It is, I hope, uncontroversial to say that poetry is not a popular art form. While it’s wonderful to hear the sales of poetry rose by 12% in 2018, with over 1.3 million volumes sold, that’s dwarfed by the 190.9 million books sold in the UK in the same year, and is still a lot less than the 3.4 million copies of Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming.
Why is it that so few people read poetry? I’m sure there are a whole host of complex reasons but I suspect it has a lot to do with our prior experience of the form. I suspect most adults will not have picked up a volume of poetry since leaving school and maybe, just maybe, our experience of being taught poetry goes a long a way to shape our view of it in later life.
My experience as a secondary English teacher is that a great many students profess to hate poetry, but what do they mean? Do they hate all poetry? Do they just hate their encounters with poetry in English lessons? Or do they just not know much about it and fear it will be inaccessible, confusing and dull? As James Theobold describes here, getting children to think about what poetry is, might be a good starting point for undermining the view that it’s all terrible. (I’d also recommend reading Phil Stock’s blogs on the subject: “What is this thing we call a poem?” Part 1 & Part 2.)
But whatever poetry is or is not, here I’m discussing the teaching of the kinds of poems that pop up in the GCSE English literature syllabus. These poems tend to be selected because they’re deemed to have a measure of literary merit. They require effort. If you don’t have much experience with poetry, on first reading they can feel alien and impenetrable. So, the question of how to bring these poems to life, to give them meaning and vibrancy is one most English teachers have grappled with.
When I was trained in the late 1990s, the prevailing view of English was that it was a “skills-based subject” and that the most pressing concern of English teachers was to develop students’ empathy. Because appreciating poetry was a ‘skill’ it didn’t much matter what specific poetry was studied and I was therefore encouraged to selected that most straightforward, accessible and immediately gratifying poems I could find; ideally something that kids could relate to and which they would be less likely to dismiss as old-fashioned or pointless. These poems were almost entirely modern; for instance, my PGCE tutor particularly favoured the work of John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah* and they were the focus of several seminars. It was made clear that children’s response mattered far more than the writers’ intentions and that I should keep my opinions to my myself for fear of polluting the authenticity of their experience.
The formula for teaching poetry went something like this:
- Get the student to discuss something thematically related to the poem to be studied.
- Introduce the poem in some problematised form (sometimes a line at a line, sometimes with certain words redacted, sometime just the title, and so on)
- Provide students with prompts about the poem to help shape their ability to discuss their first responses.
- Read the poem in its entirety (ideally in groups)
- Briefly explain any unfamiliar vocabulary and answer any questions
- Get students to develop some sort of creative response (again, ideally in groups)
When I arrived in my first placement school, the Head of English was what we might describe as ‘old school’. In one of the first lessons I observed I watched him provide a line by line analysis of the Miller’s Tale with an A level group. The students made assiduous notes, asked the occasional question, and engaged in brief, focussed discussion as a whole group with the teacher challenging them to justify the opinions they ventured. I itched to show him how it should be done.
After the first lesson he watched me teach, I remember him saying something like, “Well, that wasn’t too bad. Maybe try giving them a bit more of a clue of what the poem is about next time.” The students would never have misbehaved with him in the room but few of them had much of a go at the activities I’d meticulously planned and the responses I was left with were mediocre at best. But, I was sure that it was just a question of practice and that, sooner or later, I’d master the right way of teaching poetry. It probably took me about 10 years before I accepted that this was always going to be a sub optimal approach and that it would probably be better if I gave my students a bit more of a clue what the poems were about.
There are a number of reasons why I think this approach is the wrong one. First, it devalues the idea of literature as an academic discipline. Getting students who know little or nothing about poetry to discuss their opinions of a poem they’ve just read is equivalent to asking people who have no knowledge of chemistry to discuss what happened in a reaction they’ve just witnessed, or getting two people who know nothing about football to discuss the merits of the offside trap. To appreciate poetry we need to be given a toolkit for thinking about its language and structure. The more knowledge we have the more interesting our thoughts will be. We need training in thinking about the effects of words, word order, lines, stanzas and the like. Without this training our ability to see meaning in such a densely packed medium is severely limited, but, equipped with the disciplinary moves, we become ever more able to see what was previously obscure.
Second, more broadly, it assumes that an authentic response depends on an absence of imposed knowledge. The more we know about anything the better able we are to think about it. providing students with multiple interpretations opens up rather than closes down their ability to debate ideas and meaning. Ignorance begets ignorance; knowledge feeds on knowledge.
Third, it confuses means and ends. The end I would hope for when teaching a poem is that students have been more deeply inducted into a conversation and are more able to offer and justify an informed opinion. If we put start with discussion we get children sharing unformed prejudices and blinkered misconceptions. While some may have an emotional response to a poem like, say, Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, this rarely takes them very far. Once they’ve been taken through the poem several times with points of conflict and ambiguity pointed out, they are then ready to take part in a conversation in which their emotional response can be tempered and forged.
It also disregards human nature. Most students love talking with other. In fact they have an evolved motivational bias towards doing so. This is great if you want them to discuss social relationships or interests, but not so good if you want them to explore challenging material. Schools are an educational technology which have existed for thousands of years. The basic form of school: a space in which an expert instructs groups of novices is largely unchanged for the ancient Sumerian scribe school. This concept has survived so long because it is so successful. We now have this ancient insight confirmed by great platefuls of empirical evidence that demonstrates that novices learn best when closely guided. Ignoring this is irresponsible by claiming that something else “works for me” is irresponsible and the idea that it leads to “much better learning” is empirically false.
Finally, it privileges the privileged and disadvantages the disadvantaged. The students most likely to thrive in an environment which is not fully guided by the teacher are those for whom school is merely the icing on the cake. They already know loads that can feed into a discussion of poetry and for the most part are likely to succeed despite rather than because of anything their teacher does. For those without these advantages, school is their one shot to being able to make different choices about what they might like their lives to be. We fritter this away at our peril.
So, here’s my advice on teaching poetry:
- Choose challenging texts from the beginning. Modern poetry may well seem temptingly accessible but it exists in conversation with what went before. If we omit or skip the development of poetry then we disbar children from a great part of the debate. Ideally the way we teach poetry should be thought of as a sequence where each new poem builds on and is viewed in relationship to every other. If we choose well, then there’s no reason why children cannot enjoy more ‘difficult’ works.
- Teach the toolkit. Select poems with which you can share the means with which you can engage in disciplinary thinking. Train students in what Robert Eaglestone calls ‘the craft of metaphor spotting’ and show how different structures provoke different responses. This process benefits far more from practice than it does discussion.
- Tell stories. Human being think in stories and we are predisposed to finding them interesting and memorable. This is telling the story of the poem as well as stories about the poem. This brings the poem and its context to vividly to life and allows students to consider it from a greater range of angles.
- Make them speak. Whatever else it is, poetry is communication. Once children have got some interpretations to consider they can start shaping their personal response. It helps to see a poem as a conversation and as a puzzle to be figured out. We grasp after meaning and as we reach we become more sure of what we think and why. I’m a huge advocate of teacher mediated class discussion in which speech is scaffolded to support students becoming more eloquent.
- Practice recalling poetic knowledge. Learning a poem by heart is wonderfully enriching and allows poems to live and breath inside you. But as well as recalling the language, get students to retrieve techniques used, effects, contextual information and the story of the poems. This should be done regularly but sparingly, allowing students to become fluent in their thoughts and opinions.
- Avoid pointless writing. I may understand the rise of the PEE paragraph, but I still abhor it. It is a shackle to which thinking must conform. Worse, it encourages teachers to prioritise teaching the how over the what leading to what I’ve come to call cargo cult writing. If a written response is required, think about the lessons of interval training. The Couch to 5K App is a fabulously designed example of how to build in success before moving on. Concentrate on writing excellent analytical sentences before, slowly, building up to the paragraph. Extended essays are best delayed until students have mastered sentences and paragraphs, otherwise they’ll just be practising bad writing. I’m also sceptical about most of the writing that can be bundled under the heading ‘creative response’. There’s nothing wrong per se with children writing diary entires and newspaper stories, but all too often it turns out to be startlingly lacking in creativity.
Of course, I’d be guilty of what I condemn if I were to say that teaching in this way gets students to enjoy the poetry they read far more than my tired old way of teaching, but I’can’t resist point out that this does indeed seem to be the case.
* I have nothing whatever against either of these poets.