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 - whose poems include Goodbat Nightman and The Leader - believes a pause for poetry can "reinvigorate" a lesson of any kind.

"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," he said.

"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.

"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."

But some secondary teachers responded to his comments with scepticism, saying that spouting poetry would make students laugh at them.

Christian Penhale, a science teacher at a secondary school in North London, doubted how well using poetry would work, especially given the time constraints of covering the exam syllabus. "I can see how at primary level it could help to inspire pupils towards an appreciation of scientific enquiry," he said. "But if I burst into poetry in my secondary classes, I think my students would laugh and say, `What are you on about, Sir?' "

However, Mr Penhale did not dismiss the value of rhymes and mnemonics for learning important information. "When [pupils] find something really useful like that, they lap it up," he said.

Scottish physics teacher Gregor Steele, who is also a published poet, was more enthusiastic. "At any level of science beyond the very basic, people will come across abstract concepts, as they would in poetry," he said. "I don't believe that electrons are necessarily tiny 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 of Cern researchers describing the Higgs field and Higgs boson in "dazzlingly imaginative ways", likening them to people clustering at parties or to ripples in rivers.

`Big time pressures'

Tim Parker, a geography teacher at an independent school in the North East of England, asks pupils to write poems about subjects such as glacial formation because it helps them to remember what they have learned. But he says that reading poetry in GCSE and A-level geography lessons would get a "mixed reaction" from students.

"They are very focused on the exam," he says. "They are very aware of what they have to do and there are big time pressures to cover everything.

"I think they would be confused or ask, `Why are we learning this? Is it on the syllabus?' "

But Mr Parker believes pupils at key stage 3 would be far more receptive because they do not have the same exam pressures, adding that poetry could be useful for "putting geography into perspective".

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