Monday, 2 May 2016

Blogsync - Orange juice poetry

This small blog is in response to April’s #blogsyncenglish. The month’s focus was on poetry.
I think poetry is overly complicated by incorrect attempts to make it engaging. I think poetry is engaging without the need for gimmick or highlighters.  At the centre of every poetry lesson, is the poem. An uncensored copy of the text. I think if you can’t do anything with a single copy of a poem, then get out of teaching. Yes, you could use a video. Yes, you could use a picture. Yes, you could use a funny cat video to explain a complex concept concisely. But, simply a copy of the poem is the starting point for any poetry lesson for me. I don’t try to blindside them with topical or TV references. I go for simply the poem, in all its glory.

Recently, I taught part of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. I struggle with the idea of teaching a poem, because I don’t teach it as such. We experience the poem and I just teach them how to read it. They tend to do the rest. Anyway, I piled up all the tables in one side of the room. I borrowed a boat from the local harbour and then every student filled their water bottles up, so we could imitate the splashing of the lake on the boat. One lad made bird noises and I turned the light off. Okay, I didn’t do any of those last things. We got the poem on the paper and we read it. Things went in this order: This isn’t how I approach every poem, but it is one approach.
Before reading a poem, students need some knowledge if the experience isn’t one they have witnessed or experience. I remember one poem being called ‘In the can’. The can referring to being prison. Without that one simple bit of knowledge, the poem is meaningless. A teacher has to provide the knowledge to engage the poem. The poem ‘The ‘Prelude’ is just about a man in a boat to the casual reader. You need some knowledge to make its meaning explicit.

[1] Introduce / revise the concepts of ‘Industrial Revolution’ and ‘Romanticism’.
We might make reference to these ideas:
       A focus on emotions
       A focus on the individual
       A glorification of the past
       Tends to focus on the importance of knowledge 
       A glorification of nature
       Against ‘Industrial Revolution’
       Nature in control
       Man felt small and helpless
       Tend to see a focus on one of these emotions awe, apprehension, terror or horror

[2] Discussed the Victorians' exploration of nature as being something beautiful yet dangerous – Frankenstein / Dracula.

[3] Explored the concept of ‘The Sublime’
       Definition: of very great excellence or beauty
       Or, man lost in the immensity of nature – without God, control or help 

We discussed where we too have experienced this same feeling – that provides students with an individual way in. It’s amazing how many students find waterfalls as something sublime.

[4] Read the poem.

[5] We worked out what is happening at the different stages. Here meaning is clarified, as a class, and any words students are unfamiliar with are provided with definitions. The gist of the poem is important. What’s going on in the poem it is central to building any further understanding. Knowing what the poem is about is important, before any analysis can take place.

[6] Then, we looked at what was suggested and implied in the poem by using inference words. Students have to find examples of the following: 
Inference words: perfection, secretive, isolation, uncertainty, magical, beauty  
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light.

Inference words: struggle, fear, no escape, inferior
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

 Then, students suggested their own words to describe what was happening in the poem.

[7] After, exploring the feelings and ideas in the poem, I tend to get student to explore feelings in the poem. In particular, we look at where feelings change and how the feeling is created. I usually give students the following:
       A sense of magical and mystery
       A sense of fear and foreboding
       A sense of immensity and awe

Students then find examples of these in the text. But, in finding it, they have to explain what the writer has done, and what devices or techniques they have used to create that feeling. As an add-on, I ask students to offer these own feelings.

[8] We then explored what the writer is teaching us:
What is the writer’s view of the world / society?

What are they teaching us?

Some students make connections to the previous aspects of ‘sublime’ and ‘The Romantics’. If not, we revisited the concepts. 

[9] At this stage, usually, students don’t have some of the high-level concepts floating around their thoughts to enable some complex understanding, so I provide them with the following aspects or similar words. Complex thought needs complex vocabulary, so as students are growing ideas, it isn’t always easy for them to make their ideas clear. Therefore, we tend to get the default retell the teacher what the plot of the poem is.

inferior vs superior
reality vs dream
beauty vs ugliness
light vs dark
masculine vs feminine

Then, I got students to re-evaluate their original ideas of the poem or what the poet is saying about the topic.  

[10] Finally, I get students to look at the structure of the poem and look at how the message or idea develops over the text. Once students have an idea of a concept like masculine and feminine themes in their head they can see how the whole text is shaped.
At this point, I looked at the start and end of the poems. If that wasn’t fruitful, I looked at turning points or changes in the texts. Depending on the group of students, I might explore the form or use of syllables and patterns.

After all that, we will write down five different interpretations of the poem. Then, students have a starting point for their own writing and analysis. They then have to explain an interpretation based on their analysis of the poem.

One copy of the poem. Five PowerPoint slides. Loads of vocabulary.

I always liken poetry to orange juice. It is a condensed form of a text. It is reduced and boiled down to something complex and meaningful. Every word, line, syllable hold some form of meaning to a reader. We could list hundreds of questions to get students to work out the meaning of the poem, but I like to structure the exploration so that instead of question after question, students are given tools to make concrete what is abstract. Vocabulary is important to building a student's understanding of a poem. Vocabulary for meaning. Vocabulary for concepts. Vocabulary for emotions. Vocabulary for techniques. Vocabulary for the writer's ideas. At each stage of studying a poem, I am developing a student's ability to articulate complex ideas into concrete writing.
Thanks for reading,


P.S. Oh my goodness. Did you know how many different types of Volta there are? I do now and I might write about it in a future blog. 


  1. Poetry is,

    More difficult,

    Than straight prose.

    Less space,
    Higher expectation,

    Of meaningful profundity.

    Disappointment lurks,
    In every stanza.

    Revealed failure writ large,

    In every line.

    No place to hide.

    You see,
    Poetry is Art,

    And Art takes….

    No prisoners.


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