Stairway to heaven;Subject of the week;English

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Considered by some to be the pinnacleof literary activity, poetry inspires andliberates the soul. But, says Tim Scott, we need to change our teaching methods.

When F Scott Fitz-gerald's daughter asked him for advice on becoming a writer, he told her that she should learn to write poetry. It could be that he was merely paying lip-service to poetry's place on the pinnacle of literary activities, but it is more likely that he was acknowledging the precision, economy and musical power of poetic language. A good poem bypasses the brain and makes straight for the heart in a way that few other art-forms can.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to teach. The Literacy Strategy has reduced poetry to a series of technical tricks and transmittable forms. While this ensures children have access to a language with which they can describe poems, it is lamentable that only their heads are being catered for. What follows is a description of a technique I have used in the hope of putting some heart back into teaching poetry.

TS Eliot said meaning was only there to distract the conscious mind while the poem went about its work; poetry operates at a subconscious level. It is at this level that children must be taught. While technical concerns are important, Eliot's comment implies that they should be seen as a support for something more significant. As Ted Hughes said about The Thought Fox, one of his most famous poems, "(It) does not have anything you could easily call a meaning... as I read the poem I see it move, I see it setting its prints, I see its shadow going over the irregular surface of the snow". And this is a poem supposedly written in 15 minutes.

Roughly speaking, poetry breaks down into three constituent parts: the surface narrative, the subtext ("meaning") and the music of the words. However, the emotional charge of a poem seems to be stored in all three of these layers - in the combination of memorable imagery, honest subject matter, and rhythms and letter sounds which embody the feeling at work.

It's a tall order for most children, so I take a short cut and tune in to their unconscious before getting them to put pen to paper. I talk to them about the poems their minds produce effortlessly and regularly: their dreams. I reassure the children that it is not the hidden horrors of their minds that we are hoping to tap in to, just the ability of the unconscious to produce vivid, coherent pictures.

I explain that we need to work in total silence as we need to get as close to the sleeping state as possible. They put down their pencils and get into a comfortable position with their eyes shut and their heads resting on their arms. We work through a simple technique, gradually relaxing muscles throughout the body (background music helps). This takes at least five minutes, and cannot be rushed.

When the children are relaxed, I ask them to imagine a fog, then to watch as the fog starts to clear away and, behind it, an image starts to form. They bring the image into sharper focus until they can see every edge, shape and colour. I tell them to give the image their total concentration. What colours can they see? What sounds can they hear? Is the image part of an overall scene? Is there any movement, weather or emotion in the scene?

Then I am silent so that they can concentrate. They should only begin writing when they are sure they are ready. If they get stuck, they should put their head down and focus on the image again.

As they are finishing, I look at their work. If they jump about from image to image, I suggest that they go back and slow down so that they are transcribing details as they present themselves. I might suggest they try out some formal techniques we have discussed, but these formal devices are a secondary concern. I normally find that they are used without prompting when a child sees their aptness.

If the method seems eccentric, then I would say that its purpose is eccentric because it is trying to retrieve something which has been pushed to the edges of poetry teaching.

The results usually speak for themselves, although the one precondition for success is that the warm-up is presented to the children as a serious business - they need to know that an unfocused warm-up will damage their writing in the same way that it would damage their performance in PE. Usually, pupils who do not settle see the difference in the quality of the work they hand in and, happily enough, this is not always related to their academic ability. This is one of those activities where you get out what you put in, a notion that children seem to respond well to.

One of the most pleasing outcomes is that this technique allows "unliterary" children to write as effectively as many of their peers. Perhaps this is because the success or failure of their work does not depend on their intellect or command of spelling and grammar so much as on their ability to imagine freely and be honest about what is going on inside their heads.

I have used this method successfully with Year 3 through to pre-secondary. With Year 2s, I usually find it necessary to provide a stronger scaffold during their imaginings. This takes the form of a stop and start session where the children imagine something specific, like entering a dark house. They take two or three minutes to write down what they picture as they walk in through the door, then I take them on a journey through the house and back out again, stopping at junctures to let them write down their thoughts. This is more prescriptive, but leaves a great deal of room for the children to work on detail. It also has the effect of lengthening their pieces.

The objective of these strategies is to make children pay attention to the music and imagery which make poetry effective, so I always finish a session with volunteers reading their work while the rest of the class comment on these aspects of the poems. Once they are used to doing this, the quality of their work and their appreciation of the work of others rises - it is a hinge between writing and reading.

Perhaps more important is the fact that, in the process, they have become a little more sensitive to the complexities and potential of their own personality.

Tim Scott is English co-ordinator at St Michael's Junior School in Highgate, north London. Prior to his PGCE, he did post-graduate research in poetry and psychoanalysis at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London

These poems were written by Tim Scott's pupils, using the technique described.

* Skyscraper by Winnie, 4S

A skyscraper looms over the city

Casting a shadow over creation

The trees start shivelling

A field sucks itself in like a black hole

I stare up at the skyscraper

It looks back at me with a lonely look

But I scowl and walk away

* Payphone by Nalan, 4S

A baby's mouth waiting to tear

Your money away from you

You ring the au pair

Nobody answers.

Suddenly the baby spits out

the coins into your needing hand.

You put them back in,

Dial your au pair's secret code.

A long tune passes down the line,

A vibrated voice answers.

The baby swallows,

You put the phone down.

You go out, someone else goes in.

The person looks at the phone book,

A baby starts crying.

They feed the baby with more coins,

It spits it out.

The person goes out,

Nobody comes in.

The baby has been abandoned.

Nobody comes to feed it

Nobody comes to press its stomach.

It's all alone, with nothing to do.

* A conversation with God by Katerina, Year 5

"We all live in a perfect world, don't we?" said the sun.

"We do," said God.

"What's going on down there?" asked the sun.

"It doesn't matter," said God.

"Yes it does," said the sun.

"It doesn't. If I spent all my waking hours worrying about what Phoenix was

attacking next, I would waste time."

"God, why don't you listen for once? You never do.

When drought hit this earth, you were more interested in playing chess.

When an innocent child died, it prayed.

You never helped it and said that it didn't matter."

"Don't you dare talk to me like that," said God.

"I will do as my leader taught me," said the sun.

God fell to ash.

The sun became a puzzle piece.

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