If you’ve ever taught poetry to a group of pupils and asked the question: “Who here likes poetry?”, you’ve no doubt experienced the one or two hands tentatively reach up amongst the collective sighs and dramatic eyerolls. This lacklustre response to poetry is a sad but clear reflection of the idea of poetry children have largely been exposed to; one that is often limited to the misconception that poetry is all strict metre, tightly-constructed verse and archaic, inaccessible language.
When questioned at the start of creative writing workshops on why pupils dislike this literary form so much, the most common responses have included:
- “It’s just boring.”
- “I don’t like the old language.”
- “Rhymes are annoying.”
- “I don’t understand it.”
Unfortunately, there still isn’t a wide enough variety of poetry being introduced to students at a young age. Why must children wait until much later to discover the incredible range of styles, themes and forms that poetry can take? Why do so many go into adulthood still believing that poetry is limited to hefty, archaic epics or the few funny limericks they once chanted on the playground? How many people are still under the impression that it's not a poem unless it rhymes? Whilst it’s great to see the likes of Owen Sheers, Rita Dove and Imtiaz Dharker featuring more widely on GCSE syllabuses alongside the traditional Emily Brontë and John Keats, there’s certainly more that needs to be done to get children discovering poetry at an age when they are more eager and inquisitive.
How can we inspire a passion for poetry earlier in a pupils’ school life? Story-writing is often met with far more enthusiasm. Children are exposed to more fiction in general; whether that’s the bedtime stories they were read by their parents, the books that became blockbuster movies, or the hype of 'Pottermania' and The Hunger Games that made reading cool again. There was Roald Dahl, who delighted his readers through gruesome tales, and Roger Hargreaves whose charming Mr Men and Little Miss characters have endured in pocket-sized books and on staff room mugs for generations. Children are aware from a young age that when it comes to stories, there’s a style and a genre to suit most tastes.
When teaching a poetry class, there are several things you can do to show them how poetry can appeal to a variety of tastes too:
1) A new style every time - Aim to introduce children to a new style of poetry every week. In the same way that many classrooms have a designated carpet ‘story-time’, why not have a little bit of time every week to just hear a few poems on a particular style? Get your pupils involved. One week they could be looking for all the comic verse they can find (comedy verses are often the best way to get children's interest at first, particularly with younger classes who delight in humour) and the next they could be looking for sonnets, each sharing their favourite discoveries. Make sure there’s a good mix of both modern and old to demonstrate that old forms do not necessarily have to be restricted to old language; having a modern sonnet alongside a more traditional one will often help them understand and engage with both.
2) Stand and deliver - From ancient fireside lyrics to lullabies and nursery rhymes, poetry was originally designed for the ear not the page. Deliver poetry in the way it’s meant to be delivered and see (or hear) the words spark into life. Rhythms, rhymes and even accents add a powerful dimension to poetry and the rise of the spoken word doesn’t have to be reserved for festivals and poetry slams. Show them videos of performed poetry and get them to try performing their favourites themselves (children’s laureate Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and poet Joseph Coelho both have excellent resources on their YouTube channels perfect for Key Stage 2 poetry). This doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to ‘silly’ poems; more serious and important messages can be expressed through the power of verse too, and reading aloud often maximises the impact.
3) Create, create, create! - Whether it’s constructing cut-up poems using an eclectic spread of words picked from the centre of the table or the challenge of writing to a theme (e.g. an October poetry-writing class could focusing on the scariest and most inventive adjectives to create a spine-chilling verse), the possibilities are endless. Nothing gives a child a greater boost of self-esteem and confidence than creating something themselves, and it’s a great way to get them actively building each other up through positive and constructive peer feedback.
As you teach your workshops, you will find more inventive ways to incorporate poetry into your lessons and find yourself being just as creative with your teaching as children are with their writing. Follow the steps above and soon those few tentative hands at the beginning of class will give way to a confident chorus of enthusiasm.