National Poetry Day - Oct '17

By Charlotte Jacobs MTA - Founder of Strive Tutors

With National Poetry Day being celebrated this Autumn, now is a good time for tutors of all subjects to think about how we can teach the skill of creativity.

Against an educational landscape that is built on rigid assessment criteria, formulaic exam papers and tricky numeric grades, it seems that teachers and tutors are being pressured to give up creative teaching methods and activities in favour of lessons on exam technique and memorising. Poetry teaching can, however, be a welcome break to this rigamarole and successful poetry teachers can awaken a very special love for literature as well as fostering an aptitude for general creative thinking within their students.

Last year I found myself trying to enthuse some reluctant Year 11s about an “exciting” poetry unit we were about to start. I was met with groans of “but it doesn't make sense” and “surely the poet didn’t actually mean that line to be about that when he wrote it”. However, the fun we experienced doing this unit, coupled with the confidence and tenacity that the students gained, confirmed that poetry is not only an enjoyable topic to teach and learn but also a crucial skill for all- despite the initial protestations!

Poetry teaching has been key in classrooms and tutorial sessions all over the world for centuries. “Poem” comes from the Greek word “poiein” which means “to create” and, like music or art, it is testament to the mind of its creator. Posing this to an opinionated teenager or curious younger child can be exciting - a poem can be like a maze or a treasure hunt: see what you can find! Poems allow their readers to create meaning and reimagine words, and good poetry lessons should not just teach the poem but should also prompt students to explore a different style of curious, probing thought. An esteemed contemporary poet and former colleague of mine, Daljit Nagra, once spoke to some of my A Level students about one of his poems which was featured in their exam specification. The pupils were keen to ask him exactly what he meant by each line, studiously prepared to write down prescriptive definitions of each line of “Look we have coming to Dover!” Yet, instead of telling my class what each line meant, Nagra stunned them by saying “the poem is about what you want it to mean. Poems are like rooms. Different people walk in and out of them and notice different things. Meaning is therefore multiple - feel free to notice whatever you find interesting”.

My class of motivated 18 year olds, weeks away from starting their university courses, looked at him in horror. I could see why they were panicking; no meaning? Any meaning? Which meaning? But as we discussed this poem and the rest of the exam anthology that term, the students seemed to revel in this freedom and formed the nouse to pursue their own thoughts and gained the courage of their own convictions when forming arguments about their prose and drama texts too. Their public speaking, analysis and essays consequently improved as they had developed the bravery to approach both seen and unseen texts and articulate their ideas with flair.

I would, therefore, encourage all tutors - including our teaching team at Strive Tutors - to get their students to think creatively; challenge meanings, and draw their own conclusions about any subject they are learning about. Poetry is a great example of a topic that has no “right and wrong” and tutors can use it to inspire, develop confidence and build resilience in their students.

Charlotte Jacobs MTA - Founder of Strive Tutors

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