more powerful devices and the internet. Models of entertainment offer more and more autonomy to new generations. Both radio and television were revolutionary technologies when they first came to power, but they were both directed experiences - your primary choice was to engage or disengage. Over time, the range of choice has expanded (try explaining the concept of having to choose from only four television channels to our children today) but also, new models of entertainment allow the user to participate in or control the direction of the experience they’re engaging. Consider the advent of computer gaming as one of the most powerful developments in interactive storytelling in our time. That’s not to say that we should abandon all hope of managing creative learning experiences, leave our students to their own devices – pardon the pun – and hope that they eventually get whatever learning objective we were planning towards. But if part of the challenge is to continue to present compelling learning and creative experiences in the classroom for students who are living through paradigm shifts on a day to day basis and who are potentially much more accustomed to the notion of such high speed change and innovation than previous generations, it’s important for us to consider teaching strategies that in some way incorporate interactivity and autonomy of experience. Exploring the use of technology in lessons can challenge us to plan for more personalised teaching experiences (as opposed to the 1-30 teaching model), and to move away from fact-based learning to project or skill-based learning, from single correct solutions toward more open ended outputs, and to challenge our role in the classroom – striking a balance between the role of authority and the role of facilitator or guide. How Can Both Writers and Teachers Use Technology to Transform Their Own and the Young People’s Experience of Poetry and Performance? “More than other genres, poetry seems to elicit the most groans from students. Often language arts teachers report feeling uncomfortable teaching poetry, either because they aren’t sure how to teach it effectively (owing to lack of pedagogical role models), or because they find it elusive themselves. ... Consider how many hours students log on MSN, MySpace, Facebook, or Runescape. How might we help our students further develop their visual and digital literacy skills to think more critically about how images, sounds, and print text work together to communicate meaning?” Dr Janette Hughes

Page 22

Thinking About Poetry

- Poetry: A Powerful Medium for Literacy and Technology Development Many of the challenges to traditional teaching outlined above – interactive, personalised teaching experiences; student centered learning; project based learning; collaborative work... – are present in the best examples of poetry workshops, workshops that go beyond the traditional model of teaching poetry based primarily on critical analysis of set poems, and that’s before considering any use of technology. The question then becomes how to make best use of technology to extend our thinking in authentic ways. Consider the possible range of constituent parts of a poetry workshop: • Inspiration: presenting a theme, topic or task, disseminating source material for students to respond to • Analysis: considering the meaning and critical value of work that’s presented • Generation: creating original work • Refining: editing or shaping raw ideas towards a “finished” state • Presentation of work, with feedback and responses Not all workshops consist of all of the above stages – some focus on specific subsets. But it’s not hard to imagine how technology can be used at each point. • Inspiration: viewing or listening to poetry performed through social media sites (e.g. Vimeo, YouTube, the Poetry Archive...); using content sourced from social media sites as starting points or supporting material for creating new work (e.g. images from Flickr) • Analysis: consider an Italian teacher’s innovative use of a podcasting project to trigger his students’ critical thinking in response to poems • Generation: for example, web based flash games or document templates to model the generation of poems in traditional forms... • Refining: using a text editor or word processor for editing poems to save the drudgery of long-hand redrafting; using a class blog as an exercise for posting and feeding back on original poetry... • Presentation of work, with feedback and responses: creating poetry videos to be presented in class, year assemblies, on a school website... ; creating digital archives of student work for future classes, or other students throughout school... Needless to say, the potential for authentic use of technology goes far beyond anything I’ve listed above. © Jacob Sam La Rose

Teachers' Resources: Thinking About Poetry  
Teachers' Resources: Thinking About Poetry  

A selection of think-pieces and resources designed by Mark Grist to provoke insight into the teaching of poetry in schools.