Keeley Nolan and Isobel Woodger, English Subject Advisors
While we’ve shared some of our favourite poems in the past for National Poetry Day, this year we wanted to share some suggestions on how you can encourage students to see poetry creatively.
When it comes to seeing a poem for the first time, students often feel as if there’s a secret code to crack. In reality, meaning is often created between poet and reader on each reading. It can be hard sometimes to encourage your students to see the reading of poems as an active and enjoyable experience, rather than a passive or complicated one. We’ve put together some questions and prompts below for you to choose from that might encourage curiosity and generate student-centred responses.
Titles are a great place to start, especially as their place in a poem is never certain. Sometimes, poets decide them first, sometimes they might be the last thing to be slotted in. In either case, titles can be a road map, a summary, or a misdirection.
It’s not just what groups or ideas each student comes up with but discussing what differences and connections students have across their suggestions. If you want to focus on just one poem, titles are also a powerful place to begin when generating creative responses.
You can do this individually or have students work in groups; you can do this in the classroom or as a home-learning task. However you set it up, it’s a good way to get students engaging with ideas about the poem and allows you to see what preconceptions students are bringing to the work.
Titles can also be a great place to start asking: what kind of poem might this be? This can be a question about theme, but it can also be a question about form.
There are lots of incredible strategies out there for what to do when students read a poem for the first time. From listening to poets reading their work, to actors’ recorded versions, to creating choral readings, there are loads of ways to get the poem to be read aloud. However students first read or hear a poem, we think there are some key questions to ask:
From here you can start to group student ideas, using students’ own vocabulary to get more and more specific.
We know that each word chosen in a poem has to earn its place and help the poet express something as clearly as they can. If you want students to delve into the language of the poem, here are some initial prompts:
However, one of my favourite things to do in poetry is to look at the verbs used by the poet. A poet’s choice of verbs can be really revealing; you can draw out so much meaning and generate creative ideas focusing just on the verbs.
For example, in the first two lines of Rita Dove’s poem ‘For Sophie Who’ll Be in First Grade in the Year 2000’, what would it mean to change the verb ‘left’ to ‘gifted’, ‘granted’ or ‘given’? What if you changed the verb entirely to something like ‘unleashed on’ or ‘begrudged’? How do the verbs change over the poem? You can ask questions about verb types – perhaps asking questions on the use of imperatives (‘wait’, ‘study’) or the modal verb ‘may’ – or focus on tense.
Often when thinking about more than one poem, there’s a drive towards formal comparison. However, we think a lot can be gained by looking at poems in groups and drawing out connections together. You can use the titles of the poems as a starting point, as we did earlier in this blog, to see what ideas your students expect this group of poems to engage with.
You can also choose a selection of poems and see how they bounce off each other. There are lots of different ways to do this. You could start by choosing a theme to explore. For example, within the Love and Relationships cluster at GCSE, you could look at how the idea of commitment is approached in a group of poems: in ‘Love and Friendship’ and ‘Love After Love’ the importance of commitment and commitment to a happier future are shown; connections can be made here to the rejection of shallow commitments in ‘I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine’ and contrasted with the immediacy shown in ‘In Paris With You’.
Looking at poems in groups like this can be a great way to emphasise and highlight the social contexts students can draw from in their understanding of the poems. From here, you can build on how the poets write about these ideas, looking at how particular language, imagery and structural elements create effects. Encourage students to reflect on which elements have the biggest impact on them. This kind of approach can help students to write more personal responses.
We do hope this has given you some approaches for engaging with poetry in creative and personal ways. For more ideas, why not take a look at the National Poetry Day’s website for some resources for all age groups!
Last year we recommended poems by Ross Gay, Anna Jackson and Maya Angelou; what poems would you recommend to us this year?
If you have any other questions you can leave comments below, or email us at English@ocr.org.uk. You can also sign up to receive email updates or follow us on Twitter @OCR_English.
Keeley is responsible for a portfolio of English qualifications including both GCSEs. Keeley joined the English team in 2014, leading on the development of GCSE English Language and supporting first teaching of the new specification. Prior to joining OCR, Keeley spent two years teaching abroad. In her spare time, she enjoys travelling, reading and swimming.
Isobel has particular responsibility for the A Level English qualification suite. She previously worked as a classroom teacher in a co-educational state secondary school, with three years as second-in-charge in English with responsibility for Key Stage 5. In addition to teaching all age groups from Key Stage 3 to 5, Isobel worked with the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education as a mentor to PGCE trainees. Before this, she studied for an MA in Film, Television and Screen Media with Birkbeck College, University of London while working as a learning support assistant at a large state comprehensive school.