Cherry tree poem gave pupils' insight a chance to blossom

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
The experiences and outcomes say too little about the true purpose of teaching literature

In the playground of my last school stands a cherry tree. It stood there before the school was built but, being close to the building line, it was cut and pruned over the years. In winter therefore, leafless, its branches pointing in one direction, away from the building, it resembles a bent old crone; it is not pretty.

But in spring it is transformed. Leaves and blossom hide its misshapen aspect and it stands out sharply against tarmacadam and grey concrete. Last spring I used it. I was teaching an Int 2 English class. The lesson was A. E. Houseman's Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now.

"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide."

I gave out copies. I read it once and sent the class to the playground with one instruction: look at the playground, observe, come back and tell me what you saw.

They did and they saw that tree. Despite its having been in the playground for longer than they had, some of them saw it for the first time. The poem gave them eyes to see the tree and the tree, in its Easter finery, illustrated the poem. They grasped, most of them, meanings and metaphors: time's relentless movement, the seasons and the changes they bring in us and in nature, the transitory nature of youth, the capacity of beauty to transform the ordinary into the wonderful, the joy of observing beauty and of seeing it for a first time.

I doubt if that brief experience made any of them a more successful learner, confident individual or responsible citizen. There was no cross- curricular aspect to the lesson or the learning. It added nothing to their employability. In terms of hard outcomes, the best it may have done (and I am uncertain) is added a mark or two for those who revised that particular poem for the exam.

Yet, with due modesty, I am certain that that lesson summed up what is at the core of good English teaching. "It is only with the heart," Antoine de Saint Exupery tells us, "that one can see rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye." Our purpose as English teachers is to nurture and develop emotional and intellectual honesty and insight and the ability to see with heart; to provide the linguistic tools for that purpose; and to prepare learners for such integrity by offering them access to the wide range of human experiences encapsulated in literature. These are supremely worthy purposes which English teachers should defend against the reductionist philistines who seek to dominate contemporary educational thinking. We should ask, however, which, if any, of these purposes merits even any significant mention in the much-vaunted experiences and outcomes?

Alex Wood, a former headteacher, works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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