Last term, I had the joy of introducing my year 7 pupils to poetry. I love poetry, and I wanted my pupils to love it too. But poetry is complex. It is arguably one of the most complex and elegantly designed art forms that exist. Every single word has been carefully chosen by the poet to convey a particular meaning, and yet every single person who reads it might view it differently. Poetry has enormous potential to inspire: swathes of meaning appear when we engage with a poem that we understand deeply. I really wanted our year 7s to understand some poems on this deep level, but I was aware that this is not perhaps the easiest of tasks.
At my school, Michaela, our approach to poetry aims to ensure that pupils have deep knowledge of the ideas and contexts of the poem, that pupils annotate and discuss the poems in detail, and that what they learn about poetry stays with them long after their exams and university have passed. So which poems should we teach? And how can we support pupils to have enduring memories of some of the greatest works of literature?
Which poems should I teach?
If I say the word ‘school’ to you, no doubt that thousands of ideas come instantly to the forefront of your mind. You’d probably think of teachers, pupils, books, marking, playgrounds, pencil cases, and all sorts of other things.
To be able to get to grips with a poem, it is helpful to have similar stores of knowledge at the ready. If we read the poem ‘At the Border’ by Choman Hardi, for example, the pupils’ understanding would be seriously hindered, as they do not currently possess much knowledge of Kurdistan or the conflicts in the region or who the Kurds are or the challenges they have faced, etc. Knowledge both supports and enriches understanding and interpretation of many things, and poetry is arguably where this becomes most evident.
When choosing which poems to share with your pupils, think carefully about what they already know. If they know lots about the industrial revolution, but little about WW1, it seems sensible to teach Romantic poetry, such as William Blake (pictured) instead of WW1 poetry. Drawing on their prior knowledge will give them a stronger chance of understanding the content of the poem and engaging with the ideas in it.
This may require a structural rethink of your curriculum. We began year 7 with a unit on the Ancient Greek Myths. When we selected the poems we wanted to teach, we deliberately chose poetry inspired by Greek mythology. Poems like Duffy’s Medusa, Williams’ Icarus, and Tennyson’s Ulysses made our short list.
We also knew that our pupils had been studying stories from the Bible in their RE lessons, and so decided to include Blake’s The Tyger into our unit. (It’s also one of my favourite poems of all time. Maybe that’s cheating, but it’s important to study poems you love with kids. Passion is infectious, after all.)
If poems have been selected with prior knowledge in mind, it is far easier for kids to get their teeth into them. They won’t have to worry about trying to understand a context they have not yet been taught, but instead, will be able to focus their energies on in-depth analysis.
The lesson I taught on The Tyger was possibly one of the most wonderful lessons I have ever had the pleasure to teach. Because the pupils had a strong knowledge of the creation story, and the imagery of the Lamb in the Bible, they were able to engage with the poem on an incredibly deep level. My bottom set pupils- many of whom have reading ages of 8 or below- came up with some fantastic ideas.
We spent nearly the whole lesson annotating as a class. We went through it line by line, and pupils contributed their thoughts and suggestions. By the end of the lesson, I found myself embroiled in a debate about the nature of God’s benevolence with twenty-eight 11 year olds. It was fascinating and wonderful in equal measure.
Prioritise in-depth annotation, and don’t be afraid to model and guide them to some of the possible meanings. Use initial interpretations as a springboard for others. “Do you agree with Abdul’s suggestion that the Tiger was sent to punish us? Why else would God create such a ferocious creature?”
We really love the message in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, and we wanted our pupils to internalise some of its key sentiments. To that end, we set up helping them to memorise the poem off by heart. Our assistant led choral recitations at lunchtime and in the playground. The kids absolutely loved it, and now all of them can recite it from memory. He started doing this long before we actually studied the poem in class. Interestingly, when we did arrive at the poem in our sequence, the pupils were itching to get started. They were so familiar with the poem, and on some level, felt like the poem was ‘theirs’. They were able to bring some lovely ideas to the discussion, and could link their ideas in the poem to their own experiences. “If someone says something to you that you don’t like you just have to remember that you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul and so you shouldn’t let them hurt you.”
I often revisit Invictus with my classes, asking them recite it again and remind themselves of what it means. Once, I asked my tutor group if they thought they would be able to remember it in a years’ time. They all nodded their heads, and one boy proclaimed, “No Miss, I will remember it forever.”
Some TES resources:
Personification in Poetry
Poetry Techniques, Forms and Features