Sites of amazement

Chris Fautley

I'm hopeless at poetry!" The imminent arrival of Poetryclass, the Department for Education and Employment's strategy for teaching poetry, will probably draw similar responses in schools everywhere. But there is a way of conquering that poetic phobia: visit a castle - or any other historic site.

In conjunction with the Poetry Society, English Heritage has recently been trialling Poetry Places, an initiative to use historic sites to inspire and provoke poetry. Its culmination came when professional poet Sandra Stevens accompanied children at various locations to demonstrate just what can be achieved.

English Heritage education officer Jennie Fordham says a set of teachers' notes has been produced, crammed with ideas together with guidance on preparation, poetic avenues to explore, (haiku and acrostics, for example), how to perceive sites using similes, metaphors and adjectives, and follow-up work in the classroom.

If Dover castle is typical, there is little shortage of inspirational material - as Sandra Stevens demonstrated when she joined a group of Year 4 children from St Peter's Methodist primary school, Canterbury. There are, however, old prejudices to be overcome. Teachers often say: "Oh no! I couldn't possibly ..." because many of them are intimidated by the thought of poetry, believing it to be a specialist subject and something at which they have to excel, says Ms Stevens. "Actually, all of us are poets," she says. "Everybody comes out with phrases which, if only they knew it, could be cut out and put in a poem." Teachers need confidence and to believe in their own powers of expression: "If only they would get rid of the preconceptions about what it ought to be."

Jean Morrison, acting deputy head at St Peter's agrees, but says children have no inhibitions: "They'll just write their thoughts and read them out."

Start the daywith basic jottings, suggests Sandra Stevens. Then cut things out, add them, change them. "Highlight things you cannot live without. Put them on a page and you are half way towards a poem," she says. She demonstrated this principle in the castle tunnels, urging us to note down just three things: "Use all your senses. What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it remind you of?" A similar approach was adopted at the Roman lighthouse: "Explore it, touch it, feel it," we were urged, "You don't just have to look at it." We were told to write our experiences in a minimum of three sentences, one of which had to be a statement, one a command and one a question. "Imagine, maybe, you are the lighthouse!" In the keep a different tack was explored; we had to focus on just one thing - a room or an object - then describe it in six lines: the first three define it clearly and factually, the remainder express our interpretation of it. In an increasingly sanitised world, one of the great joys of poetry is that anything goes. There are no rules as to what is and isn't right. "Children love that," said Sandra Stevens. Once they are given the basic instructions they can interpret them as they like.

For Jean Morrison the idea certainly worked and it was an exercise she would be happy to repeat without the help of a poet. It is an ideal complement to the literacy hour and it gives children the opportunity to use all their senses. "That's perhaps something we might miss out on in class," she says. Historic sites offer enormous scope for original work. Proof that, in the words of Christopher Fry, "Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement."


Teachers' Guidance Notes from: Fax: 01732 350938Poetryclass launches on National Poetry Day, October 5.

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Chris Fautley

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