Teaching poetry at Key Stage Three: securing skills.
05 May 2017
“If a poem hasn’t ripped apart your soul; you haven’t experienced poetry.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
I would class myself as a poetry fan. In fact, in the obscurity of this space I can drop the conventional restrained politeness. I can wax lyrically without reserve, without the inevitable eyebrow arched response and the incredulous glance. I can euphorically pronounce a passion and love for it that usually has anyone in near proximity running for the hills. I adore it, love it. While Edgar may have been slightly excessive (but the poor chap did have rather gothic inclinations) there is an essential truth: good poetry moves and touches the soul. One of the most genuine pleasures of a literary adventure for me is the feeling of satisfaction that unravelling the mystery of a poem can engender. The wonderful depth of meaning that can be revealed never fails to amaze, alongside the the power and poignancy of our beautiful language. My most powerful learning experiences at school were in the company of Philip Larkin and careful dissection of his remarkable use of language: “In the hollows of afternoons” indeed!
I also (don’t worry I will contain myself shortly) absolutely love teaching poetry. For me it is one of the genuine joys of English teaching. Not just does it give me a captive (captured?) audience to lose all inhibitions in exhorting the value of poetry, I love the creativity and challenge it enables: how can I turn this poem into something meaningful for young people? How can I hook them into appreciating some of the central thematic concerns of the poem? How can I get them to understand the subtlety and the beauty of the poem? Teaching it for me has always been about seeking to translate this sense of genuine awe – the incredible power that poetry can generate. Of course, as in all aspects of teaching, pervasive and infectious enthusiasm is always a good starting point. Just read this delightful article from Ian McMillan: ‘The Perfect Poetry Lesson: how my teacher brought poems to life’: “Then there was Mr Meakin’s enthusiasm, which bulldozed us into the arms of the muse.”
So to Year 9 this half term. This term I want to build bridges in preparing them for GCSE: to hone confidence and understanding in approaching poetry and try to inspire some of this sense of wonder in its power. Poetry will be worth an intimidating 40% of both my Year 9 classes (a middle and low band) final English Literature grade. They are expected to know a range of poems from an anthology and be able to confidently analyse and compare two unseen poems. They need to therefore have the rudiments for approaching poetry secure by the time they arrive in Year 10, otherwise we do face a real battle.
I often like to start a poetry unit with Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. While it is not for everyone (some delightfully earnest parodies exist, like this splendid example from ‘The Simpsons‘) there is a reason why it has been voted the nation’s favourite poem numerous times. It is also perfect for a poetry introduction – with a range of techniques and a form that is easy to grasp and write about. It also packs a powerful stoical emotional punch, a punch that young people can relate to.
In their first poetry lesson of the term, the students entered to ‘If’ on the board and this delightful image:
Here students make their poetry predictions: what will the poem explore; what are the connotations of the image; what are the implications of the title ‘If?’ Both groups grasped some of the fundamentals: relationships, decisions, responsibility etc. Some of them managed to make parallels between the image and the title of the poem, particularly in terms of the weight of responsibility. I always think that a poem needs some kind of hook, not in the sense of nebulous engagement, but for emotional investment, something that can begin to bring the poem to life for young people. I also always approach with the slow, seductive unravelling of a poem (never a sentence I thought I would write!) allowing students to appreciate the skill of its construction and slowly reflect on meaning and thematic purpose.
In order to further introduce the central themes and purpose of the poem, we then looked at this delightful clip from the ‘Pursuit of Happiness.’ It it Will Smith’s character passes on some rather ill considered advice to his son (the fact it is his actual son is again a delightful link!), before quickly correcting himself:
What this is particularly useful for is enabling discussion about the impact guidance has upon us – particularly from our family. It also looks at the subtlety of a father and son dynamic, important to appreciate the paternal and instructional tone of ‘If’.
This is when I will do the first reading of the poem. In the case of this poem, I informed the class I had spent the weekend pleading with my chums Roger and Rafael to film the poem for my outstanding Year 9 groups for me, despite their pressing schedules. They dutifully obliged and served this up. Obviously:
To continue the trend of careful thinking and reflection in the lesson, the students know that each time they hear a new poem in full this term they will be given five minute to write a personal response to the poem. They also know that they will have to share this in groups after the five minutes, and discuss it further. The same prompt questions that I use with Year 11 to encourage them to write effectively about unseen poetry are on the board for them to consider as starting points:
- What are the indications of the title?
- What is your summary/overview for the poem?
- What are the five quotations you would use?
- What are the key words to explore further in the quotations?
- What is the mood/atmosphere of the poem?
- How does the poem conclude?
- How is the story of the poem told?
- What is the structure and form of the poem and the impact?
- What poetic techniques are used and why?
- What is your personal response to the poem?
The idea with this is that the power of repetition: they will know exactly what they are looking for when presented with a poem. Throughout the term we will evaluate each of these questions in detail, ensuring they know exactly what they are looking for and they will have seen a number of modelled examples. It also means that they have the opportunity to practise reading for meaning in poetry and being able to identify initial ideas (a very challenging demand!) Familiarisation with these basics of poetry analysis now in Year 9 will allow the time in GCSE to be spent crafting writing skills.
Now for the exciting part. This is when deconstruction of the poem comes in. Initially I asked them to come up with some ideas verbally about the first stanza then show them my own detailed annotations of the opening stanza as a model. The idea behind this is initially to demonstrate how to annotate a poem effectively and to point out the range of things they could be looking for. Student annotation of a poem can go woefully wrong, with students often left with a muddle of notes sprawled all over the page. They need to have this skill secured before they start GCSE and need detailed annotations for revision. It also projects quality and depth: pointing out the maze of information that can be drawn from good poetry. I have also been dipping into sections of Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ again recently and this resonates:
“My students are excited to see models of everything. Whatever we’re undertaking, whether it’s a math challenge or dance performance or a science investigation, my students cry out for models to set the standard of what they’re aiming for, and to give them a vision of their goal” ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ pg 83
They were then given five minutes per stanza to come up with some initial ideas that we can then build on as a class. This task is accompanied by poetry prompters such as these for each stanza of ‘If’:
What are the qualities Kipling is advocating in Stanza two?
What technique is used in “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same”. Why? What is an impostor?
What is a knave? Why is it significant here?
What comment is Kipling making about dreams in the second stanza?
What technique is used in the line “if you can dream – and not make dreams your master?” Why?
This means that after the individual annotations they are leading dialogue and I can do lots of hands down and asking students to elaborate on each others points. Teaching poetry can be dry and time constraints often mean that it can be a didactic march through the poems. In Key Stage Three there needs to be scope for students to explore and generate ideas themselves, which is then carefully guided and modelled to ensure clarification and understanding. We achieve this by lots of holding up of annotations, after each stanza they visually display their annotations and we have a look around as a class (cunningly named showotations) Visual hooks like this mean that I can keep up with what they are doing and guide students with adding additional points.
Having gone through the poem, we then looked at the question they will respond to: Write about ‘If’ by Kipling and its effect on you. We referred back to the opening ideas in the lessons and correlate with the impression the poem has had on us. I then return to this splendid technique from Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’, in which the openings of sentences are provided to frame the response for students and continue to encourage them to think about all the areas in the key questions for the half term:
Kipling’s ‘If’ explores…
The title implies the poem will…
In the opening stanza…
In my view the poem…
Structurally the poem…
The language of the poem is…
This question will be repeated throughout the term to build their confidence in writing and engaging with poetry. A start with lots of important work to do to make sure they are ready for next year. We will work more on exploring language and understanding authorial purpose, by looking at a range of poems. Throughout the term we will look at drawing links and parallels between the poems as frequently as possible. The students will finish up with an unseen poetry style assessment: hopefully the unseen questions will be firmly entrenched by that point!
Thank you for reading, I’m off to read some poetry…