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Animating the Teaching of Poetry

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Teaching
Wordcount: 2563 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Jeanette Winterson, a poet and writer, says: “…When people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers — a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place” (Aguilar, 2013). Poetry has an important role in our classrooms today.  Poetry should not be ‘murdered’ in the classroom, instead it should be animated which will give students a love for it. By doing this, it will encourage students to make the reading of poetry a creative act. From my teaching experience, it is clear to see how Poetry also encourages students to speak out and share a tiny bit of their personal experiences with the class. It allows them to express themselves in a different but safe way. Student’s minds can be opened to different situations and even different worlds that they may never had even imagined before. Poetry transforms the English language and makes us more aware of a world outside of ours. Reflective practice is an important factor that contributes to teacher development and can be described as “something useful and informing in the development and understanding of (…)teaching and learning in teacher education practices” (Loughran, 2012).With this in mind, the aim of this essay is to reflect on what worked and what did not work for me when teaching Poetry in the classroom.

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According to Curriculum Online (2018), there are three components in engaging with language in English. These three components are “communication skills, learning language by exploring and doing, and building up an understanding and awareness of how language works across a wide range of contexts”. All three components can be explored through the eyes of Poetry. In first year, the guidelines state that students should cover a minimum of ten poems and a minimum of sixteen poems over second and third year (Curriculum Online, 2018). In turn, Poetry should be enjoyed and it should be enjoyable for both teachers and students. Students should not be made learn lines off for no reason. Nor should they have to analysis chunks of material.

According to Ferguson (2014), “Poetry can be both challenging and intimidating to teach and learn”. This is true, in my year one Professional Masters of Education (PME) I was actually afraid going in to teach Poetry for the first time. When I got one of my first-year English classes this year, I decided to go back in time and think about how I thought Poetry in my year one PME and honestly, I think I murdered it. When I think back, I do not think my students got an appreciation for Poetry, in fact, I know they did not. It was just seen as something that had to be ticked off the list. Last year, I focused more on Drama than Poetry and this is because I could see how much the students lit up when they performed. However, I now know this was partly because of their attitudes towards Poetry but mostly due to the way in which I taught it to them. Reading a poem and answering questions at the end is what you do if you want to murder Poetry. Students did not get an appreciation of feeling or empathy, nor did they engage in the poem. There was no enjoyment for them or there was no enjoyment for me as a teacher.

This year I started off Poetry by using a sensory experiment to demonstrate an exploration of powerful experience in a ‘safe’ environment. At this point, I did not know my class very well so I allowed students to volunteer in opposed to me randomly selecting students. I brought in lemon and vinegar and had two ‘tasters’. The students watching had to describe the faces and reactions of the ‘tasters’. The students watching the experiment seemed to enjoy it more than the students tasting the lemon and vinegar. It was a good experiment to get to know the students but it also gave Poetry a positive start before we actually got into it properly. The noise levels in the classroom got a bit loud but it was definitely worth the outcome and it is something I will continue to use especially with first year students.

Another new methodology I tried this year was listening to Poetry before reading it aloud. I tried this approach with both first and second years and found it worked better for second year students. In my second-year class there are a number of students who would rather not read in front of their peers as they have Dyslexia. I found listening to Poetry aloud was a lot less intimating for those students and there was more fluency of the poem. After listening to the poem, there was also more students volunteering to read it out to the class as they were more familiar with the poem after hearing it once or twice at this stage.  However, in my first-year class I learned I have to work on their active listening skills more as I continue with this method. According to Mindtools (2018) “we only remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear”. In order to improve the students listening skills it is important to practice their active listening skills. As a teacher I can help improve this by using this method as an aid as we continue to practice this methodology. I could see students were able to find a meaning in the poem faster than if their peers read the poem out to the class once or twice.  PDST (2018) have a fishbowl listening activity that forces students to actively listen to a specific group of people about their thoughts on a poem for example. This is another methodology I could use to improve their active listening skills and it also allows students to research specific areas in a poem and bring it back to their peers.

After listening to ‘Blessing’ by Imtiaz Dharker, I got my first-year students to create sound effects instead of reading the onomatopoeia words. I really enjoyed this class as it was clear to see students were enjoying Poetry and it was even clearer to see students understood a new key word- onomatopoeia. According to John Medina, “visual process doesn’t just assist in the perception of our world. It dominates the perception of our world” (NewSpring Academy, 2016). With this in mind, I also used a picture of children playing in the snow when I was teaching onomatopoeia. In groups, the students came up with onomatopoeia words that they would expect to hear in the picture. For example, the whisper of the wind, the crunch from their footsteps, the snap of the tree branches snapping and the bang of the snowballs hitting a wooden shed in the picture. When comparing these classes to my Poetry classes last year, I see the difference is miles apart. I enjoy teaching Poetry this year and what puts the icing on the cake for me is seeing the students participating in activities and coming into class asking “are we doing more Poetry today?”.

As already touched upon above, I use images as a methodology when teaching Poetry. “Students need visual images to help them read and understand texts” (Carry, n.d.). I find an image tells students a lot more than words can. When teaching alliteration for example, I use images to scaffold learning. I used a picture of a rabbit reading a red book and asked students “what can you see? what is it doing? what colour is the book?”. Before the students realise, they have made a sentence using alliteration. I include small tasks that must be completed by the end of class as my classes this year are an hour long. One example of a first-year task was for students to make a poem about a bird or animal which must include a minimum of two sentences with alliteration in it. The poem had to be a minimum of six sentences in length and they also had to draw their bird or animal. I loved reading the students work as their imagination is out of this world. Some of the poems made me laugh and I could see the students were pleased by this. Some students volunteered to read their poems to the class while others were not brave enough yet. I got the students to switch their poems with another member of the class and they peer assessed their work. It was a positive experience for both the students and myself. The students were proud that they could make sentences using alliteration. When teaching alliteration, I also used tongue twisters which was a very enjoyable activity in the class. I was surprised by how many students wanted to share different tongue twisters to the class that I had not included. It takes the fear away from Poetry and students made up their own tongue twisters and stood up and performed them to the rest of the class. It was a positive, fun, respectful environment to be involved in.

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I use graphic organisers as another methodology when teaching Poetry to my students. According to Fisher & Schumaker (1995), graphic organisers are “designed to benefit learners who have difficulty organising information”. In turn, graphic organisers are beneficially to everyone as they provide students with a structure. I find the fishbone graphic organiser particularly helpful for when students are aware of the key words in Poetry. The fishbone organiser can be broken into six sections, for example, sounds, themes, metaphors, similes, quotes and tone. Once students are at this stage they can take notes and everything will be broken down on one page. This methodology is also helpful for me to check for understanding around the classroom. Placemats are also good for group work. I tried this with my second-year students for the first time this year and I loved it. The first time I tried it, it did not go as well as I thought it would have. Reflecting back, I think I did not explain the placemat technique well enough. However, after hearing fellow teachers raving on about how well it works, I gave it another go. This time I allowed extra time at the beginning to explain the technique and ensured each person in the group had a job to do. For example, one person might have to find images they liked/disliked in the poem. Each student had something different and at the end of class they came back and explained it to their group. Again, group work took the fear away from the activity and the fear away from Poetry.

As mentioned above, last year I loved the students performing Drama as did they. According to Albalawi (2014), “using drama to explore poetry can result in higher comprehension”. When I grew this year with Poetry, I also tried to bring Drama in with it to make the poems feel more alive. As Benjamin Franklin says “tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” (Albalawi, 2014).  I broke the students into groups or pairs depending on the size of the poem and they broke the poem down into a script. It was an interesting approach to Poetry as it built on the student’s prior knowledge and I could clearly see what groups did or did not understand the poem. It also gave me the opportunity to go around to each group and help them when needed. Students need involvement in the classroom to learn. Drama gives both teachers and students involvement in the learning process. Even though this methodology worked really well in my class, Albalawi (2014) states “teachers using this technique need to consider poetry that matches their students’ language skills, ages, and interests”. Poetry aids students to develop empathy and lose prejudice and when you add Drama as a methodology to teach Poetry it allows students to be “able to express themselves in ways other than through words” (Albalawi, 2014).

To conclude, Poetry can be seen as frightening for both teachers and students at first. The essay shows how far I have come from year one PME to now and as mentioned above, the difference is miles apart. Once teachers open up to the idea of Poetry and try out new active methodologies they will definitely not look back. Teachers also have the role to open student’s eyes to Poetry in a positive and enjoyable way and once they do all their misconceptions of Poetry will disappear. We saw how important Poetry is as it allows students to express themselves in a different and safe way. It also challenges their imagination and intelligence. There are many active methodologies that teachers can use when teaching Poetry. Some I have mentioned above are graphic organisers, images, role play, sensory experiment, and listening to Poetry. These are just some methodologies I have tried this year and it is only the beginning for me. There are different methodologies which work better for students with autism or dyslexia for example. This shows how important it is to try out new methodologies and to include everyone. Reflective practice is an important factor that contributes to teacher development and we can see how important this is when you look at my year one PME to now.

Reference List:

  • Aguilar, E. Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools. 2013. <https://www.edutopia.org/blog/five-reasons-poetry-needed-schools-elena-aguilar >.(accessed 31 October 2018).
  • Albalawi, B. “Effectiveness of Teaching English Subject using Drama on the Development of Students’ Creative Thinking. .” IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education. (2014): 54-63.
  • Albalawi, K., Performing Poetry: Using Drama to Increase the Comprehension of Poetry. 2014. <http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/WW_PerformPoetry.pdf>.(accessed 31 October 2018).
  • Carry, D. Visual Literact: Using Images to Increase Comprehension. n.d. <https://readingrecovery.org/images/pdfs/Conferences/NC09/Handouts/Carry_Visual_Literacy.pdf>.(accessed 31 October 2018).
  • Curriculum Online. English. 2018. https://www.curriculumonline.ie/Junior-cycle/Junior-Cycle-Subjects/English. (accessed 31 October 2018).
  • Fisher, J and Schumaker, B. “Searching for validated inclusive practices: A review of literature. .” Focus on Exceptional Children. (1995): 1-20.
  • Loughran, J., “Effective Reflective Practice: In Search of Meaning in Learning about Teaching.” Journal of Teacher Education. (2002): 33-43.
  • Mindtools. Active Listening. 2018. <https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm>.(accessed 30 October 2018).
  • NewSpring Academy. The Importance of Using Images in Teaching. 2018. <https://medium.com/@NewSpringAcademy>.(accessed 31 October 2018).
  • PDST. Active Learning Methodologies. 2018. <http://www.pdst.ie/sites/default/files/teaching%20toolkit%20booklet%20without%20keyskills_0.pdf>.(accessed 30 October 2018).


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