Natural, human and fun

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Jean McLeish talks to award-winning Irish poet Michael Longley on how he thinks teachers can encourage poetry in the classroom
Jean McLeish talks to award-winning Irish poet Michael Longley on how he thinks teachers can encourage poetry in the classroom

Poetry is his religion and Michael Longley worries about its place in the lives of his grandchildren.

"I have two five-year-old grandsons and they are poets - and then something happens in school and it's kicked out of them," he tells a conference of Scottish teachers.

A winner of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, Longley is a leading Irish poet who is overjoyed at his fairly new role in family life and says becoming a grandparent is like being promoted for doing nothing.

He was reading his work at Word 2008, the University of Aberdeen writers' festival and at an associated teachers' conference, organised by the AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies during the festival.

Teachers from the north of Scotland and beyond have travelled to this CPD session at the university's School of Education, with readings and workshops the organisers hope will re-inspire them to inspire their pupils. Among a distinguished line-up are Scots poets Robert Crawford, Jackie Kay and Sheena Blackhall and children's writer and illustrator Debi Gliori.

Longley shares his concerns about poetry in schools during his reading and mentions remarks by Einstein: "He said he owed his breakthroughs not so much to mathematical discipline as to reverie - looking out of the window with your mouth open.

"I think that's what we've got to bring back into the classroom. It's where poetry can be of immense use, so long as we don't confine the teaching of poetry to telling the children what the poem is about."

He mentions his recent classroom discussion about Ode to Autumn with pupils who wanted to make notes in the margin. He remembers calling their bluff: "I don't have a clue what it's about - isn't it lovely? And I explained to them I have learnt poems by heart that I don't really know the meaning of."

He explains what he thinks teachers can do to encourage poetry in the classroom. "The aim should be to have them reading poetry for pleasure. The children should be encouraged to believe that poetry is a normal human activity, a very intense one and an activity that people often resort to at crucial times in their lives, for instance when they fall in love or when they are bereaved, which shows its central importance.

"I also think they should be shown what fun it is - games with words. Children all love nursery rhymes - so why do they stop loving poetry? It must be something awful that happens in the classroom.

"I meet a lot of teachers who say they find poetry the hardest to teach. I don't understand that, I think it should be the easiest to teach because it's so natural. I would be old-fashioned, I would encourage children to learn poetry by heart, say in a week as much of a poem as they can, even if it's one line and they should be encouraged to read it aloud.

"If I was addressing children, I would say that poetry is my religion, it is my way of making sense of the world. And as they grow older I would hope that they would discover that too."

So does Michael Longley think maybe children need more poetry in the same way they need to get more physical exercise? "There is such a thing as spiritual exercise. If I was the Minister of Education I would move the arts into the centre of the curriculum - music and painting and writing. It would benefit all the other disciplines if the kids are expressing themselves."

Among the audience in Aberdeen is the English department from Buckie High. They have attended workshops on the works of Sorley MacLean, John Steinbeck, Seamus Heaney and on Gaelic story telling, how to encourage imaginative writing and much more.

"We thought today was absolutely terrific, inspiring and motivating for teachers and we'd hope to see this repeated next year. We came last year as a department. We've come back again," says Kathleen Thompson, a teacher. "We've travelled an hour-and-a-half to get here and it's been worthwhile. It is enriching our own classroom experiences and it's great to hear real writers talking and to talk to teachers from other schools."

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