Keep the fire of Burns glowing

14th January 2011 at 00:00

During a recent visit to a school in the United States, I noticed a classroom which had a framed portrait of Robert Burns hanging prominently on the wall. It hung, with considerable distinction, between a line of portraits of leading literary figures including Pushkin and Zola. "Not only was Robert Burns one of the most gifted figures in the history of literature", my American host said, "he was the bonniest".

In St Petersburg, Russia, I met pupils who could recite large chunks of Tam O'Shanter in perfect Auld Scots. I also spotted textbooks, in Russian, dedicated to the poetry of Burns. "Robert Burns was a poet for the poor and wrote for the ordinary people," 16-year-old Yuri told me. "This is why he is so popular in Russia."

In Vancouver, Auckland, New York, London and many other cities around the world, you can find statues of Robert Burns. There is even a replica Burns Cottage in Atlanta, Georgia. At New Year, a sizable part of the world sings Auld Lang Syne - the words of Robert Burns.

Our national poet is a truly international figure of literature. Yet Burns has a lesser presence in many of our schools, and it was no great surprise when, during one of those stop-people-in-the-street type of TV interviews, more than a few young recipients admitted not knowing very much about Burns or his works.

Some schools could do a lot more to educate pupils about our national bard. It is a life story which is interesting and inspiring. So are the poet's use of words, imagination, travels, sense of justice, love of songs and even disregard for wealth and rank.

The works of Burns can certainly show how spirited poems can make you laugh or cry. And that good poetry can include any subject, from a tiny louse to God and religion.

There is, of course, considerable good practice in our schools, including multi-disciplinary approaches to the life and work of Burns, which involves history, geography, religion, language and health and well- being.

Burns lived in interesting times, with agricultural and industrial revolutions taking place at home while a more bloody revolution was underway in Paris.

In addition, some schools allow pupils to develop key organisational and teamwork skills by arranging Burns festivals and suppers. Other schools opt for something less-challenging such as a Burns Day, with pupils wearing a piece of tartan and ready to recite their favourite line or verse.

But, because of a decentralised and decluttered curriculum, some schools do nothing to introduce their pupils to the work of Burns. In a recent survey, a large number of primary school teachers admitted they found poetry too daunting to deal with and deemed it something best left to older and more advanced learners.

Yet it was Burns, the "ploughman poet", who did more than anyone else to extol the idea of verse for the common person and not just the rich and well-educated.

I remember a colleague telling me that it was his primary school teacher reading and discussing the poem Afton Water that triggered his appreciation of language and inspired him to become an English teacher.

It is surely reasonable to expect every Scottish pupil to encounter the poetry of Burns in the same way that every pupil in England is expected to encounter the plays of Shakespeare.

The National Trust for Scotland has done its bit to take the legacy of Robert Burns forward by opening an impressive new Burns' Birthplace Museum in Alloway. It's an ideal place for schools to visit and to remember someone, from these shores, who changed the world for the better.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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