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Grant students a poetic licence and analysis skills will follow

Poetry is part of our literary heritage and we continue to reward and revere those who write it. Just this week, Sinéad Morrissey made headlines when she became the latest winner of the prestigious TS Eliot Prize for poetry, joining previous winners such as Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.

Yet, as the faces of a group of low-ability 14-year-olds make clear when I ask them to write a poem, something is getting lost in translation with the teaching of poetry.

Part of the problem is the gap between the practice of literature and the study of it, with poetry lessons becoming "teach to the test" drudgery filled with annotated photocopies of anthology pages and poetic-devices card sorts.

But a few weeks into a scheme of work on writing poetry, my initially-mutinous students are producing literary gems of their own and even (dare I say it?) beginning to reconsider the depth of their hatred.

One student, Alice*, explores feelings of inadequacy in her poem:

It looks as if I’m not good enough for you.
I’m like a raisin in your fruit bowl.
I’m not the apple of your eye.

In response to an image of a ballet dancer, Polly writes:

She danced with her feet.
Around the stage she glided
breeze blowing through her.

Rather than approaching student work as incomparable to "real" poetry, we can engage with these pieces as we would any other poem. We might consider Polly's choice of the word “through” in her final line, or discuss the implications of Alice taking a common figure of speech and placing it beside an expression of her own invention.

To suggest that someone identify the method by which a mathematical equation has been solved without ever solving an equation for themselves would seem ridiculous. Why not apply this same logic to teaching poetry?


* Names of students have been changed.

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