How to change pupils' minds about poetry

One school librarian explains the methods she has used to challenge negative perceptions about poetry and get pupils excited about reading and writing poems

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I run an annual poetry week at my school, a celebration of all types of poetry in which we try to involve all year groups and run across the curriculum. Here are my tips for getting students engaged — for poetry week and beyond.

1. Get students writing

One of the most important parts of the week is getting the students writing and editing their own poems. We do an exercise in "writing with their ears" — they begin to listen more to the words they write, which helps them when they do read poetry to gain a different interpretation of the words on the page.

Another of my lesson plans uses our sense of smell rather than our sight and hearing as a way to understand the poem and to help us with our own poetry writing. Smell invokes a strong human reaction that contributes to imagery, metaphor and structure.

2. Use competition

We are a large academy, made up of four schools. We run a poetry competition in which the schools compete against each other to see which one can submit the most or the best entries. Tutors and headteachers become very competitive, which creates a buzz around poetry week.

Though prizes are not everything, I have found that simple recognition as a winner or getting on to the shortlist really does enthuse even the most reticent students. If you also decide to enter external competitions, aim high. An international competition like Foyle offers 100 top winners; reaching that top 100 is a realistic aspiration to give to a class.

3. Explore readings and rap music

For those students who might normally avoid a formal poetry reading experience, try using poetry readings on YouTube. I play these during lunchtime. Students don’t need to sit and listen formally to this — they can flit in and out, or just catch bits of the readings while they are looking for books. It also offers a non-judgemental space for those students who might not want to admit they like poetry to their friends.

Once you have opened their eyes to what poetry actually is, students will recognise this in rap and song lyrics. Give them the current number one with the title missing and read it aloud as a poem. Once you have got students listening and beginning to analyse it, then they’ll be more willing to tackle "heavier" works.

4. Share the experience

Running the poetry week doesn't make me a poetry expert, and I'm honest about this to my students. I make poetry a learning experience for all of us. As a result, the students can, and often do, come up with another meaning for a poem that I had thought I understood.

You can also promote writing and sheer appreciation of poetry by getting students and staff to read their favourite poems aloud in assembly, during lunch and in the library.

5. Consider having a poet-in-residence

Poet mentors and poets-in-residence are a great help. We have had a visiting poet for the past two years to perform and run workshops. This has ranged from whole-year group performances to small group work. For our students, it has created a lot of excitement as well as a chance to do something different.

Above all, poetry should not be reserved just for "poetry week" but promoted as a fun and engaging pursuit throughout the entire school year. 

Joanne is senior librarian at Tor Bridge High School, Plymouth. She is also a 2017 teacher trailblazer for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Her lesson plan ‘Does This Smell Like a Good Poem? is available  free from The Poetry Society

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