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Doing Poetry – not just on special occasions

or a long introduction to a poem about burping

Why do we need National Poetry Day? Maybe because when it comes to daily, weekly and termly planning, a lot of English teachers just don’t do poetry as much as they do other stuff, and when poetry is the order of the day, pupils rebel. These are surely two sides of the same coin, but perhaps the problem’s in the terminology. “We’re doing poetry” makes it sound as if poetry must be analysed, survived and ticked off – like a lesson observation. “I’m teaching poetry” suggests a full-jug-into-empty-vessels mode of operation, and puts us off because, actually, we don’t know all the answers. And “let’s read a poem” seems to lack both aspiration and rigour.

So, is poetry just a niche hobby for special occasions, and not a viable full-time classroom activity? Of course not. Doing poetry can and should be part of the everyday fun of English, especially if we want it to move out of that little niche, make it part of normal reading culture and even recite it sometimes. So how should we do poetry?

The first answer is: often, to bring it into the mainstream and make it more accessible. Include a poem on the school website or newsletter, and add one to the display screen in the school foyer. If you’re not in charge of such places, post one weekly on your classroom door, and reward anyone who shows an interest in it. Plenty of websites will suggest “poems of the day” or week for you, but the quality of these will vary, and a better option is to buy two or three collections of poetry. Collections like Roger McGough’s ‘Poetry Please’, Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Glass Green Beads’ and ‘101 Poems for Children’ chosen by Carol Ann Duffy are a good place to start. With every poem pre-selected by such experts, you can relax - every poem is a great choice, and questions of taste and suitability should not arise.

The other way to “do” poetry often is to link it to other learning. Millions of children will forever associate the dubious joys of June with the sweaty work of poetry analysis, so let the summer term “poetry unit” be relegated to the back of the cupboard and archived into oblivion. Instead, Year 5 could segue into Where Am I? (by Wendy Cope) from a space topic led by Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Or if you are making links with Black History Month, how about letting Year 9 loose on Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise.  Meanwhile, Year 7 can grapple with some pieces in honour of peace (The Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded this month). For example, Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things and Adult Fiction by Ian McMillan present two contrasting takes.

Another thing about doing poetry: give as much as control and ownership to the learners as possible. Learners having control and ownership is generally A. Good. Thing. of course, but in poetry the advantages are tremendous. The last thing a class should feel about a poem is that only the teacher “gets it” and can unlock its meanings. That way only helpless dependence is bred. Instead, create confidence though an open-ended, pre-reading activity like free-sorting the individual words of the poem. Develop collaboration through paired visualising exercises and build tentative thinking skills by encouraging responses like “I think this bit means…” and “I’m wondering about this line…” Praise anyone who can formulate a new sentence stem for expressing unsure thoughts. All these approaches help to demystify poetry and provide a practical demonstration that everyone’s reading counts.

So let’s read poems of the day and poems of the week, poems that fit in with our other learning and poems that reflect on current world issues. Let’s read poems out loud, learn poems by rote and explore poems for what they can reveal about ourselves, as well as using them to stimulate discussion and to appreciate the poet’s craft. And – every now and then, especially on National Poetry Day – let’s read poems just for fun. Here’s one such, from John Hegley ('Five Sugars Please', Methuen, 1993) which celebrates the cool winds of youth:

The Gift

A gaggle of schoolboys

noisily join her in the lift;

one of them belches,

all of them giggle.

How pathetic she thinks,

what a shameful show

and she lets them know

by voluntarily belching like a water buffalo.

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