We are all doing poetry based units in English this term and, predictably, the groans could be heard all the way across the school. Why is poetry seen as such a horrendous thing? What is happening in classrooms that makes poetry such a terrifying prospect?
I personally love poetry – the way it explores a topic in intricate detail and provokes so many different emotions. So much power in such a compact package. I love reading it, analysing it and writing it.
Hopefully, I convey this love of poetry to my students. I give them opportunities to create poems, to put into practice the many poetic devices they have learnt. All students have the potential to find a new way to express what they see, to show how they feel. Forget about rhyme, forget about following a particular structure – just paint images in words for us to see and feel in our minds.
Many students, and teachers, don’t feel comfortable with writing poetry. I have been told many times over the years that lower ability students, especially, can’t get poetry and they especially can’t write good poetry. Of course they can! If only they are given real opportunities and encouragement. All of them can come up with powerful and original images in a supportive environment.
A case in point: This year I am team teaching the bottom Year 8 English class. The other teacher quickly volunteered to teach the novel and left me the poetry unit. It was assumed that teaching them poetry would be like pulling teeth – extremely painful. Well, so far we have had a great time.
First we revised all the major devices and for each one we drew pictures to represent what picture it created in our minds. These became poetry quilts with each picture a square. These have been placed up in the classroom and the students have done a great job overall.
Next we created memory pegs for each of the devices to help them “stick”. These actions were created by the students and they showed good understanding of the techniques in their choice of actions. For example, for a simile the students put out both hands, palms up, and move them together to show different but similar or for onomatopoeia they push their fist in front of them (like a superhero striking a bad guy “POW!). These memory pegs have really helped them to remember what the technique is and what it does.
This last week or so we have been writing poems using these devices. I have been guiding them in regards to the topic of the poem and on what technique to use in each line but the content is completely up to them. First attempt – The Beach. Pretty safe topic given we are in Coffs harbour and the kids spend most of their time there. I handed a sheet of blank paper to each student and asked them to write a simile describing something they would hear at the beach. Then, they had to fold over their line and hand the page onto the next person. This would happen after each of the following lines so in the end they will have a group poem. The second line was to describe something they would see, the third was something they could smell, the fourth something they would taste and the fifth was something they would feel. The last line was to make a statement about the beach. At the end, the poems were read out and we discussed which lines were particularly effective and why. These chosen lines were recorded and I collated them into a class poem, The Beach.
As a lead in to studying some Australian poems we next write a poem each describing Australia. Students had to include one of each of the following devices in their poem – simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration and onomatopoeia. While they struggled initially for ideas (what things to talk about) they soon got into the task and they were developing some great images. Their poems were edited and published and again put up for display. As well, I asked them to choose one line from their poem that they were particularly proud of in regards to developing a clear and interesting image. I collected all these lines and put them together into a poem. The only lines I contributed were the repeated refrain, “This is Australia”.
I got a lot of my inspiration from watching some of the Phil Beadle’s videos on Teachers TV (http://www.teachers.tv/videos/5418). He did some brilliant “POE-TREE” activities with groups of disengaged students in England. That man is my hero! What worked for those students, certainly works with my students too.
I am SO proud of their efforts! The poem is fantastic and was chosen for inclusion in the school’s newsletter to go home to parents. The sense of achievement they feel is immense, they are rightly proud of their efforts. And now that they can write the images, use the devices, we will go on and look at what other poets have said about Australia. No groans, no moans, just curiosity to see what other poets have said about what they have already written about. It might not last for the rest of the unit but they get the power of poetry. Not a bad effort for a class that “would never get poetry”.