Below, Pie Corbett has kindly written an article for us on reading poetry in school – and how to inspire a love of poetry in the listeners! I was lucky to have several good readers among my teachers, and can still hear one of them reading us The Listeners by Walter de la Mare, and remember the delicious goosebumps that the poem, and the reading of the poem excited. Pie has been a teacher, Head Teacher, lecturer and OFSTED inspector, is an author and poet – and a brilliant champion and provider of creative approaches in the classroom.
Reading Poetry in School
Poems are experiences
Good poems are experiences and, like music, may not be readily understood. It is the conjunction between the sound of the poem, its music, and the meaning of the words that creates an effect. The poem creates echoes of meaning for each reader; words triggering memories, images, ideas and emotions. I remember years ago hearing John Agard reading Blake’s Tyger. A woman in the audience cried and later I asked her why. ‘It was like hearing the earth speak to me,’ she said.
As a school, agree on and resource a poetry spine with key poets and poems for each term. Establish ‘poem of the week’ at Key Stage 1 and ‘poem of the day’ at Key Stage2 to ensure that children hear lots of poetry. For working on in class, first choose a worthwhile poem. Much of the poetry published over the last 20 years is easy to understand and whilst the poems might be fun to read, their impact will be brief. Poems for use in lessons should be worth spending time with; they have to earn their place. In The Works Key Stage 2, I collected all the poems that I would wish for in a class (organized by year group in the index). There are poems here that have bite and challenge. Look too at Bob Cox’s Opening Doors books for classic poetry with teaching ideas.
Read it aloud
To be experienced, the poem must be read aloud by both the teacher and, most importantly, by the children. Only through reading a poem can you feel the experience. The first encounter with a poem may be through a teacher reading to the class or putting the children into groups to prepare a choral reading. As the groups work together, they will naturally begin to try and interpret the poem, thinking about how it should be spoken. The key is to ‘vary’ – pace, rhythm, expression and volume in relation to meaning. Capture performances and create class CDs, film clips or perform for other classes or in assembly. We may never fully understand Tyger but we can have it by heart and love the mystery. Bring poems alive with great reading and do not be afraid to use percussive instruments to provide a simple backing or to use illustration or film to enrich the experience. Make the poem live. The more it lives, the more they will love poetry.
Discussion is essential as it is through talk that we may begin to bring into being what we think about a poem. Exploratory and tentative ‘Book Talk’ helps a class grow understanding and deepen appreciation. The teacher triggers the discussion with an open question such as, ‘what can we say about this?’. Then show an authentic interest in the poem and what the children say, relinquishing control over the meaning and helping the class focus and deepen their understanding. Coax out initial ideas, including what the class enjoyed or what the poem made them think about. Remember there is no ‘wrong answer’, just their thinking. If the comments leave the poem behind or become ‘wild’, get them to back up their ideas by referring to the poem.
Interact with poems
Help children dig under the skin of a poem, with some form of interactive activity. Try missing out the title– the children read the poem and then decide in pairs or threes what it might be called and provide evidence for their thinking. Cut up a poem by words, lines or verses and the children have to reassemble the poem. Omit key words from a poem, creating a cloze procedure, and the children have to fill in the blanks thinking about rhythm, meaning and style. Rewrite a poem as prose and the children have to put the poem back into lines, considering where each line or verse break might fall. Ask children to illustrate the key image from the poem. All these activities will encourage children to talk about and engage more deeply with the poem.
Write in response to poems
Try using writing as a form of response. Children could advertise a poem, write about the poem discussing likes, dislikes as well as what intrigued them. Some poems lend themselves to writing in role as a character or responding with a diary entry, letter or news item about a dramatic event. A key method that helps children appreciate a poem and to look and read more closely is through imitating the poem. Certain poems make this invitation obvious. Everyone knows Kit Wright’s Magic Box which always provides a skeleton for children’s own ideas. A careful reading of his poem will stimulate possibilities and techniques to try out. Google Miroslav Holub’s The Door, read by Joseph Fiennes, which is another fabulous list poem. A more demanding model would be Philip Gross’s ‘Dreams of an Inland Lighthouse-Keeper.’ In the poem, different boats are created such as the boat made of stars. Here is a year 6 writing in response, taking up the invitation to create your own boat made of unusual materials.
The Boat made of Stardust
The boat made of stardust
floats over the echoing waves
As living stars
Jump on to the boat
Hitching a moonlit ride.
Under towering piles of
Silver and gold.
Hide in cracks
In the floorboards of the boat.
Hang from cobweb threads
Like grotesque decorations.
Glisten in the moonlit sky
And reflect on the
Silver studded surface
Of the boat made of stardust.
Other poems contain a poetry idea rather than an obvious pattern. For instance, Tyger can be viewed as a poem in which the writer talks to animals, asking questions. Here is an example of this idea used by another year 6 pupil.
Snail, snail, why are you so frail?
Snail, snail, why do you leave a silvery trail
Wherever you go?
Snail, snail, why do you carry your house
on your hunched back?
Snail, snail, why do you appear when it rains
And everyone else has gone home?
Don’t torture poems
The key to turning children on to poetry is to not be overly concerned about children totally understanding a poem. Good poems are not the same as sums. They do not always add up. But we can enjoy them in the same way that we can enjoy music without really understanding why. If you want to turn children off poetry then the simplest way is to read a poem to the class. Get them to find the 5 similes and the metaphor. Underline the verbs. Then answer 10 questions (which if you not get right then you fail). That is how to help children loathe poetry. The aim is to develop an inclination towards poetry with its joys of surprise, emotion, music and beauty. Try to avoid strapping a poem to a chair and thrashing a meaning from it with the implements of grammatical torture!
© Pie Corbett 2017