Using Poetry to Revive a Tired Curriculum Part II

In the last post I outlined the ways in which we as a department have attempted to re-inject creativity into our KS3 curriculum by explicitly teaching the skills required in order to ‘make’ poetry.
For a number of reasons, we decided to focus on ‘free’ verse. Firstly, because it is difficult to write ‘good’ rhyming poetry unless you are a skilled poet: word choices are inevitably determined by the requirements of the rhyme rather than by the desire to choose the perfect word. Secondly, we have found that the lack of rules means that even the least able pupils have a fighting chance to produce something poetic, powerful and true. Where free verse is concerned, accurate spelling and punctuation are not the be all and end all. Finally, it seems to me that there are just two defining characteristics of free verse and that is the line break – which I wrote about in my last post and poetic ‘voice’, which is the subject of this post  .

Poetic Voice

Cliff Yates, in his book Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School, says that unless the poem is in the form of a recipe or a letter, “the poem ‘should sound like someone speaking, the person who wrote it, or the chosen narrator.” In other words, the writer needs to be aware of the sound of what they are writing, the ‘voice’ of the poem.

We decided to encourage our budding poets to think about ‘voice’ by using Peter Samson’s ‘objects game’. It is very simple and very effective. Essentially, pupils choose from a list of possible objects and, following a spot of brainstorming and mind-mapping, they write a poetic monologue from the perspective of that object. From the outset, pupils are encouraged to make decisions about the kind of ‘voice’ their object might have. Would it be angry, childlike or mournful and how this might be reflected in the language of the poem.

This is the list of objects, as it appears in Samson’s Writing Poems:

A vacuum cleaner in a shop window
A loose button on an old overcoat
A stained glass window in a derelict church
A lift in nan office block
A motorbike in pieces on a kitchen floor
A wardrobe in a hotel bedroom
A spoon in a bedsit
A bus shelter at midnight
A piece in a jigsaw of a landscape with scattered houses
A pub (P.H.) on an Ordnance Survey Map
A packet of aspirin in a bathroom cabinet
A safety match I a box in a cardigan pocket
A reading lamp on a tidy desk
A reading lamp on a cluttered desk
A roller blind in a window overlooking the sea
A paintbrush in a jar of turps

Some of these suggestions are a little bit ‘old school’ we don’t use them all and some of them we tweak to make them more relevant. However, they are carefully thought out and each of them can yield incredible results.

Getting them writing…

Getting pupils to engage with writing poetry has proved to be much easier than we imagined. Peter Samson’s advice is to keep it simple. He advocates four simple rules: “don’t stop once you’ve started; don’t rhyme because it’s a constraint; don’t write to the edge of the page otherwise it becomes a story ( so break the line where you want to place emphasis) and, most importantly, don’t worry.”
Having established these ‘rules’, we have found that is best to ask pupils to write in a concentrated fashion for short periods: 2 minutes – 10 minutes depending on the group… This time can always be extended, but the strict time constraint has the effect of encouraging pupils to take the plunge and start writing. After all, you can’ be expected to produce anything fantastic in such a short time,, so why worry!
We have also found that writing with the pupils is very important. It means that they see you taking the same creative risk that they are – and they feel supported and secure as a result.
Finally, if they are really stuck you can give them a first line. Remove this stumbling block and they’re off!

Drafting – less is (sometimes) more

Drafting is essential if your aim is to produce reflective writers who will ultimately become better readers. Although it is certainly the case that the first draft of a poem is sometimes the best draft, it is more often than not necessary to redraft the poem. It is a case of releasing the living poem from the draft, in much the same way as Michelangelo spoke of uncovering the statue that was already in the stone. In any case, drafting is an essential skill for all pupils to learn and drafting a poem is a good way for pupils to begin to get to grips with this key skill. We encourage pupils to be ruthless in the redrafting process, by asking pupils to begin by deleting from the poem any words that are inessential and to refine the choices and positioning of the words that remain. We might also encourage pupils to consider cutting an entire line or even a stanza. The trick is to ‘ ‘show’ and not to ‘tell’. From this point of view, sometimes less is more…

Developing More Effective Readers and Writers Through Focused Reflection

In the first post, I explained that we hoped that by becoming writers who not only wrote but drafted their poems, making conscious editorial decisions, pupils might also become expert readers – able to approach texts from the inside and to consider the editorial decisions of other writers. They would  see the texts that they encountered – not as a inexplicable, miraculous creations but as the product of a series of comprehensible editorial decisions.

This being one of our goals, it was essential that we encourage pupils to reflect on what they had done and to articulate some of the editorial decisions that they made. This is where the teacher’s own poetry comes in handy. Having agreed protocols as a group (kind, constructive and specific works well here), the teacher presents their poem to the class, explaining what she was aiming for and how she had attempted to achieve this through the creative decisions she made during the writing of the poem. The pupils are then encouraged to critique the poem, asking questions about the language of the poem. Having taken part in the critique of their teacher’s poem, they are ready to work with their peers: pupils then present their poems to a partner who  acts as a critical friend, asking questions about the poem and the process that gave rise to it  and encouraging them to articulate their creative decisions.

It’s not perfect, but we’re getting there…

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