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Poetry paper chains help pupils to make the link

It was a hot summer's day. The mercury in the thermometer was edging upwards, the undivided attention of my mixed-ability class was heading downwards and I was nearing the end of a shortening tether. It was time for drastic action.

As an English teacher I spend much of my time teasing out, dragging out or, regrettably, spelling out the hidden meanings of lines of poetry. But with literature exams looming, my 15- and 16-year-old students were still not developing their interpretations. How could I inspire them? The answer came in the form of paper chains.

After demonstrating how to think up and sustain an interpretation, I gave pairs of pupils key lines of poetry on single slips of coloured paper, which formed the first links in their chains. The pairs then wrote each of their linked interpretations on pieces of paper before joining them together.

Before trying this activity, I admit that I had reservations. Wasn't it more appropriate for younger students? Well, apparently not.

James (a rugby player) and Jack (a footballer) tackled the task with gusto, developing the longest chain of meanings in alternating pink and blue. Instead of rolling their eyes, the brightest pupils relished the challenge of pursuing a line of reasoning as far as possible. Some even linked their interpretations to other poems.

Given the line "The heat behind me is bullying" from Simon Armitage's poem Out of the Blue, set on 911, one pair suggested that the character felt intense fear: like a bully, the fire in the North Tower of the World Trade Center was hard to escape and the character's behaviour was dictated by the searing flames, emphasising his loss of control. The pupils then linked the line to Tennyson's powerless "six hundred" and the words "theirs but to do and die".

After 20 minutes we had sufficient lengths of paper chains to decorate a whole suite of classrooms. The students fully understood what was required for their exams. They even insisted on testing the strength of their classmates' chains - not by tugging, but by evaluating the reasoning their peers had applied.

At the end of the lesson, the students felt confident, the classroom looked ready for Mardi Gras and I breathed a huge sigh of relief: the paper chains had worked wonders.

Jon King teaches in Cambridgeshire

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