Teaching poetry

    Published: 01 March 2022

    I’m starting with a confession: I’ve been meaning to write this blog for more than two terms now. But things keep getting in the way, or seeming more important, and a poetry blog has slipped further down my list. And I do remember that that used to also be the case sometimes when I was in school – the poetry lessons I’d intended, sometimes didn’t happen.

    And yet, I love teaching poetry, I really love it. When I think back, some of my standout memories are of how readily children can become utterly absorbed by a poem, in ways that they might not always be by prose.

    I remember:

    • A class of year 5s drumming their tables as we read together the final practised version of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
    • The stories of ‘what happened next’ that arose from ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’ by Harold Monroe. Did the goblin get the beads? And if so, how did he get them?
    • A child weeping at the end of Today was not’ by Michael Rosen, and when I asked him what was wrong, him saying ‘it’s so wonderful – his dog came back, and that’s what it’s like when you lose a pet and then find him again.’
    • A fabulous, low effort, high reward Christmas production (every class learn and perform a Christmas themed poem) and year 3 triumphantly chorusing, ‘And oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all, bring me a big, red, India-rubber ball.’ (King John’s Christmas by A A Milne.)
    • The depth of understanding achieved through using The Bully Asleep by John Walsh as a core text during an anti-bullying week.

    For me, teaching poetry is a chance to immerse in a poem. It should be a delight. Through poetry we can enable children to feel the rhythms and flows of complicated language without, at this point, much complicated analysis. Through poetry they will experience moments of high intensity, high emotion in a usually, short piece of text. Through poetry they can appreciate precise word choices. Again, easily, because there aren’t likely to be a lot of other words around, cluttering up the images or the story. Perhaps because poets do aim for: ‘the best words, in the best order’ (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), which remains (for me anyway) the best definition of what poetry ‘is’.

    But how to choose the poems? When I’ve been working on shaping poetry curriculums with schools lately, we’ve tended to go from our existing knowledge, to browse the internet, and to dip into anthologies. ‘Dipping’ is the key thought – you’re looking for things that you like, that sing for you, without too much thought, and on a first read.

    Many of the poems I mention in this blog, apart from the longer ‘classics’ that are freely available on the internet, are from a book called My World – Poems from Living Language. It was my ‘go to’ anthology if I wanted a new poem for my class. It’s out of print now, although you can still get second-hand copies, but the point is the process, not the actual book. Browsing and tasting, dipping in and out, is how I’ve chosen poetry for my classes in the past. Many poems tell stories and if a quick read sparks your imagination – it’s probably going to be a goodie. When I first read Overheard on a Saltmarsh by Harold Monroe, the final lines from the two speakers sent shivers down my spine:

    Give me your beads, I desire them.

    I will howl in a deep lagoon
    For your green glass beads, I love them so.
    Give them me. Give them.

    There are many, many anthologies out there – many indeed in school libraries. Pick them up and have a quick browse.

    Or you might want a closer look at one poet, or one type of poetry – the approach is the same. That’s how I chose The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a poetry collection to base some recent planning around. I’d already been blown away by the illustrations, and as I read a few sections from a few poems, differently styled but always elegantly beautiful lines began running repeatedly through my head:

    ‘Go now selkie boy, swim from the shore.’

    ‘Chisel-gouger, head-banger, bark-stripper, grub-picker, nerve-shredder … the kicker, Mister Woodpecker, is you’re boring me to death!’

    ‘Look over your shoulder at where you have been, the edge of the wood can no longer be seen.’

    Stunning. Personally, I think every child should read at least one of them.

    However, and as a note of caution, don’t just take my word for it. A few times when I’ve shared a poem I love, the subject leader has looked at me blankly, saying ‘doesn’t do anything for me sorry’. To which I’ve replied, 'no need for ‘sorry’; let’s find something else. Let’s read some more. And in every case we’ve found the poems needed. Different things sing for different people.

    Because the thing is, if it’s a good poem, a teacher can get at least most of their children to like practically anything, so long as they love it themselves.

    So how do I go about it? This thing that I love?

    I keep it simple and let the poem do the work. Returning to Robert Macfarlane, he says in the introduction to The Lost Spells, ‘This is a book of spells to be spoken aloud.’, and I think that’s going to be true of any poems we use in primary actually.

    My sort-of-blue-print for planning would probably run a bit like this:

    • Before you read the poem, it’s often helpful to do a bit of brief ground-setting first. (For example, with the Tennyson, ‘This poem is about a battle over a hundred years ago, when, because of a muddle in communications, a battalion (that’s a group of soldiers) called the Light Brigade, rode into a valley they weren’t supposed to go into. And nearly all of them were killed.’)
      But sometimes it’s not. John Walsh’s ‘The Bully Asleep’ unfolds as they read, letting the children explore their own reactions to the situation and the different characters.
    • Read the poem aloud – in sections or straight through – be guided by your own feelings.
    • Briefly explain any particular words that really matter and/or will help the children get better mental images, (For example and with the Tennyson again, ‘Sabres’ are swords that have a slightly curved end. Everybody just practise brandishing (that’s waving in a fierce way) one. Actually, they’re quite heavy; have another go.’)
    • Keep re-reading the poem. This might involve the children echoing your model to mimic ‘intonation, tone and volume’ (national curriculum 2014); or reading to themselves - get them to cup their hands around their ears so they can work in a loud whisper; or working in small groups to achieve a polished reading of all or part of the poem.
    • Learn sections by heart. It’s a statutory requirement in the national curriculum for many good reasons; not least that it develops memory, and allows young children to internalise unfamiliar language patterns. Don’t worry if they don’t ‘fully understand’ what they’re reciting; let the poem with its patterning and rhythms take over. After all, at the very earliest stages with nursery rhymes, we’ll give simple explanations for unknown vocabulary, but the quite complicated sentence structures used are simply absorbed by the children and pave the way for their use of those structures later on in their school careers:

    Jack and Jill went up the hill

    To fetch a pail of water.

    Jack fell down and broke his crown

    And Jill came tumbling after.

    • Do a bit of ‘in your seats drama’ (Thank you Martin Galway for the term; much better than my ‘let’s act out this bit guys’.) Picture the scene in my Y5 classroom, the drum roll on the tables to simulate the pounding hooves of the horses as we chant and dramatise with faces, arms and voices:

    ‘Cannon to right of them,

    Cannon to left of them,

    Cannon in front of them

    Volleyed and thundered;

    Stormed at with shot and shell,

    Boldly they rode and well,

    Into the jaws of Death,

    Into the mouth of hell

    Rode the six hundred.’

    Then we draw our swords for:

    ‘Flashed all their sabres bare,

    Flashed as they turned in air’,

    And all without leaving our places until I am certain the words and sense are embedded.

    • Turn the words into pictures – either literally by drawing, or mentally into mind pictures. Jane Pridmore’s In the Dark works brilliantly to unlock imaginations:

    ‘A man runs across the ceiling

    Of my bedroom,

    Someone with long hands patterned with leaves.

    The wardrobe looks like a huge bird,

    Six times bigger than an eagle,

    I don’t like the dark.’

    Or to literally see how Sea-weed by D H Lawrence works, pop a piece of sea weed in a bowl of water and let the children play with it, while you read.

    • Decide what sort of recorded outcome you want. I wouldn’t always have one, but generally the children want to produce something to showcase their learning.

    This might be writing a poem. It’s often fun to have a fiddle around with form; it’s almost always fun to write list poems.

    You’ll get some fabulous results from first person ‘soliloquys’ on the theme of a poem once they are fully engaged with it. Restricting their writing to image-capturing will allow them to focus on word choices and word order. If you are doing something like Charge of the Light Brigade (or The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey or The Yarn of the Nancy Bell by William S Gilbert), you’ll probably be able to find a painting to link it with to further deepen understanding and improve the quality of the writing produced. (Still, over ten years later, a huge thank you to Pie Corbett for the best course I have ever been on: Out of Art into Storytelling in 2011 at the National Gallery.)

    But it might not be writing a poem. In fact it’s often better if it isn’t. There are an enormous number of outcomes that can arise from reading poetry. Here are a few that I’ve tried, not mentioned already, and which, most importantly, the children have really enjoyed.

    • Diary entry & instructions for looking after a dragon – A small dragon by Brian Patten
    • Labelled diagram & explanation – My blood by Carolyn Ross
    • Interviews and newspaper reports – Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash
    • First person recounts – That spells magic by Tony Bradman
    • All of the above, although not all on the same occasion – The troll by Jack Prelutsky

    And as a final thought: writing poetry can be fun and enjoyably challenging, but of course, apart from in year 2, it’s not statutory in the national curriculum. Reading poetry is – for every year group, from Y1 to Y6. And even if it weren’t, I’d still do it.


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