Last night we ran our first Poetry Competition. This is something I have been thinking about doing for a couple of years and working toward for the last 6 months or so. The evening itself was the end of a process of a poetry competition which the department launched on National Poetry Day in October. Last night we celebrated the 20 shortlisted poems and announced our runners up and winner. I have never run an ‘event’ at school before and it was nerve-wracking but in the end, very enjoyable. It was quite a low key affair, with parents getting a chance to read the poems before hearing from 6 of the poets. The event ended with the announcement of the awards.
I have always loved poetry, I said in my opening speech that it was one of the reasons I became an English teacher. I still vividly remember reading Seamus Heaney’s Digging in my GCSE class. As I explained to the gathered parents last night, the English curriculum across both Key Stage 3 and 4 pushing for a lot of analysis and response to poetry, but not any writing. Although as a school we are very successful in celebrating sporting, musical and dramatic success, we don’t always remember the more reflective, subtle talents of writing. I wanted, therefore, to address this and celebrate the quiet poets in our school. The school I went to also ran a poetry competition and when I was in Year 7 I was ‘commended’ for a poem I wrote about winter (my mum still has the collection) and I remember loving being acknowledged for my writing talents. My aim was to do the same.
The poems we had for the competition were superb. We often think that poetry produced in schools is often very ‘nice’ and ‘rhymey’ or at the other extreme that teenagers have dark emotions they want to pour onto the page. There were a couple of examples of what might be dubbed ’emo’ poems last night, but they were also heartfelt and true. There were also poems above love and music. One of the runners up wrote a superb sonnet on the topic of the Boston Marathon attacks; he said he wanted to match the traditionally beautiful form of the sonnet with the tragedy of the event (this is a 16 year old boy). Our winning poem was beautiful, a timeless piece using the sea as a metaphor for life and struggle. Without celebrating these poems, these ideas and voices would have been ignored.
I don’t want to get too righteous about the power of poetry, but I do think it is worth looking as teachers at different ways to highlight the talents of our students. We always notice the sporty, confident outgoing talents and we shouldn’t ignore the quiet wallflowers that are writing wonderfully crafted verse.
One of the aims of starting up this blog linked to my teaching was to stop the fact that I sometimes become lazy. I think I always try to plan engaging lessons but I feel I often need to push myself to try new ideas outside of what I know works. By having the blog I can hopefully push myself more so that I have something interesting to write about.
This week in particular I am looking forward to teaching Y10 and Y8. With Year 10 I am preparing the class for their first controlled assessment for Of Mice and Men. We have read the book and they have all of the learning and ideas they need, now they need to focus it and put it into the right form. I am going to use group planning sessions and brainstorming sessions to push them in the right direction.
Tomorrow, I am going to have a number of statements related to the assessment (without actually giving them the assessment) around the classroom. They are going to circulate and add any ideas and thoughts to help each other, in passing they will pick up ideas and take them to their plans. Later in the week, again before they have the assessment title, I am going to get them to plan, whilst setting up a Teacher Information Desk (a bit like you might find a Tourist Information Desk). This will be me static at table with ideas and information cards that they can visit during the lesson. If I have more than 3 people with me, they will need to go elsewhere and they will be set to a 5 minute time limit to seek advice. Hopefully this whole process will encourage independence towards their planning. I am secure in their knowledge and we have worked through generic essay planning in the past, this will be them putting all of the pieces together.
With Year 8 I am introducing a new topic of poetry, and more specifically World War 1 poetry. It’s a great topic that is full of context and emotion. To start off, I want them to think about the emotions of the poets and understand why serving soldiers saw their own way of expressing their frustrations was through poetry.
In the first lesson I am going to have a number of sources around the room linked to WW1. On one table I am going to have a diary entry, on another war posters, on another an extract from the novel Private Peaceful (which is about two brothers in WW1). I am also going to have a laptop with footage from Blackadder that can be watched. Finally, I will have a table with extracts from the poems on. They will be aiming to answer what the sources tell them about how poets felt during the war and where these feelings may have come from. They will visit each table and collect ideas.
In the second lesson (this is a designed 3 lesson series of introduction), we are going to visit the trenches. I am going to set the room into two sides with tables upturned and chairs removed. They will have more poetry extracts and will be investigating the emotions of the trenches and war whilst being sat in make shift trenches. When they have used a piece of evidence, they will screw up the quote into a ball. At a designated time, they will throw the ‘word grenade’ to the other side of the classroom, across the no-man’s land. Once they receive the grenade, they will unscrew it and compare it to the quote they were originally dealing with. Once we have repeated this pattern a couple of times we will plenary. The plenary will be by sending a member of the brigade into no-man’s land to discuss with the enemy what they have found out.
The final lesson will be back in the trenches. This time as individuals they are going to put themselves in the place of the soldiers and write a first person account of life in the trenches trying to explore some of the emotions discussed in the previous two lessons. It will also mean from a writing point of view they can lie down, sit up etc instead of be sat behind desks. While they are writing, I am going to play a soundscape of trench noises (sirens, bombs, bullets, whistles, silence etc) to help inspire the writing. As always with these kind of writing exercises, I will write myself. I am planning to wear a big army surplus coat I have from my days as an unfashionable teenager and hope that the history department have a hat I can borrow.
All of these lessons will hopefully set us up well for looking at the poetry itself. I really want to teach most of this unit (5 weeks or so) in this manner of different structures and placements. The end assessment is an oral assessment, which lends itself to not needing to have a formal sit down assessment piece.
I am hoping with this week’s lessons for Year 8 that I can film and document how it goes. Obviously I won’t post any faces of students, but I might post some of the work in action as much as possible.
I think if I focus on introducing new ideas of doing things a little at a time (thus a focus on two classes this week) it will improve my practice. I’ll update later in the week.