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Monday, 6 January 2014

Making Poetry Less Intimidating

I recently had an email from a teacher who told me that she, along with many of her colleagues, find teaching poetry 'intimidating'. This isn't really surprising, since poetry is often approached as though it is some kind of difficult code to be cracked by a hallowed few whose minds have somehow been enlightened. Some poetry is like this, but this is not the kind of poetry I am interested in exploring when I visit schools (or at any other time, if truth be told). I believe poetry, and the written and spoken word in general, has something to offer everyone.

Just as some teachers are intimidated by poetry, some students are paralysed by the thought of writing it. So how is one to overcome these initial barriers when it comes to exploring poetry - in particular the writing of poetry - in the classroom?

I do not have the answer, but I do have a technique that I have sometimes found helpful in encouraging students to generate work. It is basically this: start off with a warm-up exercise that has nothing to do with poetry itself but enables the flow of ideas which can then be incorporated or moulded into a poem. Try to hold off on any discussion of poetry until after this exercise has been completed.

Here is a more concrete example of the sort of thing I mean. Suppose the aim of the lesson/workshop is for each pupil to write a poem on the theme of Memory. You might start off by getting each student to write down, say, three happy memories and three sad or upsetting memories (you can start off by sharing some examples of your own if you like). Try to get them to describe the memories in as much interesting detail, and using the most interesting vocabulary that they can. Once this exercise has been completed, then have a discussion about poetry, and how these ideas might be moulded into a poem. As a poet I would probably at this point share some relevant poems of my own, but you can find some others that interest you if you want. The most important thing is that, by this point, a lot of the writing has already been done. The ideas have been laid out on paper, unencumbered by expectations as to what poetry should be, or the various technicalities regarding how to write it.

All of this is very from from revolutionary. It essentially involves approaching the writing of poetry 'through the back door' - exploring ideas before thinking about writing poems. From my experience a lot of difficulty comes from pupils being presented with a poetry writing task, and then claiming not to be able to think of any ideas. At the very least this technique should go some way to combating that. The crucial thing, I think, is not merely to engage in a brain-storming or warm-up exercise prior to writing the poems - something which I'm sure most workshop leaders do anyway - but to do this, if possible, before you have even told the pupils they will be writing poems (or, if this is not practical, before you have discussed poetry in any significant way). It may even be the case that the ideas generated by pupils take the shape of an interesting list poem of their own accord. If this does happen, then you have actively demonstrated, without any theoretical discussion, that poetry is so non-threatening as to be possible to do without even realising!