To lift a learning curse, try teaching children in verse

21st November 2014 at 00:00
Recite poems to engage reluctant pupils, says Roger McGough

From Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan to William Wordsworth's A Narrow Girdle of Rough Stones and Crags, poems about geography abound. And Michael Rosen's book Centrally Heated Knickers is just one work depicting the wonders of science and technology through verse.

This might explain why one of Britain's best-loved poets has called for teachers to boost pupils' interest in these subjects by breaking into rhyme in lessons.

Roger McGough told TESS: "I had a physics teacher - a Christian Brother who would put the fear of God into us - and in a lesson he would sometimes break off, close his eyes and recite poems, often a Yeats poem or sometimes one in Irish.

"It's quite transfixing and transforming out of context. Poetry does not necessarily belong in a book, or a poetry lesson or an English lesson - it's for everywhere."

McGough said there was no shortage of poems about maps and rivers that could be used in geography. Poetry could also connect young people with the big picture of physics and chemistry, he added, beyond the minutiae of classroom study that sometimes bogged pupils down. One of his own poems was inspired by the periodic table.

But poetry needn't be directly relevant, he said. A break for poetry on any theme could reinvigorate a lesson. "Take a book of poems that you like in [to class], whatever you're teaching, and just try it," McGough said, speaking in advance of Book Week Scotland.

He added: "You don't have to make excuses for it. It would be good if it fits in with what they're doing but that may be too difficult sometimes - you've got to prepare something like that. Just throw it in and see what happens."

Responding to the comments, physics teacher Gregor Steele, who is section head at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre and a published poet himself, pointed out that renowned 19th-century chemist Humphry Davy and Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell were both poets. "At any level of science beyond the very basic, people will come across abstract concepts, as they will in poetry," Mr Steele said. "Many great scientists are also very literary - they need to be for their own understanding and to help explain their concepts."

He added: "I don't believe that electrons are necessarily tiny wee balls whizzing around atoms any more than I believe that somebody's love is a red, red rose, but both of these abstractions help my own understanding. When the Higgs boson [particle] was discovered, I was struck by the imagery used by many of the researchers to describe what they had been doing."

Mr Steele cited examples where the Cern researchers had described the Higgs field and Higgs boson in "dazzlingly imaginative ways", likening them to people clustering at parties or ripples in rivers.

Andy Jones, principal teacher of social subjects and religious, moral and philosophical studies at Lochgelly High School in Fife, said that poetry could make geography accessible to pupils who were less receptive to more traditional methods. "Some people will remember absolutely everything, all the facts, but it could make sense to approach things in a different way for others," he said.

The evocative description of poems about landscape, for example, could bring to life geographical concepts that some pupils might otherwise struggle with, he added.

Mr Jones said he would like a database to be established to help teachers find poems suitable for any topic.

Book Week Scotland runs from 24-30 November (www.bookweekscotland.com). P1-3 classes can join Roger McGough and fellow poet Valerie Bloom for a free Authors Live webcast at 11am on 27 November. Find more information at www.scottishbooktrust.com

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