Learning to Love Teaching Poetry

National Poetry Month Display @ Forest Hills

National Poetry Month Display @ Forest Hills (Photo credit: mySAPL)

  Hands up those of you who LOVE teaching poetry.  Yes, that’s what I thought.  You didn’t see my hand up.

            It’s not that I dislike poetry or didn’t want my students to learn to love it; the problem was that I couldn’t think of a way to teach it well enough that the kids would learn what poetry really is and come away with some appreciation, if not some liking for it.

          I experimented.

MOON, SPOON, JUNE — OUCH!

            Ask a kid or even an adult to write a poem and you will get something in which the music of the words and even the sense have been mutilated in order to squeeze in rhymes, rather like the ugly sisters trying on the glass slippers.  It isn’t poetry.

What I learned when I experimented

            Rather than give you whole units, I am going to tell you a couple of stories of how I stumbled upon two different ways of teaching poetry.  The first is a story of integrating two subjects and a new teacher who was getting bored with the necessary rote practice of teaching cursive writing.

I made it myself (Sotakeit)

I made it myself (Sotakeit) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

            The first class I ever had was a 3/4 split.  The primary consultant was very reassuring.  She urged me to focus on numeracy and literacy and not worry about the other subjects too much.  She was a stickler for writing, however.  My class was small and she felt that there was no reason why I couldn’t write a sample of the next day’s lesson in each child’s notebook, as well as putting it on chart paper.  There were only eighteen kids.

Cursed with cursive writing

            I obediently found a book on cursive writing and set off to teach it. We worked diligently through the letters of the alphabet, the capital letters, how to join letters and other difficulties.  I was getting bored.  I knew that my students needed practice but I thought that they would appreciate something different.

Lewis Carroll to the rescue

A scene from "", by Lewis Carroll, d...

A scene from “”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

             I pulled out The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll.  It is a wonderful bit of nonsense and was a favourite of mine.  At the rate we would be writing it, I reckoned we would be able to learn any difficult vocabulary.  I put the first stanza on the chart paper and immediately ran into a problem.

Learning the conventions of written poetry

            My students did not know any of the conventions of written poetry.  They did not know that one line did not carry over on to the next one or that each line of verse started with a capital letter.  I also learned that they didn’t know much about the use of quotation marks.  The writing lesson became a lesson in the mechanics of verse and an introduction to punctuation.

            And then there was the vocabulary: billows, sulkily, quantities, beseech and more. I decided the best way to deal with that was to explain but also read aloud so they could hear the pronunciation and expression.  I did it, they did it and I learned that they thought they had to stop at the end of each line.

Learning that punctuation takes precedence

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

            So I explained that one used the punctuation as the signals for pauses and stops and the rhymes and rhythms would take care of themselves.  We tried again.  I read.  They read as a chorus.  A brave child volunteered to read solo.  Then another.  It became fun to see if they could remember to ignore the end of the line.

Eighteen Stanzas and What D’you Get?

            There are eighteen stanzas in The Walrus and the Carpenter.  We did a stanza a day and if you throw in holidays and assemblies and other things which disorganise a school day, we spent nearly a month on it.  I would have been weary of it but the kids made things interesting.

            Every day when it came time to read the new stanza and learn the new words and discover the way the punctuation worked, we would read the stanza together once we knew what we were doing.  Then, because it was fun and the practice helped drill what they had already learned, we started at the beginning of the poem and recited as far as we had got.  Within a week, one small spark announced she could say it from memory.  She tried and came close with a bit of coaching from her classmates.

Memory work, smoked oysters and photocopies

            This was cool.  Everyone wanted to do it.  I asked them to recite when they were sure they knew it and could recite well, with expression and obeying the punctuation marks.  This set off a lot of enthusiasm.  After a couple of days, I told them that when I was their age, I could recite the whole poem from memory.  I promised two things:

1.  When we were finished, we would have a party and I would bring smoked oysters for them to try.

2.  Anyone who could recite the whole thing would receive a photocopy of one of Tenniel’s beautiful drawings for the poem.

            I may have been weary, but my students weren’t.  What delighted me was that they could recite properly and then add in expression.  Some were better than others, of course, but they all knew how it should be done.  I know there are eighteen children who will carry that lovely bit of nonsense in their heads for the rest of their lives.

Teaching The Tyger to seven and eight year olds

William Blake's "The Tyger," publish...

William Blake’s “The Tyger,” published in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a work of Romanticism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

            The next year I had a grade 2/3 class.  I taught them William Blake’s The Tyger.  I read somewhere that you have to understand Blake’s symbols to appreciate The Tyger.  This is piffle.  The children understood it.  They didn’t understand it the way a literature major or a graduate student might, but they got the point and appreciated the language.

            There are eight stanzas of four lines apiece in The Tyger.  We took our time so the students could get past some of the archaic language.  When they recited, we focused on the awe and the questions and put those into the expression.  I brought in copies of some of Blake’s work so it became a bit of an art lesson, too.

           The children understood why Blake asks:  “Did he who made the lamb, make thee?” I drew their attention to the one word difference between the first and last stanzas:

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

            They understood the jump from could to dare, especially because they had spent the past couple of weeks reciting the drumming questions in the intervening stanzas.  Kids can understand a lot, if they are given time to mull things over and enjoy the process.

The Obvious Question:  Why on earth did I teach The Tyger? I wanted to teach a poem I liked and I thought was worth learning.  It was a bit of an experiment but I believed that this way of teaching was a stretch, but not too big a stretch for my students.  I suspected that they would feel pride in learning a grown up poem.

           I thought they would like the pictures and the story of how Blake printed them and his illiterate wife hand colour each one.  They were fascinated to learn about the way books used to be made and that if colour plates were wanted, then they had to be hand coloured.  The other reason was that I get bored easily and this seemed an interesting way of doing things for all of us.  There are enough dull things required in education that I rejoice in anything that promises to both educate and intrigue.  And this did.

What I learned:

Rote learning is not all bad.  One of children’s great cognitive strengths is memory.  If something has to be learned and rote is the way to go, find a way to lighten the load when it begins to get wearisome.

There is more to appreciating poetry than rhyme and rhythm.  It takes a while to appreciate it, so memorising poetry thoroughly may give a student an opportunity to turn it over at odd moments.

There is not only punctuation in poetry but poetry in punctuation.  This is something you can only really appreciate when you try to recite it aloud.

Teach the concrete and known aspects of poetry before you ask children to appreciate the more abstract ideas.  This goes back to a principle I learned from teaching English as a Second Language.  We used already learned vocabulary to teach new grammar and already learned grammar to teach new vocabulary.

            The expectation in grade two is that students have already learned to use the period, question mark and exclamation mark.  During grade two they add the comma and quotation marks to their repertoire.  My experience is that many spend the next six years ignoring punctuation.  This unit is a great opportunity to teach, reinforce, demonstrate the importance of and practice, practice, practice punctuation.  Punctuation is all about how the words will sound and what sense they will make, so what better way to teach it than through poetry?

             Starting with reading the poem aloud with attention to the punctuation reinforces students’ prior knowledge.  This is beautifully concrete and not intimidating.  You will allay the concerns of your more concrete thinkers.

Final lesson learned from primary students:  when you enjoy something and include the enjoyable bits with the whole picture, they will enjoy it, too.

NEXT POST:  teaching children how to write poetry.

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About Diane Scaiff

Education fascinates me as a teacher, a learner and observer. I constantly wonder why certain things work and others don't, why we are told to teach in ways that are not sound, pedagogically, when we all know better. I also wonder about the impact of teaching on teachers' lives. Does it change us? Does it affect our families? What about the effect of public perceptions of teachers and our roles in the communities? How can we be scapegoats once day and saints the next? How do we deal with this? How are students affected by these perceptions? I hope to address some of these questions and more that arise from my readers as time goes on. There may be no answers, but asking questions is important. Diane B.A. (hons), Dip R.S.A., M.A.(Ed) 25 years of teaching elementary students and adults, Qualified in ESL and adaptive education.
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