Revising unseen poetry

03 Mar 2017


“Hope is being able to see there is light despite all of the darkness” Desmond Tutu.

This gentleman beautifully encapsulates Year 11’s approach to unseen poetry at this stage of the term: utterly lacking in direction and blindly searching for something, anything to hold on to.  I fully empathise with them: how often can we immediately grasp the nuances of poetry on a first reading, let alone make comparisons with another unseen poem straight afterwards? Particularly given in their WJEC Eduqas examination, it will be the last hour of a two hour and thirty minute exam! Having spent some time this week reading T.S Eliot’s poetry I can completely understand that feeling of blind panic, intellectual inferiority and confusion that poetry can engender. “Do I dare to eat a peach” indeed!

This week I decided to use two poems to build up a repertoire of skills with Year 11: Brian Bilson’s excellent ‘Refugee’ compared with Langston Hughes’ ‘I Too’.  I hoped these fairly simple yet hugely emotive poems would help to encourage students to reflect on poetry and work further on developing personal responses. Excellent posts on teaching unseen poetry, such as this one from Susan Strachan have helped to develop strategies for this.

Half term’s trip to New York provided the fuel to begin to explore ‘Refugee’. A delightful excuse to share some eccentric holiday snaps opened the lesson, asking students what I overheard people talking about -what was in the news when I was in America. This was combined with the title of the poem on the board. I then asked students to complete a mind map of the title, always my first angle into exploring a poem. The gradually unwrapping of the mystery of the poem always appeals and helps students to focus in on tone and meaning. This led into an interesting discussion about different perceptions/prejudices, experience for outsiders.

I then gave out the poem, coupled with some  key words related to the poem and the sentence structures I want them to use when writing about poetry (these will be repeated frequently over the next few months):

Word challenge: can you use me today?

Understanding, freedom, consideration, injustice, prejudice, racism, acceptance, empathy, immigration, passionate, inequality, humanity, moving, emotional, conflict, persecution, critical, perceptions, sympathy, reality, compassion.

Use me to start sentences if you are unsure:

In my view the poem argues that…

Biston conveys…

The poem is about…

The meaning of the poem is clear from…

Biston argues we should treat refugees with…

In my view,

Structurally the poem…

The language of the poem is…

For the purposes of the comparative section of this lesson, I sneakily removed the final line: (“now read from bottom to top”). The poem is a fascinating one in that the first reading conveys the voice of prejudice and injustice, an angry diatribe against refugees. Then the “backwards” reading illustrates the sense of humanity, compassion and empathy. So on first reading the students wrote a summary response: how do they respond to the poem? We are using this as the basis for structuring the overview to the poem and will be the opening paragraph to their essay in the exam. Naturally they were outraged at the tone of the poem.

The next focus for them is to identify some quotations that form the development of their answer and would support their overview. For the purposes of this lesson, I wanted them to find their top three. They picked on the basis of individual words and techniques within the poem that they could expand and comment on. We then picked out some together and explored them on the board. They then worked individually on their three key quotations.

Then I revealed the trick and completed a dramatic reading of the poem backwards to gasps of horror (I exaggerate, but students were genuinely shocked/moved when the poem was read the “correct” way). I waxed lyrically about the power and beauty of poetry and the skill of language, for once their were some assenting nods from the audience! Very helpful in trying to elicit anything other than a grunt from Year 11 about their own personal response to poetry. This is one student’s response:


Then we moved to the compare section of the lesson. The aim was to compare the two viewpoints outlined in the poem and to structure the response for this. Students completed the same overview task again, this time clearly comparing the two poems in the opening overview section. Next we built up a collection of areas to compare poems against. I then modelled the opening paragraph and set them off for ten minutes to begin to reflect on how to structure the comparative response. A lovely finish to the lesson was this clip from the Blind Trust project which we watched then I asked students to link to the meanings in the poem and link to the key words for the lesson.

Next lesson students came in to an ‘Unseen Poetry Pointer’ sheet and were asked to record all they could remember to guide their thinking on the unseen poetry exam. I had then broken this down to ten key questions to guide thinking on how to approach unseen poetry:

  1. What are the indications of the title?
  2. What is your summary/overview for the poem?
  3. What are the five quotations you would use?
  4. What are the key words to explore further in the quotations?
  5. What is the mood/atmosphere of the poem?
  6. How does the poem conclude?
  7. How is the story of the poem told?
  8. What is the structure and form of the poem and the impact?
  9. What poetic techniques are used and why?
  10. What is your personal response to the poem?

I am fascinated by this post from Chris Curtis which outlines his approach to repetitive questioning in the classroom to encourage retention: “What if we asked the same question again and again and ensure that they get the answer right? What if the memory of the question is equally as important as the memory of the knowledge of needed for answering the question?” These ten questions will be be on the board every time we explore unseen poems together, the memory of the questions will hopefully assist them in the exam in giving their responses structure.

We then completed the ‘unseen exploration’ of ‘I too, America’, again completing the overview for the poem to build confidence with this task. I then shared the five focus questions for comparing poems:

  1. How are the poems similar/different in terms of content?
  2. How are the poems similar/different in terms of themes/messages.
  3. How are they similar/different in terms of mood and messages?
  4. How are they similar/different in terms of style/structure?
  5. How are they similar/different in terms of personal response?

We went through the comparing guidance then students wrote for twenty minutes comparing the poems.  Here is the same student’s response. She has a target grade of a five so there is work to do, but she is getting there:


After a quick Thursday night reading of some of their answers it was clear that they still hand’t quite engaged with writing about language/structure and form. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ is a great one for looking at structure, techniques and language, so in Friday’s lesson we built on this, following the ten point questions to develop detailed notes. Students wrote again on the impact of word choice in the poem, building in at least eight of the key words I provided for the poem in their exploration of language and tone:

Elegiac, melancholy, mourning, suffering, loss, pensive, reflective, philosophical, connections, love,  admiration, esteem, grief, anguish, distress, futility, bereavement, dejection, deceit, deprivation, morality, uncertainty, love, poignant, empathy, sympathy, compassion, moving, affecting, remembrance.

What I also feel is that Year 11 need to see/read/discuss lots of poems over the next couple of months. I will be doing a number of “poetry ponder” starter style tasks. Students will come in to a poem and the repeated key questions for unseen poetry on the board and have the first ten minutes to make their initial points and annotations on the poems. We will then move to compare questions and I will have a poem from the Anthology that they need to make links with. Poetry is worth 40% of the WJEC Educas English Literature course, so this will ensure that it is given real priority in revision lessons. Some poems I will be using (obviously hugely selfish choices!)

Mary Oliver: ‘The Journey’

Evangeline Paterson ‘A Wish for My Children’

Edwin Morgan ‘One Cigarette’

Section from ‘The Prophet’ Kahlil Gibran

Richard LeGallienne: ‘I Meant to Do my Work Today’.

Edna St Vincent Millay: ‘Travel’

W.H Davies: ‘Leisure’

Carol Ann Duffy: ‘A Child’s Sleep’

C. Day Lewis: ‘Walking Away’

Sophie Hannah ‘The End of Love’

W.B Yeats: ‘When you are Old’

Hardly rocket science I appreciate, but hopefully Year 11 will have finished this week with some sense of hope, as Mr Tutu delightfully illuminates in the opening of this post, “despite all the (unseen) darkness”.  Now it is about constant repetition, honing and practise at writing in timed conditions. Thanks for reading, I’m off to eat a peach.




Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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