Throughout the last term, I have been employed four days a week as a spoken word educator at a secondary school in Newham, London. With the intention of bridging the “disconnect between the lives of youth and their educational activities” (Sparks and Grochowski 2002: 15), the Spoken Word Education Programme was piloted in London in 2012 by Chicago poet Peter Kahn, who was “the world’s first full-time poetry spoken word educator to be embedded in a school” (Bearder 2014: 22). As one of the second year’s cohort of educators, I have been lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to devise and deliver my own schemes of work. I have been granted almost total autonomy in this respect: unencumbered by formal ‘learning objectives’ and mark schemes, I have been free to formulate my own poetics and pedagogy. It is no secret that students are often unenthused by the idea of poetry. The purpose of this paper, then, is to explore the effects that my work as a spoken word educator has thus far had on the students I have come into contact with, with respect to their perceptions of poetry.
It is well documented that spoken word can have a transformative effect on students’ lives generally, putting paid to W.H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen”. Pete Bearder, one of the original cohort of London-based spoken word educators, remarks that becoming involved with spoken word “has helped people out of prison sentences, gang violence, drugs and suicide” (2014: 22), whilst Sparks and Grochowski (2002: 2) note that it “facilitates identity development for many disenfranchised youth”, highlighting the fact that “spoken word has a long and complex history influenced by hip hop music and culture”. I come from a different perspective. Whilst I borrow elements of Peter Kahn’s pedagogy – which focuses primarily on confessional life-writing – my background is that of a children’s poet and performer rather than a hip hop artist. I am thus keen to square the more ‘hard hitting’ elements of spoken word with the kind of language play encouraged by the likes of Kenneth Koch, as well as the comic poetry of artists such as Paul Lyalls. My concern in this paper is therefore not with the educative effects of spoken word per se, but rather with my unique synthesis of some of poetry’s disparate elements.
The school in which I have been embedded, whilst relatively highly performing academically – 69% of students gained at least five GCSEs at grade C or better in 2014 – bears some of the hallmarks of the ‘disenfranchised youth’ mentioned above. The school is a multicultural, fully comprehensive girls’ secondary school in Newham, East London, which is “one of the most deprived areas in the country” (LEA 2010: 7). 45% of pupils at the school are currently in receipt of the Pupil Premium Grant, whilst 48% of pupils over the past six years have been eligible for free school meals. Furthermore, the 2011 census revealed Newham as having the highest percentage of Muslims in Britain, at 35%. This is borne out in the demographics of the school, the overwhelming majority of whose pupils come from Muslim Asian backgrounds, specifically from the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi communities. 92% of students at the school do not speak English as a first language (although almost all of the pupils with whom I worked had a highly competent grasp of it).
Shain, in her comprehensive study on the schooling of Asian girls in Britain, rails against their being stereotyped as “passive, shy, docile and timid” (2003: 32). Despite this, the school’s Assistant Head remarks that “our observations suggest that for a large majority of our students, freedom of expression is not always promoted in the home.” The vibrant community I experienced upon entering the school is perhaps indicative of the dichotomous “in school/out of school” relationship discussed by Dimitriadis (2001), except in this case the poles are reversed, with school positioned as liberating rather than restrictive. Once again, Shain (2003: 2) urges caution against such a stereotype, but in the specific case of the school in question great lengths are gone to to promote the kind of creativity, wellbeing and freedom of expression the Assistant Head perceives as missing at home. A well-organised Pastoral Team and Learning Support Unit are in place, and a variety of extracurricular clubs and activities are available to students. A 2008 Ofsted report notes that the school “is a happy and harmonious place”, and the school’s willingness to employ a spoken word educator is further evidence of their desire to enhance their pupils’ learning experience.
Within the school, the work under discussion took place with a Year 7 English class and a Year 8 English class, over the course of several weeks. All classes at the school are mixed ability, with a broad range represented in each of the classes I worked with, including two SEN students in the Year 8 class. Years 7 and 8 are in many respects ripe for the kind of ‘hybrid’ approach I mentioned at the outset: at 11-13 years of age, they have accrued enough life experience and opinions to make Peter Kahn’s confessional approach worthwhile, whilst (hopefully) still retaining an openness to Koch’s approach, which is famous for having been used with primary school children. Thus, whilst the nature of the school in which I have been embedded inevitably limits the scope of my data, my research takes place within a setting where, by dint of their ages, students are primed to benefit from my approach. I will now elucidate such an approach by providing some background to the issues at hand.
Perceptions of Poetry
A recent report into the future of English in the curriculum remarks that “secondary students’ views about poetry are somewhat negative” (QCA 2005: 21). The perception among many students of poetry’s elitism is somewhat enduring, as has been noted by Baldwin (1959), Benton (1986), Leonard (1975) and Marsh (1988). Tunnicliffe (1984: 5) notes that, for many, poetry is seen as “esoteric, solitary, bookish stuff.” Peck (1988: 1) explains this with the acknowledgment that “a great deal of poetry is hard to understand”, claiming furthermore that “this fact, that a poem does not directly state its meaning, is the fundamental thing that makes poetry, and the analysis of poetry, difficult” (78). Fleming (1996: 37), drawing on his experience working with poetry in the classroom, observes: “I was struck by the number of pupils who claimed that they found poetry difficult, and that this in part was the source of their antipathy to it.” This is corroborated by Dymoke (2009: 78), who argues that “its language and imagery can contribute to the idea that poetry is a difficult, problematic and challenging medium.” She makes the further observation that “the notion of poetry as a puzzle is, sadly in my experience, a common perception among students (and their teachers) who engage in a hunt for the missing clue which will help them solve the poem” (Dymoke 2003: 3).
It is inevitable that a teacher’s attitude will influence those of her students. Cliff Yates, himself both a poet and former teacher, admits: ““when I started teaching I was uneasy about showing pupils how to write poems” (Yates 1999: x). Tunnicliffe (1984: 3) likewise expresses the view that “it is commonplace for English teachers to feel uneasy, bewildered or even embarrassed by the idea of teaching poetry to kids”, locating a potential source of this unease in society’s tendency to reduce language to “the drudge status of a means to an end – usually in our world the acquisition of possessions or cash” (5). Dymoke (2009: 83) concurs, observing that “for many [teachers], the utilitarian functions of poetry as a servant of language and assessment are uppermost in their minds”, whilst Benton (2010: 81), in a recent survey, likewise notes teachers’ concerns regarding “the effects of the National Curriculum and of SATs on their teaching [of poetry].” This may well lead in many cases to “didactic teaching methods” (QCA 2005: 21) and “a premature emphasis on analysis” at the expense of “experiencing poems fully” (Fleming 1996: 42). In other words, the “perceived demands of assessment” leads to a situation where “English in the classroom is rather remote from the world outside” (QCA 2005: 6); pupils are not given enough opportunity to express themselves and their perceptions of the world as they experience it. In the light of this, it can be argued that “our teaching of poetry should be directed towards lifting it out of its academic featherbed into a world of our pupils and our own experience” (Tunnicliffe 1984: 6).
Spoken Word in the Classroom
The 2005 QCA report notes furthermore that “the vast majority of English teachers… want greater autonomy to exercise their own judgment about how to engage students’ interest in literature” (QCA 2005: 20). The role of a spoken word educator is different from that of a teacher in part because of this greater degree of autonomy. Indeed, many such educators see their role as dialogic, in the sense that they are using their autonomy to facilitate a similar autonomy among their students – as Weiss and Herndon (2001: xvii) note, “[w]hatever teenagers are saying, we want to hear it.” And of course they mean literally saying and hearing, in the face of the “massive bias in our education system towards written communication at the expense of verbal communication” (QCA 2005: 8).
As was alluded to in the Introduction, Weiss and Herndon (2001: xix) go on to claim that teenagers’ “natural alacrity for spoken word is no doubt linked to the prevalent influence of hip hop culture”, a culture that, in a classroom context, Mahiri (1998: 55) sees as emancipatory in the light of “the systematic absence of representation of youth”. Bearder (2014: 22) thus sees himself as challenging the prevalent view that “poetry belongs to someone else”, noting furthermore that “[f]or the maligned kids, the pen can really become a pipeline to flammable substance” (24). This echoes Kelley’s (2002: 9) talk of “the poetics of struggle and lived experience”, as well as Stovall’s (2006: 63) observation that teaching spoken word is a “libratory, conscious-raising, politicized process”. Some ‘hard hitting’ poetry can often result: Fisher (2007: 3) observes that, in her classes, “[s]tudents sometimes wrote of the pervasive poverty and violence on their ‘blocks’”, whilst Bearder (2014: 23) speaks of his spoken word classes as “emotional events, full of revelation, tears and supportive applause”. This can be extremely therapeutic for students. Ofsted (2007: 7) acknowledges that “in a poem you can express emotions… You can confide in a poem, it relieves the stress.” Bearder (2014: 22) himself goes even further, referring to the following remarkable claim of one of Peter Kahn’s ex-students: “Mr. Kahn has not only taught me how to write, but he has taught me how to value myself and my future.”
It is hard to quibble with such obviously transformative work. Many, however, have commented on the playful aspect of poetry, as well as its social and emotional elements. In a recent study, Myhill (2013: 49) states that “[o]f all the writing genres, poetry is perhaps the most amenable to creative and playful exploitation of the potentialities of language”. She goes on to explain this in terms of “experimenting with the possibilities” (53) of words. More comprehensively, Mattenklott (1996: 15) cashes out the notion of ‘play’ as follows:
“it is, on the one hand, something predefined and complete, a complex set of rules, usually including game materials such as cards, a board game, figures, dice, and so on; on the other hand, play is also something with an infinite number of possibilities, a self-renewing process following predefined rules, during the course of which the rules themselves can be modified, elaborated or eliminated.”
Take, for example, Koch’s (1970) famous exercise in which primary school pupils were tasked with writing poems using ‘I wish’ at the beginning of each line. This exercise is playful in Mattenklott’s sense: Koch provides the ‘rules’, which serve as scaffolding within which ‘an infinite number of possibilities’ are present. Lyalls’ (2014: 33) poem ‘What If’, a repetition-based piece containing lines such as “What if my mum was an invisible sausage?” can similarly be used as a model, which is playful in the additional sense of actively encouraging ‘wacky’ ideas. Crucial to both exercises is that there are no right or wrong answers; students’ imaginations are let loose “without teacher judgments or interventions” (Spiro 2013: 98). This can be seen as another route to the outcome Bearder acknowledged above: for the students, it is no longer the case that poetry belongs to someone else – “now it belongs to them” (Koch 1970: 53).
We have, then, looked into the backgrounds of two distinct approaches to poetry, both of which have a documented effect on how students perceive the genre. My own approach combines these two elements. In order to explore the impact that my work as a spoken word educator has had, I conducted semi-structured interviews with seven Year 7 pupils, drawn from among the class that I worked with. I also interviewed their English teacher, who sat in on all of the sessions, as well as a PGCE student who was likewise present throughout the process. The Year 7 students whom I chose to interview were selected on the basis that they had all performed one of the poems created in my sessions in front of their entire year group. They were selected for this latter task via an informal ‘competition’, conducted during their final session with me, in which I served as the judge. Thus, in a sense these students were preselected on the basis of their poetic competence, although I was and remain unaware of the grades that they usually get in English lessons. It remains to be seen whether their aptitude for poetry was an inclination present before my work with them, or whether it was fostered as a result of such work. The questions we explored in the interviews were as follows:
· How did you feel performing your poem?
· How do you think the audience responded to your poem?
· What did you want to communicate?
· Is there a particular line or image in your poem that stands out for you, and why?
· Why did you choose that poem to perform?
· What did you think about poetry before the sessions with Josh?
· How (if at all) have the sessions changed your view of poetry?
· Do you think you will write more poems in the future? If so, what might they be about?
My research with Year 8 was conducted using questionnaires that were distributed, at the end of the final session, to every pupil in the class, rather than merely to a select group among them. I felt that this would enable me to gain a wider perspective, and thus to bear out Merriam’s (2002: 12) observation, with respect to qualitative research, that “multiple methods enhance the validity of the findings.” The Year 8 students were asked the following questions:
· What did you think about poetry before the lessons with Josh?
· Did the lessons change your view of poetry? If so, how?
· What was your favourite part of the lessons, and why?
· Were there any parts of the lessons you didn’t like?
· What did you think about performing your poems for the class?
· Do you think you will write more poems in the future? What might they be about?
Throughout the process, all BERA guidelines were adhered to. Students were given the option of stating their name on the questionnaire, but it was emphasised that this was not compulsory (only four students in the class did so). Furthermore, students were informed of the purpose of the research, and, following guidelines discussed by Heath et al (2007: 412-414), were given the opportunity to abstain from it should they so choose (none did). As well as ensuring confidentiality, the anonymity afforded to students was important in minimising the temptation to give answers that they thought I would want, and it is notable that those students who did provide their names were fairly effusive in their praise.
My research falls within the bracket of what Merriam calls a ‘basic interpretive qualitative study’. As well as interviews and questionnaires, I also draw on researcher-generated documents in the form of the poems themselves, all of which coalesces to help us “understand and make sense of phenomena from the participant’s perspective” (Merriam 2002: 6). However, there are limitations to the research. For example, Cohen et al (2007: 375) note that “group interviewing with children enables them to challenge each other and participate in a way that may not happen in a one-to-one, adult-child interview.” In the light of this, were I to conduct the study again I would look into doing group interviews.
Practicalities within the classes also determined that the majority of the data were collected at the culmination of the series of sessions, rather than throughout the process as recommended by Merriam (2002: 14). This also means that there are no baseline data to go on, other than what students retrospectively say about their prior perception of poetry. Whilst it may be that my poetry lessons were so transformative as to cause students to confabulate with respect to their past perceptions, it may also be that their engagement with poetry in my sessions was helpful in enabling them to articulate what they would previously have had trouble expressing. Either way, establishing a set of baseline data would be useful in any future study of the areas explored herein.
Perceptions of Poetry
It is clear from the data that, whilst by no means universally derided, students’ perceptions of poetry before my sessions were less than enthusiastic. ‘Boring’ was by far the most common epithet applied to poetry, reflecting a general lack of interest in the notion. A number of students located the source of this disinterest in a perceived lack of exposure to poetry, with one student proclaiming that “we didn’t do any poetry before Josh”, and another stating that “I didn’t really know about poetry that much.” Given the specifications of the curriculum it is highly unlikely that these students, both of whom are in Year 8, have had no exposure to poetry in school. Whilst it may be that, after my poetry sessions, nothing else was deemed worthy of the term, it is far more likely that any previous experiences with poetry were simply highly unengaging and forgettable for the students in question. Another student seems to corroborate this with the claim that she didn’t like poetry “because the teacher didn’t know what to talk about.” Indeed, Alex, a PGCE student who was present throughout the sessions, refers to the poetry training on his own course as a fairly cursory “whistle-stop ride”. For many of the students, it seems, poetry had similarly whistled by unnoticed.
A second strand among the responses relates to poetry’s being difficult, complicated or otherwise inaccessible. Sue, an experienced Year 7 English teacher, observed that many students come to poetry with the preconceptions that poetry is “very, very difficult”, that it is “something of a code”, and that it is for “people other than them.” This was borne out in the responses of several students, and, interestingly, was the prevalent view even among those who went on to have their poems selected for performance in front of their year group, one of whom referred to poetry’s being “complicated to write”. Other students respectively claimed that poetry was “really confusing” and that “I hated poetry because I thought I was not good at it.”
Meaning, Depth and Confidence
As we saw above, spoken word is notable for giving students the opportunity to open up about their lives. In exploring the effects that my sessions had on the students’ perceptions of poetry, it became clear that several students were impacted in particular by those sessions that dealt with themes such as emotions and identity. One student claimed that my sessions changed her view of poetry by making her realise that poems can “help express how you feel”, as opposed to simply being “boring” as she had previously thought. Notably, a similar effect was present even for one student who professed previously to like poetry: whereas before the sessions she thought poetry was merely “fun”, she now thought there was “meaning and depth” to it. Another student said that, whilst she previously viewed poetry as “so boring”, she now viewed it as an important tool in “thinking about my life”. Similarly, when asked about possible topics for future writing, many responded with things such as “memories”, “experiences”, “my family”, “my life” and “things I actually care about”. Here we see Kahn’s approach bearing fruit: student’s own lived experiences are validated as having genuine poetic potential, a potential that can lead in turn to a reassessment of those very experiences. This kind of reassessment led one student to state that “I saw a side of me that I had never seen before.” It is not merely the case that her perspective on poetry had shifted; her views on her own identity had changed as well. In the words of Sparks and Grochowski, her ‘identity development’ had been ‘facilitated’.
Interestingly, the student in question went on to say that she wouldn’t write poems in the future “because I am going to have no one to read them to.” This, whilst somewhat heartbreaking, highlights the important performative and communal aspect of the work I undertook with the students. As we saw above, spoken word is by definition about saying and hearing, and several students highlighted the sharing of their poems as their favourite part of the sessions. One student went on to say that, as a result of this process, “I am more confident now”, with another claiming that “I thought I would be shy, but I was OK with it”. Almost all of the Year 7 students I interviewed went from varying degrees of shyness and reluctance to confidence and pride after having performed their poems in front of an audience, in one case by dint of “seeing my friends give me thumbs up.” And being in the audience was important for students as well: “I didn’t perform anything in front of the class”, one student states, “but it was nice to hear other poems. It gave me ideas.”
Sadly, the communal element implied by this latter claim was not borne out in all the responses. Three students in the Year 8 class picked up on what they perceived as ‘favouritism’ on my part. It is notable that one student wrote that she liked “sharing poems, because I always got to read my poems” (emphasis added), with another student noting that “listening to other poets’ poems” was her least favourite part of the sessions. There were some dominant personalities within the class, and it seems that in their eagerness they may have crowded out the voices of others. Whilst it pains me that the inclusive nature of spoken word was not extended to all the students, I seek solace in the fact that those students who felt left out at least had something to say, and wanted to perform their work. Such students evidently came to believe that ‘poetry belongs to them’, and it is up to me as a practitioner to find ways of including their voices.
Fun and Imagination
The playful element of my sessions had an impact both on those students who previously thought poetry was boring, and on those who believed it to be difficult. Just as “boring” was the most common adjective previously, so “fun” became the most common subsequently. Furthermore, one student wrote that, whilst she had previously viewed poetry as “complicated”, she now views it as “simple to write”. She went on to claim that “the activities to get us started to write the poems” was her favourite part of the lessons. In these warm ups I tried to find ways to unleash students’ imaginations, and several students said they were the best part of the sessions, with one stating that “I like poetry now after the warm ups we did. Now I know that poetry is about your imagination, and you can write about anything.” Notably, several students echoed Dymoke (2009: 88) in likening these exercises to games, with one student claiming that “playing the word games” was her favourite part of the sessions. This was in contrast to her previous experiences of poetry, which were rendered boring by the constant “planning and redrafts.”
One student apparently struggled to see the meaning behind the activities in question, claiming that “these lessons showed me that poetry is just a bunch of random ideas put together.” However, for the majority of students the ideas generated did not seem to be merely ‘random’. One student valued the playful element of my sessions because it enabled her to experiment with simile and metaphor, which she acknowledged to be important tools in writing generally. Many students perceived freedom rather than randomness, with one stating “you can write poetry about anything you want”. The Year 7 students, when asked “is there a particular line or image in your poem that stands out for you?” almost all picked a line that had been generated during one of the Koch-inspired exercises. Among these lines were gems such as
· “I can see the streetlights blinking at me, signalling me to join”
· “Being left out feels like a sour orange giving me a shock”
· “My emotion tastes like a bomb in my mouth, burning into a fire”
· “Poetry is a strong love like the swans”
One student said that she valued the opportunity to write lines such as these because “there is no right or wrong answer”, whilst another claimed that she liked them because they enabled her to write about “exotic” things. At any rate, for many students the playful element of my sessions was clearly efficacious in enabling them freely to use their imaginations, and thus to overcome the view that poetry is boring and difficult.
Whilst we can see that my sessions had a demonstrable impact on many of the students, it is important not to overstate the findings. Five students in the Year 8 class claimed that my sessions only changed their views of poetry “a bit”, whilst two students in the class, along with one in the Year 7 class, claimed to have liked poetry all along. Two students in the Year 8 class said that, even after the sessions, they still disliked poetry. Interestingly, these were the two SEN students. Both of these students were assisted by Learning Mentors in class, and neither was given differentiated tasks. I intended the activities to be accessible to all abilities, but clearly this was not the case, at least below a certain threshold. Whilst it is likely that their antipathy extends beyond poetry to school generally, adapting the sessions for SEN students would surely be a worthwhile area for future research.
Spoken word educators are not miracle workers. Not every student will experience a seismic shift, or indeed any kind of shift, in their perceptions of poetry. Nonetheless, such educators are in a somewhat unique position. Unlike visiting freelance poets they get to work with a group of students over an extended period of time, and unlike teachers they have autonomy over their curriculum. Throughout this project I have thus been able to work across several lessons, and to combine and experiment with different approaches. It is clear from the data that these approaches, to varying degrees, helped effect changes in students’ perceptions of poetry. Whereas previously poetry was viewed largely as boring and difficult, students came to realise that it could be fun, simple and meaningful to their lives.
The study has important implications both for my own practice, and for poetry education more generally. One student wrote that she now likes poetry because “Josh made it fun”, but there is a flipside to this: the aforementioned perceptions of favouritism, and the continued resistance of the SEN students, are obvious areas for me to address on a personal level. These observations reveal something crucial about the whole project. Poetry (and teaching, for that matter) does not happen in a vacuum: the attitude of the person facilitating the tasks may be as important in shaping students’ views as the tasks themselves. We saw above that students’ resistance to poetry may stem from a kind of resistance on the part of their teachers. Surely, then, a worthwhile endeavour would be to put teachers through their paces with the activities that this study showed were efficacious with respect to the students. Recall Tunnicliffe’s quote from above: “our teaching of poetry should be directed towards lifting it out of its academic featherbed into a world of our pupils and our own experience”. Notice now the added emphasis. The point here is that spoken word education can speak to teachers as much as pupils. As Sue, the Year 7 English teacher, said in interview: “you have educated me.”
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