Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Some thoughts about poetry teaching...

So, as something of a latecomer to the Twitter fold, as more (perhaps) of a lurker than a participant, I watch & learn (& sometimes envy). It feels, as a Pastoral Middle Leader & English teacher of Years 8-13, that there's a lot of exciting work going on out there, thoughts especially about teaching & learning (or learning & teaching, depending on your preference) but that I exist on the edge of this stuff; I read tweets & blogs by Headteachers, Assistant Heads, ASTs & Heads of Department. What I'm not quite sure about is how many main scale teachers are blogging about their work (I consider myself main scale in this sense as I have no specific Departmental responsibility): is there a gap out there? I'm not talking about 'a gap for filling', to borrow, inaccurately, from Owen's 'Insensibility' but, instead, I'm wondering if it might - and I'm thinking more about English teaching here than any other subject - be an issue of space; space & time to think about teaching afforded to those who divide their time between a classroom focus & other responsibilities. Is there such a thing as 'too close to blog'?

These musings have caused me to digress. It's 4.24am & I'm awake thinking about my lessons. So I thought I'd share some ideas about poetry teaching. Here we go...

1. I like to encourage students to think of poetry as three-dimensional. It's so much more than words on a page. I want vision & sound & texture to play a part in their understanding. Poetry is art, so I try to show them its colours, its music & its tangible correlations between content & form.

2. I often encourage students to start with the 'Who?', the 'Where?' and the 'What?' Doing this yesterday with the Extract from Wordsworth's 'Prelude' (AQA Anthology, 'Moon on the Tides') really helped to remove an initial barrier constructed by my Year 11 students who had read it once & thought it 'hard'. Once they realised it is about a boy, on a lake, rowing a stolen boat, we were off.

3. Starting with structural features, poetic techniques, seems to me a dangerous approach. Subject & meaning surely has to be our starting point: what is happening here? Starting with simile, metaphor, alliteration trains students to technique-spot; instead, I want them to approach those aspects as part of the poem's fabric. Have something to say about the poem's meaning first, referring to technique only after a quotation, never before. 

4. As a child of the '80s, I like to use the music video approach. Those narrative videos, ones which tell the story of the song, can be really helpful when approaching poetry. If you were making a film of this poem, what would be happening? Again, this builds on the questions from (2): who are the characters, what are they doing and where would your film be set?

There's nothing groundbreaking here. I was in awe of the blog I read the other day with envelopes on students' chairs & writing a version of the poem before reading the poem (dead shelley's blog, I think - I'll try to come back here & post a link when I'm not under the covers, blogging via my iPhone). I think I'm more pedestrian than that. Nevertheless, I do break poetry apart, asking students to illustrate words/images/lines to show colours & textures & shapes; I do have them reading aloud, dramatising the sounds (& sometimes the shapes) of the poetry; and I do, above all, try my best to dispel the myth that poetry is impossible to understand. A significant amount of this dispelling, though, needs to be done at KS3, I think... Get them reading and, perhaps more importantly, writing plenty of poetry... understanding the mechanics from the inside can surely only help students' analytical skills.

But that's for another blog...

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