Poetry is an incredibly rich and versatile landscape that can be used to explore a wide variety of subjects, from quantum physics to racial prejudice. As well as reading and analysing poetry, writing poetry can also encourage students to think creatively, and to engage with the subject matter in new and exciting ways. So why aren’t we all using poetry more often in our teaching practices? I would imagine it is because we, as teachers, find poetry to be either boring or scary.
Boring because “there is no way that my students are going to understand or want to listen to me reading them some eighteenth-century sonnet”, and scary because “I don’t understand it myself”. Understanding. That is where we are going wrong. Poems don’t need to be ‘understood’, they just need to be read, enjoyed and discussed. So what if you don’t fully understand the context that the poem was written in, you can still enjoy it. And if you don’t enjoy it, then that is fine too. There is absolutely nothing shameful in saying: “I’m sorry, but that Elizabethan metaphysical poem on dramatic realism really is just not for me.” Why is it not for you though? Do your students feel the same way? Do any of them actually like the damn thing? What kind of poem is for you?
Rather than constraining them, these scaffolds will help to encourage their development.
Analysing a poem can seem daunting, but ask yourself: are any of my students’ interpretations of a poem any less relevant or subjectively ‘correct’ than those of the most learned academics? Poetry is an incredibly personal and intimate thing, and if ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ makes you think of pleasant childhood trips to the seaside, then it has served its purpose in eliciting a response.
Poetry has an incredible capacity to enthral, enthuse and enrage. There are funny poems, and sad poems, clever poems and stupid poems. Whatever topic you can think of someone has written a poem about, and if they haven’t, then why not have a go at one yourself! Writing poetry might seem like even more of a daunting task than poetic analysis, but it needn’t be. The formulaic structure of some forms of poetry (e.g. a Kyrielle or Pantoum) can actually make it easier to write. Telling your students to ‘write a poem’ is potentially overwhelming to both you and your students, but providing them with structure will help them in their writing. Rather than constraining them, these scaffolds will help to encourage their development, until they feel comfortable enough to try writing in their own style and structure (or lack thereof).
Reading, discussing and writing poetry is an incredibly uplifting experience, and one which can provoke honest and open discussions and debate. Thereby serving to further enhance the enjoyment and understanding of the subject that is being taught.
Start Using Poetry In Your Classroom
Listed below are four activities that could be used to introduce poetry into your classroom:
1. Share a poem
Ask your students to go away and find a poem that somehow relates to the subject that you are teaching. This need not be an obvious link, but the student should be able to explain why they have chosen that particular poem. Ask the students to share their poems with the rest of the class, and to explain what it is that they like/dislike about the poems that they have chosen.
2. Class poem
Bring in a selection of poetry relating to the subject that is currently being taught. Split the students into small groups, and ask each of them to read a selection of the poetry that you have brought in, and to pick which is their favourite poem. Get each of the groups to present a defence of their chosen poem, and then have a class vote to decide which one they like the most. Adopt this favourite as the class poem whilst this subject is being taught.
3. Pair poems
Pick a selection of poems (you could use the most popular ones from the previous task) and get each student to pick one poem and then write what they think it is about. Then split the students up so that they are working in pairs, with each student in the pair each having read the same poem. Ask them to explain their interpretations to each other, and then to see if they can come up with a joint interpretation to present to the rest of the class.
4. Poetry Together
Pick a topic and as a piece of homework ask the students to write a poem about this topic, using a specified poetic style. Rather than writing the poem by themselves, the students should be asked to write the poem with a family member or friend from a different generation, as a collaborative piece. Once this has been done, encourage them to enter it into the Poetry Together competition, run by Manchester Metropolitan University, and judged by the UK’s Poet Laureate, Dame Carol Ann Duffy.
Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, where his research involves looking at the similarities between science and poetry, and the different ways in which science can be used to empower society. You can read more about his research and teaching practices on his website, and his collection of science poems (all based on recent scientific research) on his weekly blog.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, takomabibelot.