Teaching poetry can sometimes feel like you’re not teaching poetry. This is because you can often be left feeling as if you are telling your pupils what to say about a poem and they are merely receiving your ideas and interpretations. For any of you who have taught Duffy’s 'Head of English', you’ll understand the irony of this approach when teaching this poem (which I suffered recently!).
There is a definite struggle in terms of allowing pupils to be free to interpret poems as they want; allowing them to just enjoy poetry; but then also the very real spectre of the dreaded exam looming not too far off in the distant future. Even at KS3 we find ourselves ‘preparing’ pupils for how to respond to poetry at KS4 & KS5.
So how do you teach poetry in a way that both allows for individual creativity and engagement, but that also ensures the skills needed for success at GCSE are also taught?
I think that the word ‘skills’ here is the key. We should be teaching the skills pupils need in order to respond to poetry, rather than simply teaching individual poems.
Here are some of the ways I have tried to promote independence in my pupils, so they are able to respond to and analyse poems with less input from me.
- Initial readings:
With the initial reading of a poem, I allow pupils to take the time to read, re-read and then brainstorm ideas on what they think the poem is about. If they find this difficult, I ask them to ‘track the story’ which just means that they break the poem down and look at what is happening stanza by stanza. By writing mini summaries alongside the poem, this helps them to join the ideas together and think about the poem as whole.
Feelings and ideas: after their initial reading, I also ask them to write down any feelings that they themselves have or that they feel are expressed within the poem. I find that the more notes they have, the better equipped they are to start analysing in depth later on.
I may also give pupils guiding questions depending on how difficult the poem is or how much scaffolding is needed.
Quite often, I start the lesson with a debate or pose questions that are linked to the themes of the poem. I find that this is a useful introduction to the poem and acts as a nice segue into their first reading of it.
· The teaching of devices:
Before we begin looking at poetry, I ensue pupils are familiar with the different poetic devices and may even do some matching games and fun activities with them based around this. This means that pupils feel they have a bank of devices they understand and can look for in a poem without being guided by me. I also ask pupils to keep this list in their books so they can refer to it when they need to. It is also a good revision tool!
I also ensure that I chunk analysis so pupils aren’t always tasked with looking at a whole poem at once - which may be overwhelming. Sometimes I will give pupils one line or stanza and ask them to identify as many devices as they can. This helps pupils to become familiar with the thought process involved as well as giving them a structure which they can repeat later on. Quite often, if they remember the process of how to identify devices, they can associate that with all future tasks and are then able to approach this task independently.
- Dual coding:
I’m a huge fan of dual coding and am starting to use this more and more in my lessons. Lately, I have found that by using symbols and icons throughout a scheme of work, pupils are more able to identify the skills needed in a task and then use them. For example, if they see the brain/cog symbol they know they must think about the text and interpret meaning. They are then immediately ready to begin this task without much input from me.
- ‘How To’ sheets:
I created these sheets after one of my Y11s requested them. She asked if the prompt and guidance I was explaining in lesson, could be in one central place that they could access whenever they needed it: either in the lesson or at home. I thought this was a sensible request and thus the ‘How To’ sheets were born! I have now created these for most aspects of both the Language and Literature courses and use them equally across KS4 and KS5. For KS3 I have condensed these into more fun 'How To' cards.
I always start a new poetry unit by modelling my own process when approaching a poem. Pupils find this extremely useful and I find that it helps with their confidence when responding to a poem. I particularly find that they are most engaged when I model how to select interesting parts of a poem and then do an in-depth analysis of meaning and how to analyse devices.
- Making links between other literature units:
This is also where the ‘How To’ sheets become even more useful. Many of the skills needed for the interpretation and analysis of poetry are used elsewhere and have most likely already been taught. I therefore make constant links between units and tasks so pupils can see that analysing a metaphor in a novel is not that different from analysing a metaphor in a poem. I feel that the ‘How To’ sheets reinforce this as they are all very similar and encourage pupils to follow the same steps and use the same skills.
Everything in my Literature classes is linked to ‘what, how, why’…I will admit that I’m obsessed. I even found myself really hammering this home in my online lesson with my Year 9s this morning. I think this is such a good basis to any form of analysis and it really helps pupils to move through their interpretation of a text and build upon their analysis in stages.
- How to comment on a technique
This is very much linked to the ‘what, how, why’ approach and gives pupils a basis from which to comment on the devices they find in poetry. I either create tasks based upon questions, steps or layers. I ensure that I keep these steps or guides the same so as to avoid confusion and once again, this creates a great link between different units.
- Pair / group work
Building confidence through talk – sometimes its nice for pupils to just talk about a poem without the requirement to make notes. When we do activities like this, we only make notes when groups share ideas with the rest of the class, and in this way we can also all join in a discussion and make decisions about what we record.
Build upon each others’ analysis – this is a favourite of mine and makes its way into almost all of my units of work. I give pupils a quotation and give them 3 minutes to make notes, then they pass the paper along and repeat 3 more times. Each time they pass the paper they must read the previous notes and see what they can add. I usually have ideas on the board e.g message, device, word choice, interpretation etc so pupils can keep checking what is left to make notes on. The final products are often quite impressive, and pupils can then sit in groups and go through some of the responses and discuss the ideas and points made.
Walk around and discuss – I’m sure my classes hate me for this, but I’m a big believer in the value of talk. Therefore this task makes its way into my lessons every week! I give pupils a small task such as: 'what can you say about the use of metaphor in the poem?' Once they have answered, I ask them to walk around the room and speak to as many people as possible and add to their own notes. Once they have had time to share, they are then ready to go back to their seats and complete an independent write up.
- Always give time and opportunity for independent analysis
As well as pair and group work, it is important to give pupils time to reflect independently on a poem. Therefore, I ensure there are plenty of opportunities for pupils to do some in depth work on poems by themselves. However, I always place a task like this at a point where I feel they are confident enough to do so: this is usually after a group or pair task where they have already practised some of these skills.
- What else can you say?
This is my way of prompting pupils to offer different interpretations of a poem and I often ask them to try and make more than one interpretation of what a poem/line/image/word may mean. I have found that this works best when pupils are given a bank of ‘extender’ words such as ‘this could also suggest’, ‘the poet is trying to’, ‘alternatively the use of…could suggest…’ In my lessons I refer to this as 'layering' and have had some very positive responses to this task...pupils have even started to give the target of 'you need to layer your interpretation' when giving peer feedback. Success!
Here are some poetry guides I made for both anthology and unseen poetry.
I really hope that the ideas in this blog prove to be helpful the next time you approach poetry with your pupils. Let me know if you have any questions!