Poetry in the schoolroom
I just read on the Guardian website that the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced plans to make learning verse compulsory in primary schools (first school). There’s a ‘complete the verse’ quiz to see how much poetry we remember as adults that we were made to learn as young children. I scored 8 out 10 on this quiz just by reading the preceding lines and guessing. Although we were taught poetry, made to learn and recite it, none of the poems we covered are in the quiz.
So. Do I like and appreciate reading and writing poems because I was made to learn it at school? No. I was writing them from the moment I could put a sentence together on paper. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins – family – taught me nursery rhymes that were fun and appealing and soon I wanted to make up my own. I had to learn new words to make rhymes. I had to learn spelling too, which I mostly did, shock-horror, by reading. Again my family encouraged me to read.
When the subject of poetry came up in the schoolroom, at first I was enthusiastic – it had always been fun in my personal experience. Oh, boy. You will take home and learn the first verse of Wordsworth’s Daffodils.. Ok, that’s easy enough. The next day, we will recite the first verse of Wordsworth’s Daffodils together. Ok, I learned it, that should be fine. Not fine. I remembered it. Most of the class remembered it. Some didn’t. Some of them hated it and didn’t bother. Some of them got half way through and fell flat. Some of them didn’t get beyond the first few words. We all remembered the last word was daffodils. Did we stop? No. Say it again and again until everyone gets it right. Can I cry yet?
What this achieved was not the learning of an art form, a thing to be appreciated. What it achieved was the turning of poetry into a chore, a thing to associate with intense boredom and frustration as a result of reading it. I still can’t sit and read a lot of it without feeling there must be something more productive I could be doing. I still can remember the very beginning of Daffodils, but not the subsequent verses that I learned in the weeks after the mass boredom event.
Later on it came to critical appreciation time. I hated that too. Who am I to say what was going through someone’s mind when they wrote their great and famous poem that really isn’t all that great but is in all the books? Comments from the teacher showed he didn’t accurately surmise what was going through my mind when I wrote the poem I handed in last week. Why should I take his word, then, when he marks my appreciation? How can you put tick or a cross on perception? But ticks and crosses there were. My interpretation of something you didn’t write so couldn’t possibly know the reason of, is wrong?
What did that achieve, then? Well, when I read poetry, I’m averse to looking for the meaning, even though no-one’s going to tell me that what it means to me is wrong. Unless of course I decide to blog my reaction. It was like posting your honest review of book and someone marking it unhelpful. Why? Because I took away something different from it than you did? No two people read the same book, the same poem, hear the same song. Art is subjective and I guess that takes me full circle back to yesterday’s post about word counts.
What would I do differently? I’d get kids to read and maybe even act out some simple poems suited to their age. To see them as well as hear them. Maybe smell them too, knowing some kids! I’d let them see for themselves how a poem works, let them know it’s the next step up from nursery rhymes, make them feel like they’re going through a life experience by finding poetry. Then I’d ask them to write their own using sights and sounds and if necessary smells. It has to be made about them, not about some flouncy piece of writing from centuries ago. I’d ask them to read out their poems, pin them on the wall where everyone could read them then I’d get everyone to vote anonymously for the best one and I’d give a prize. Maybe a book of children’s poems or a CD of them.
For the older kids, I’d show them some examples of critical appreciation and I pick contrasting ones on the same piece so that they could easily see there is no write and wrong. If I felt they’d missed an obvious point I’d explain that you haven’t got to lose sight of the woods for the trees. If I didn’t get what they were driving at, I’d tell them that’s something I hadn’t thought of, it would be nice if you’d explained a bit more about what you were thinking. I’d certainly not make a cross in red pen and leave it at that.
As a teacher I’d no doubt make a lot of work and some expense for myself, but I’d try to think outside the box, the box being the classroom. How can I make this applicable to life for them? Tell them it’s great, on a rainy day to sit by the window reading poetry while you have a hot drink. Tell them that really songs are poems with a soundtrack and a slightly different pattern to make them catchy. When they’re older, tell them life is a poem with its rhythms and subtleties and it’s enigmatic meaning that’s different for everyone.
I’d be a great teacher but for one thing – I have no tolerance for unruly behaviour, whoever it may be. Miss Jekyll becoming Miss Hyde, although a great link into a lesson plan on Victorian literature, might not work out for the best.
Try that quiz and see how you do!