Tag Archives: Poetry

Grid(un)locked-inspiring creative poetry analysis

After 18 months in Special Measures and being constantly under scrutiny (a particularly devastating blow to our department – we’d just attained 81% A*-C against a target of 69% when it happened) we’re always looking for new and interesting ways to bring engaging ideas into our classrooms. This idea came about in February as we were bracing ourselves for another Ofsted visit and has been a massive success with Year 10 and Year 11.

Here’s how it works:

1. Students work in pairs/groups with a poetry grid and two dice (tip-use foam dice!)
2. Take it in turns to roll the dice and answer the question. Others can add to/ expand an answer to raise to overall level of response once they’ve exhausted their ideas
3. If a double is rolled, talk on the topic area for 30 secs without hesitation, deviation… (you get the gist)

It’s simple, effective and fun but there’s more to it than just being a grid with pretty colours. Firstly, the questions are all linked to the mark scheme descriptors for the exam. The one in the picture is designed for the AQA unseen question and I’ve also created an adapted version for the Anthology poetry. This allows students to respond to the poems in a way that is directly beneficial to the exam skills they have to demonstrate.

Secondly, The colours aren’t random. Each colour is linked to a different area: pink=structure, purple=feelings and attitudes/mood and tone, yellow=language, blue=themes and ideas, orange=talk for 30secs, green (without doubt the favourite with students)=creative connections and ideas (not directly linked to a specific mark scheme area but to access the poem in a different way and just maybe come up with something that unlocks the poem in a way they wouldn’t have considered).

Thirdly, the way they choose the question to answer is differentiated. Say they roll a two and a four. If they take the larger number horizontally across the grid and the smaller number vertically, the question will be more challenging than if they do it vice versa. All the questions require thinking about but I think that to access discussion and ideas at the highest levels students often need to ‘warm up’ and this is one way they can do it.

You’ll see in the picture I also made a vocabulary grid to use alongside the game. Eight of the boxes link to the question areas, one includes the tentative language (could, may, might, possibly) we’d encourage students to use when exploring Literature. Whilst the words on the vocabulary grid are pretty comprehensive, I also made sure they fully covered anything students might need for the ‘Relationships’ cluster in the AQA Anthology.

For Year 11 who have studied all the poems and are preparing from the exam, they have used the grid in a few ways. Sometimes we focus on two specific poems. This is particularly useful prior to writing a ‘powergraph’ (more on this another time but it’s transformed the approach for our more able students). I mentioned creativity earlier. Combining the questions with a pick-a-poem style (ie pick two poems randomly from a bag/spinner) has generated all sorts of links and connections that students might never have thought about otherwise.

In whole class feedback, there a couple of ways it can been taken further. I usually ask what the most perceptive point is that someone in a group has made so everyone can benefit from different ideas. I’ll also ask which question has promoted the best discussion in the group-it can vary for different poems. I’ll then give students extra time to continue discussions, possibly looking at questions mentioned in the feedback part but they can also look at questions of a certain colour if the dice have missed out any areas or even just choose a question they fancy.

One of the other benefits that my less confident students have found is that certain questions really help them unlock ideas. These are the questions they revise and when going into an exam they can consider them if they are stuck. Many of my Year 10s reported this was the technique that helped them the most in their recent Unseen Poetry mock.

It’s interactive, fun and relevant. The responses are genuinely worth it and encourage students to think in a way that isn’t gimmicky but genuinely higher level. That’s been my experience anyway!

I’m happy to email the resources via DM.


Kings, Nuns and Team Teaching.

Long Live the King! No, not a post about the Royal Infant. This is about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and how he helped engage a less-than-motivated S4 English class. I’m an English teacher in Glasgow, but I’m a bit of a nomad at the moment. For various reasons I’ve no permanent base school, despite being a permanent teacher, and have been fortunate enough to work in a few different schools over the last couple of years. At the tail end of the summer term I secured a secondment for this session as a leader of learning for Glasgow, but the post wasn’t due to start until the 26th of August. In the meantime, the council placed me in Knightswood Secondary for a fortnight, as an extra body.

My remit was a bit of team teaching and a bit of development work, and one of the classes I was working with was a National 4 class in S4. From the first day I was in with them, they were hard work. Two or three disaffected characters made it nearly impossible for the rest of the class to benefit from the teaching, even with two teachers and a formidable PSA in attendance. I spent my first two periods sitting at a table with some of the worst offenders, doing my best to engage and focus them, which worked well with some, not so well with others.

As a department, it had been decided that National 4 would ‘shadow’ National 5, in that we would study a ‘set text’ from the same selection of authors used for N5 and Higher, picking a text relevant to the level. My partner teacher picked Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Elvis’s Twin Sister’, in which the poet imagines Elvis’s twin (who was male and died at birth) survived and was in fact female. The character is a nun in a convent, whose life both reflects her famous brother’s and is at the same time its opposite.

My partner introduced the background to the poem. So who’s heard of Elvis? A few hands went up. What do you know about him? He died on the toilet. He was fat. That’s pretty much it. So we put on a clip of a young Elvis, brimming with energy and charisma, singing blue suede shoes. They were hooked. They went away to research Elvis and his life, returning the next day to look more closely at the poem. We discussed the poem in detail, looking at clips of Madonna (whose quote –  ‘Elvis is alive – and he’s female’, regarding K.D. Lang – is the poem’s epigraph) and some more of the King himself. We talked about the influence of his music, the enduring power of his legend, the significance of the poet making his sister a nun…the time passed in a flash.

Next day, I led the lesson for the first time, not sure how they would react – after all, my partner teacher had already had them for a year, and I was a random stranger who had plonked herself in their midst for a few lessons. I’d put together some textual analysis questions for the class, and this was going to be pretty old style – how were they going to react to me and the work? The answer is – brilliantly. The focus was total, and their buy-in excellent. We circulated as they worked to help, encourage and praise – and the praise was well-deserved. The more vocal elements of the class had gradually settled over the past few lessons, and this allowed the quieter kids to shine through, and dare to offer ideas and answers where before they would have stayed silent for fear of a spiky retort from the ‘bad’ kids. I looked around the room to see young people feeling good about their work, proud of their achievement, as they came up with answer after answer that was interesting, appropriate and original. I really hadn’t expected this, and their teacher and I were as delighted as we were surprised.

My final days with them saw us looking at report writing, asking them to take source materials about Elvis, extract the key details and present them in their own words. Next we had a bit of group discussion, with the groups given 8 possible paragraph topics on paper slips with some blank ones for their own ideas. The task was to order the topics into a suitable structure for a report on Elvis. I’d expected we’d be spending a lot of time focussing kids to the task and trying to encourage some of them to take part, but in fact everyone got involved straight away and the task was completed super fast. The class went away ready to get their final Elvis facts together and begin their reports the next week (although some had already begun and written a few sample paragraphs).

I was really sad to leave the class. After the first lesson or two, I was not looking forward to working with them for the two weeks, but things changed to quickly, and I’ve left them promising to send me their finished reports to see. My partner was, understandably, wary about having a strange person in teaching alongside her, but by the end of the time we were both so sad to see the end of the arrangement. I truly believe that the difference in the class was entirely down to there being two of us. We were able to share the work of teaching and motivating the kids, and keeping a lid on any dodgy behaviour. We were both able to plan and deliver resources according to our strengths, and if the arrangement had continued, we would have shared the load of assessment. I’ve done team teaching before, and that experience was one of the best in my career, and here yet again I’ve seen it having a huge effect on the learning and motivation of a class. It’s really unfair that we’re now having to change their dynamic once more, but there’s nothing to be done about that. If only there was the money in the system to build in an ‘extra’ teacher to each department, to let this kind of teamwork develop – where kids need this extra support to do their best, it really does offer an incredibly effective solution. However, with every penny being scrutinised and justified, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, more’s the pity.

As for Elvis, I suppose it’s testament to his enduring legacy that over three and a half decades since his death, he still appeals at least a little to Glasgow teenagers, and the poem was pretty perfect for National 4 – if anyone would like a copy of the textual analysis questions and report writing unit, drop me a tweet at @katiebarrowman


Playing with Poetry in the Primary Classroom

A beautiful image from Gerry Cambridge's "Nothing But Heather"

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,   http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/, and at his website, soltysek.com

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
Invading Scotland
Swords and axes
For locals
On beaches
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
Empty sockets
And beak
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
broken, discarded
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.