Last Friday, I spent the day working with groups of PGDE Primary students on poetry in the classroom; I had a lot of fun, and discussing creative writing pedagogy with Primary teachers was really enlightening for me.
I start from the premise that we kind of get poetry wrong in schools. Pupils’ experiences of it tends to be either for construction (“let’s all write an acrostic poem together”) or deconstruction (“let’s all highlight all the similes in the poem”), or a combination of both that, for example, uses deconstruction to elicit construction (“let’s all analyse the genre markers of the haiku, and then write one ourselves”). And while all of these types of activity are valuable and indeed essential to understanding poetry, it is, for me, quite a limited and sterile experience: poetry is something we do something with, something that generates work. Students – even English graduates looking to be English teachers – come with a great deal of anxiety about poetry, and that is, they say, down to their experiences of poetry at school.
And yet, why do we read poetry? Well, for enjoyment, of course. And I don’t think there’s enough of that, so we started each session with the students browsing through some poetry anthologies and magazines to find something they liked to read to the rest of their group. Then put it aside, because the worst thing we could do is to analyse it to death for the next three hours.
Having warmed up our poetry reading, we then warmed up our poetry writing with a quick poetry word wheel exercise, a simple resource of three concentric discs containing an adjective, a noun and a verb that provides a three word stimulus for a short poem. With “scientist”, “kind” and “eats”, I came up with
“Working late, the scientist
Fills his lab with sparks,
eats Chinese food from a takeaway carton.
Kind of tangy.”
For some unaccountable reason, I’m quite proud of that. However, some of the students’ responses were lovely: Heather, using “big”, “girl and “swims”, wrote
“The girl swims slowly
Big arcing movements of her arms
Pulling her towards a warmer kind of peace.”
Catriona, using “empty”, “animal” and “hopes” thought of:
“The dawn stretches empty over rooftops
Below an animal limps across the road
A dog? A cat? A fox?
The sullen hopes of a city life are waking”
Poetry is stripped out of the curriculum, studied almost as a separate entity. I’m a great believer that the poetic sensibility should be embedded and integrated much more into the day to day work of the classroom, and that a poem is as much a way of recording knowledge as a report or a close reading test or a storyboard. To illustrate this, we spent some time looking at poems from Gerry Cambridge’s gorgeous poetry / photography / natural history collection “Nothing But Heather”. Cambridge’s poetry is gorgeous, but what is so striking about “Nothing But Heather” is the informative quality of the text. I remember looking at one of my favourites, “Chrysomelid Beetle Pollinating a Wild Orchid”, with a Fifth Year pupil, and she said she learned more about plant fertilisation from that poem than she learned in 5 weeks in Higher Biology. All the students particularly liked “Shore Crab”, which they could easily see themselves using with their classes: you can hear a musical version of it here, with Cambridge proving his Rennaisance Man credentials by playing a mean moothie.
So poetry, much more than simply being a form, also informs. We looked at typical Primary school topics, and brainstormed a wordbank. For example, with Vikings, we came up with:
Long ships Sails Shields Mead Sagas
Hats with horns Horned helmets Swords battle-axes Pigtails
Ginger beards Storm Fjords Fiery funerals
Gruel Seas France – Normandy
A technique I’ve used often with older poetry writers is close redrafting: you can read more about it in “Wind Them Up and Let Them Go: The Primacy of Stimulus in the Classroom”, an article I did for Writing in Education magazine a few years back. You can download a copy from the University of Strathclyde by clicking the link.
Basically, when we assess prose, we tend to mark it holistically, taking in an extended piece of writing and assessing it with broad brushstrokes such as “vary your sentence structure” or “avoid repetition”. It’s my feeling that this kind of assessment is inappropriate for poetry, since here the aim is to condense, distil. As a result, we need to do away with prepositions, conjunctions, articles, all the chaff that makes a piece of prose flow, because those are not the words that signify meaning to the poet.
So, we get the pupils to write three simple sentences from their word bank – something like
|Viking long ships sailed through stormy seas from their homes in the fjords to invade Scotland. They arrived on beaches in the north and battled the locals with their swords and axes. They told stories they called sagas about these events.|
Now, looking at this as prose, we’d probably never comment on the fact that the phrase “in their” is repeated, or that the word “they” is used three times, because we feel they are somehow “essential”. The poetic way, though, is to get rid of all those little words in red to strip us to the words that really mean something, the words that communicate the core idea. With a little beating and shaping, we can begin to mould something that looks like poetry:
“Viking long ships
Through stormy seas
From fjord homes
Swords and axes
Sagas to be told.”
I’ve worked with teenage boys who love this way of building poetry, bit by bit, three sentence prose chunks developed into verses. Working with groups in a Primary classroom, you could have your very own Viking saga in less than half an hour.
So the poem becomes not a poem on its own, something seemingly independent of the rest of the curriculum, but becomes a quick, relatively easy way of providing another source of evidence of pupils’ understanding of a topic. In addition, unlike the passivity of a close reading, it demonstrates individuals’ ability to make choices about the language which means most to them from a topic, and their ability to manipulate that language to express something that is genuinely an individual response. Light bulbs seemed to be going on in the groups, thankfully. Now, the poetic way of handling language simply became another literacy skill in the arsenal.
And what poetry also does is combine the objective with the subjective. We looked at simple items that might be found on a nature walk – a dead autumn leaf, a pebble, a scrap of wool caught on a barbed wire fence – and brainstormed it with a simple “Objective / Subjective” column. After sharing and developing, the task was to write a short poem that contained at least two informative details and two emotional details. With a picture of a bird’s skull, I came up with:
“A fragile piece
Of weather bleached calcium
It’s tiny brain cavity
All that is left
Of what it once was
A feathered, flighted beauty,
Built for tearing flesh.”
Again, many of the students outdid me. Matthew wrote about a broken egg-shell:
“On the ground
A small cracked egg
lies on its own
once a house
to a new walk of life.
Or is it now dead?
A defenceless lunch for creatures passing by.”
What Matthew was very clear about was that he had no idea when he came in that he would have been able to produce that in five minutes – and that is, I think, an extremely powerful message to keep giving children: five minutes ago, you had nothing. This poem didn’t exist. Now look at what you’ve done. That message has been hugely motivating for my pupils over the years. And it also encourages an increased quantity of writing: every student went out the door having done a lot, they had been busy, busy, busy. In classrooms, pupils will drag their feet for weeks over a big set piece essay; with five or ten minute poetry exercises slotted in here and there into their everyday activities, they actually produce a great deal
A final stimulus exercise using Farrow and Ball’s ludicrous paint colour range – Dead Salmon? Elephant’s Breath? – and some discussion about the possibilities of using the poetic form much more regularly in classrooms as a means of allowing children to respond to the topics they study wound up the sessions. I think they all got the message; that rather than “doing poems” as a box tick for the curriculum, divorced from the reality of the rest of their learning, poetry can be an everyday way to respond to experience. And in doing so, I reckon, that can only help develop a love of poetry that can last a long, long time.