4th January 2016
There is a pleasure in poetic pains / Which only poets know.
– William Cowper
Mr Cowper got it right. Poetry does appear to involve a lot of pain: for evidence, teachers only have to listen to the collective cry of agony issuing from their classes whenever “poetry” is revealed as the subject for the day. And then, there’s the pain that inspires a lot of it, the pain it often expresses, and last but not least, the pain of having to memorise it. Ouch!
So, what if we wanted to share the pleasure that “only poets know”? One way to help children enjoy that unique tingle is to show them how they can turn the secret keys of the poem, and see how it works. With this knowledge, they need never feel bamboozled by a bard again. Instead, they will feel emboldened and empowered whenever they encounter “some words in a group where the lines don’t reach the other side of the paper”. This, by the way, is my favourite definition of poetry, provided by a Year 7 pupil in my first year of teaching many years ago.
The secret keys of the poem are its patterns. Reading a poem for patterns is only one way to read it, and yes, there will be finer nuances that may not come to light with this reading technique. But, the benefits are great. Patterns are clues to meaning and intention. Patterns highlight the important bits. Patterns give us a way to talk about poetry. And patterns help us learn it too.
Let me give an example. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem I often use with children around 9 – 11. It’s by Charles Causley:
Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football-pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.
His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation-mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.
The choice of poem is not coincidental. The child in “Timothy Winters” appears to be around the same age as them. Many children of that age are exploring the world wars and evacuation. They might be reading Michelle Magorian’s classic “Goodnight Mister Tom” or even John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. They may know or be a child suffering neglect. They have a context for the poem and its subject.
Whatever poem is chosen, it must be displayed so that everyone can see it, and so that annotations can be added “live” during what follows. An A3 version centred on a flip-chart page or a copy of the text on an interactive whiteboard is ideal. I only ever reveal this part of the poem (there are another six stanzas) at first, because focus is important to reading for patterns. Modelling is the next step. To model reading takes confidence. You have to articulate and make explicit a usually subconscious and invisible process. But it’s worth it, to show learners what it looks and sounds like when a reader is making meaning from a text. Lots of children don’t know that this is a process, or something that can be learned.
My modelling begins something like this:
“I’m going to read this poem out loud, in a particular way, looking for ANYTHING that might be a pattern. I’ll have to keep going back and re-reading because I won’t spot every pattern at first. Timothy Winters comes to school. No, nothing striking me as a pattern yet. Back to the start. Timothy Winters comes to school / With eyes as wide as a football-pool… hmm, I think I noticed several ‘s’ sounds there. Let me highlight those. Oh, and there’s that ‘oo’ in pool, school and foot. That might be a significant pattern so let me underline all those. Let’s keep going. With eyes as wide as a football-pool / Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters. Well, here’s a pattern of body parts now – I’ll circle eyes, ears and teeth. I’m thinking that can’t be a coincidence. Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters / A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters. Wow, here’s a group of words that all make me think of war or violence – bombs, splinters and blitz…
And so on. In a couple of minutes, the stanzas will be scrawled all over with arrows, notes and highlights. The children will be beginning to put up their hands to say “you’ve missed ‘as’ in the second line – there are two of them” or “there’s a pattern of colours, too”. All potential patterns will be identified, including that wonderful alliteration on the letter ‘b’ in the final line of the second stanza. Later in the lesson, we’ll all pronounce that line with emphasis on the plosive sounds and realise that it makes our lips do a “blowy out” movement, a bit like the cold winds in the poem.
Quickly, I give out copies of the whole poem, and ask the children to carry on with the pattern-spotting technique. Of course, they will usually notice a lot more connections than most adult first-time readers. And then begins the discussion of why these patterns might be important. We’ll be asking questions like “Why might the poet want to use a whole group of words that make us think about war?” or “Is it important that the poem rhymes like this?” They are great questions, and they begin the next stages of the reading process – speculation, inference, analysis and interpretation.
Some poets might take umbrage at their art being pawed over like this, but I have never found a better way to show children how poetry works. And the great thing is, that while they are reading and annotating, they are learning the poem. For a start, they are re-reading and, as any teacher knows, it is almost impossible to get children to re-read anything with purpose, so that is a huge bonus! They are drawing their own attention to its special bits. They are working out how different parts link together. They are finding joy in the repetition and the sounds. They are, without realising it, committing large parts of it to memory, and they are definitely “taking pleasure in poetic pains”.
About the Author: Jane Branson is an independent learning consultant in East Sussex. She worked for fourteen years in English departments in schools, before spending nine years as a member of the county council’s standards and learning team. She’s been a classroom teacher, an Advanced Skills Teacher, a head of department and a teacher-training tutor. A qualified Philosophy for Children trainer, Jane also writes regularly for Oxford University Press. She’s currently taking a creative writing class, has been the Chair of Governors at a local school for 6 years, and became a parish councillor earlier this year. You can visit her website at http://jbl.strikingly.com/ .