I confess, I have never been to a ‘poetry reading’ – nor does the idea particularly appeal. I imagine myself in a chilly book shop, surrounded by earnest faces and an abundance of artistic moustaches and beanie hats, with a po-faced poet glaring at the audience. I feel almost chastised for my very presence.
As a teacher though, the first thing I would do in class would be to read aloud, or play a recording of a poem, before we started working on it, dissecting it, making it ‘make sense’. I confess, though, even the most earnest student would often look up when I’d finished reading: “Miss, I don’t get it.”
And yet, I was excited last week to be invited to read three of the poems from our new GCSE English Literature poetry anthology for a set of audio recordings which will soon be available for teachers’ and students’ use. I chose my poems with some excitement. I prepared for the recordings on my way to the recording studio, my mumblings attracting some looks from passers-by (you know the looks I mean). The poems I chose had little in common. Certainly my tone, or performance, if I can be so grand, would have to switch from one to the next – from I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine to Vergissmeinnicht and on to Venus’-flytraps.
What attracted me to volunteering my readings was the strong sense of voice in each of the poems. There was, I felt, a person, a presence, straining to be heard, which a silent, puzzled reading of the words on the page just would not do any justice. How could you capture the admission, possibly even the defeat, or maybe the hope, communicated in the final line of I wouldn’t thank you…, if you couldn’t hear it? Or the boldness, and the challenge in the voice of the oh-so-grown-up 5-year-old child in Venus’-flytraps who hears ‘people/Telling each other secrets’, and who wonders ‘what death tastes like’.
OK, so my readings aren’t necessarily going to lead to any great sense of revelation the moment a student hears my dulcet tones across the classroom. Hey, I’ve been a teacher, I know how this works – for every earnest, but mildly puzzled face, there’s at least one who’s gazing out of the window, wondering how long till lunch. And whichever category, most students probably feel the dread of a Poetry Lesson. But at least they’ll start with hearing a voice. Yes, a voice with an oddly hybridised north/south accent. Maybe a voice saying something they don’t understand. But that’s got to be better than staring blankly at the page, surely.
In a time when the skill of speaking aloud holds a tenuous place in the curriculum, I am repeatedly struck by the importance of verbal communication, whether in the classroom, or merely out and about, in the mundane as much as the earth-shattering of day-to-day living. Even if just repeating the words of others, be it poetry or a quote from last night’s telly; surely it’s all in the delivery. Although I’m sure the future will continue to change how we assess speech, be it in English, or MFL, drama or who knows where else, I’m equally sure that classrooms will not fall silent. Speaking, listening, hearing and interacting continue to be at the heart of what learning is about. And who knows, there may be a student or two who wants to read a poem out loud…
Michelle North - Subject Team Manager - English and Creative
Michelle is the Head of the English and Creative team at OCR, which offers support to teachers in a diverse range of subjects alongside English which include media, film studies and even PE. This team also leads on reforming GCSEs and A Levels in these subject areas, and Michelle worked intensively on the reformed qualifications in the English suite at OCR. Prior to joining OCR, Michelle taught in a large upper school in Bedfordshire, and has a background in school leadership at both Key Stage 4 and 5. In addition, she led the school based initial teacher training for English teachers in her local region for several years. Michelle has a master’s degree in teaching from the Institute of Education.