Putting the greats in the hotseat

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Wouldn't it be great if GCSE literature students could meet great poets of the past? Scripting an interview with their chosen poet allows them to do just that. Since coursework mark schemes reward students using "various"

and "exploratory" forms, an interview script is a wonderful alternative to the familiar literary essays that often make up the rest of the folder.

Less able students, in particular, respond well to the manageable QA format. With a little planning, the model of point-evidence-explanation becomes easy, with the interviewer raising points and the poet replying with examples of their work and their reasons for it.

There's no need to think of this as simplistic work. If the "poet" talks about his or her influences, the task can deal with literary tradition; and questions about the poet's background and inspiration for a specific poem can raise challenging ideas about social and historical settings. For example, Wilfred Owen can explain how his views on the First World War caused him to redraft "Anthem for Doomed Youth", or describe how he turned an actual letter to his mother into the haunting imagery of "The Sentry".

If comparison is the key, the questioner can make links to other poems, even challenging the writer with: "But you said here..." If more than one poet is being studied, the format can become a talk show, with the host refereeing while writers hammer out their different views of love, for instance. Contemporary poets can be given the same treatment, of course; and episodes of The South Bank Show and educational programmes can provide a model. Even better, get students to role-play the interview first. They can explore their own responses and earn valuable speaking-and-listening marks in the process. After all, this is a format that emphasises the writer and puts their language and craft at the heart of literacy study.

John Gallagher Head of English, Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls, Warwickshire


Year 13 pupils spent a term studying some very difficult Metaphysical poems by Henry Vaughan, John Donne and George Herbert for their A2 exam. As well as studying the historical and cultural background, we used visual aids, such as images of water, to remind them of Vaughan's imagery, and paintings of Donne to capture the personality behind the poetry.

The Welsh Board wanted to encourage students to read and study each of the poets in depth, so I felt I had to help students to separate the three poets, while also recognising their common traits, "Metaphysical" being a blanket term, in many ways.

We also compiled a style dossier on each poet, discussing and agreeing on traits the individual poets were displaying in their poems. This began as a simple sheet of A4, kept separately from class notes, in which, as a class, we recorded typical features of each poet's style, doing the same for themes we were encountering.

For example, we noted Donne's strong emotional content and his familiar use of the first-person pronoun (linking the two), while noting the Calvinistic attitudes to God shown in the language of sin and retribution he uses. We explored Herbert's intimate addresses to God and what that meant, as well as his typical references to musical and biblical metaphors. And we examined Vaughan's use of light and dark, his strong dynamic verbs and exclamatory language.

The dossiers grew and were added to in each lesson, and revised at the end of the course so all had access to them and could put them to use when looking at unfamiliar poems.

When the poems had been read and understood, students were delighted to recognise, in a "modern" poem on Vaughan (by Sassoon), familiar traits in Vaughan's poetry which the newer poet praised. In the last lesson, students were given a series of untitled poems by all three poets, none of which they had seen before. In groups, and using their style dossiers, they had to decide which of the poets had written them, and why. It was very gratifying to see how much they had learned and how confident they had become about understanding the poetry.

Susan O'Connor Recently an English teacher at St John Rigby Sixth Form College, Wigan


My Year 4 class, mainly with English as an additional language, were struggling to remember Henry VIII's wives, so I set up a Blind Date session in the classroom. The girls found out as much as they could about each wife and decided which one they wanted to be. They then had to write a small speech persuading Henry to choose them.

Meanwhile, the boys found out more about Henry and thought of three questions they would like to ask the prospective wives. When the research was complete, three girls at a time sat behind a screen while one of the Henries posed his questions. These have included "Please describe yourself", "Are you good at cooking?" and "What are your hobbies?" Another pupil did the voiceover to remind Henry of each girl's qualities, and he then selected a wife. They chose a date from a selection of Tudor pastimes.

We repeated Blind Date several times. The children didn't seem to get bored with it and surprisingly most boys were not too embarrassed to be Henry. Some of the happy couples came back the next week to tell us how they got on.

Anita Jones Class teacher, Aston Tower Primary School, Birmingham

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