Demystify verse for students by asking them to use their senses
Teachers and students alike are often intimidated by poetry. It is commonly perceived as being indulgently academic and wantonly complicated - if you take a look at a footnoted version of TS Eliot's The Wasteland, you can see why.
Yet poetry has much to offer: it can be fun and engaging as well as serious, and it is the task of education to demonstrate this. There are a number of methods you can use, but my favourite takes the form of the following activity.
I begin by asking students to help me form a list of emotion words such as "ecstasy", "melancholy" and "paranoia". To inspire the students, I read a couple of poems: one about sadness and one about happiness. I make clear that the actual words "happy" and "sad" have no place in my classroom, and the students offer alternatives.
I then direct each student to pick one of these words, making sure not to tell anyone else what it is. Once they have chosen an emotion, I ask them to imagine what the word might taste like, giving them two minutes to describe the taste in as much interesting detail as they can without using the word they have chosen. I repeat the exercise with the other four senses.
The students now have the tools for the next task. They have to write each description on a separate line in their exercise books, being careful to use a different word as the sentence opener each time. For the emotion "hate", for example, they could start with, "There is a taste, bitter like a lemonIt rumbles like an express train. " and so on.
Poems emerge, which the students have written without necessarily knowing it. You should point out that they have included metaphor and structure, just as poets do. And you can also indicate that the poem may seem simple to them, but to others it may be more difficult to grasp. This helps them to get inside a poet's head and encourages them to explore poetry with more emphasis on what the writer is trying to do.
The activity is not just about writing - I also focus on the skills of communication and listening. I end by getting each student to read their poem, while the rest of the class tries to work out which emotion is being described. By listening to and reading the poems, the students grasp the effect of rhythm and punctuation, which allows them to understand poets' thinking and to see some of the techniques they once thought "difficult" as aspects of meaning and performance.
Joshua Seigal is a poet. He performs his poetry and runs workshops in schools, and recently took his one-man children's poetry show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Find out more at www.joshuaseigal.co.uk
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