My First Experience Teaching Poetry to a year 11 Group

I’ve thought hard about sharing this, but it is all a long time ago and the colleagues I was working with have long since moved on, so here goes. It was the early 1990s.

Having taught A level English Literature in an FE college, and done some GCSE experience as well, I got a full time teaching post at a large comprehensive school. I was already used to starting with a syllabus, as I had been left to my own devices in FE, so felt confident in my own ability to interpret exam board documents. I was given a year 11 class whose teacher had left at the end of their year 11. They had done some coursework, but had yet to do their poetry assignment.

For their Literature set text, I had chosen a play about a paraplegic who was suing the hospital for permission to let him die. It was an interesting moral dilemma that I thought would engage them. As the exam board gave completely free choice on which poems we could study, so long as they were published, I decided to put together a selection of poems about hospitals, in a booklet. We would read and study all of them, then they would choose three or four to write about for their coursework assignment. I picked poems that I thought would appeal to them; that were diverse experiences of hospitals; that were in a range of styles. My selection included Sylvia Plath, U A Fanthorpe, Craig Raine, Philip Larkin, Jon Silkin, and others I can’t recall.

I stepped into class with this booklet, to start the unit. The pupils looked dismayed. Then one told me: ‘We are too thick to understand poetry, Miss, you will have to translate it to us line by line.’ I had never heard anything like this before, and couldn’t help being shocked. But I didn’t show it. I took a deep breath and said: ‘Oh I can’t do that, and of course you are able to understand it if I help you.’ They weren’t the easiest group and this wasn’t the most propitious of starts, so I planned each lesson very carefully.

For example, the lesson we started to look at the Plath poems, I told them that when this poet was 30, she killed herself. This grabbed their interest right away. They asked me why, and I said I didn’t know. I’m pretty sure they were not used to teachers admitting they didn’t know things. I read them the poem ‘The Surgeon at 2 am’, thinking it might be gory enough to pique their interest. They listened, since I was walking round the room while I said it they didn’t have a choice, then I asked them what they thought about it. Blank looks. I explained it was a surgeon going round the ward at night looking at his patients. I would answer any questions they had, words they didn’t understand etc. One boy said, that phrase, ‘a pathological salami’, what did that mean? I replied with another question: had he ever seen a slice of salami? Indeed he had. So when I said Plath is saying that slices of cut off flesh looked line salami, the response was that that was disgusting and made them fee sick. This led nicely to a class discussion of why Plath wanted to shock us, and the effect of imagery. It was magical seeing them grow in confidence with their own ideas.

I had of course provided them with a photocopy of a table I had made, giving the name of a literary device, an explanation, an example, and the effect it had in the given example. This was a useful aide memoir for them to use as they independently analysed the poems, guided by me, but never dictated by me. I can’t recall every lesson now, and the plans were all handwritten, so long gone, but I used a range of pairs work, small group work then feeding back to the whole class. It was a journey of exploration, and seeing their confidence grow was wonderful.

Time came to write their essays. The school tended to use that ghastly ‘prediction’ introduction, ‘in this essay I will be writing’ etc. I forbade that. I told them to start by saying which poems they had chosen, in a statement, saying what the poems had in common, which aspects of the theme they represented. I gave them a suggested structure, but they didn’t have to follow it. I was strict about them backing up their ideas with short quotations, and including some language analysis. They just did one draft, on A4 lined paper, some in class with me walking around checking, and helping if needed, and praising, and they also did a fixed time on it at home (in their books, as these essays were not to leave school – I didn’t want them getting lost), until the essay was finished. It took around a week. I will stress this was NOT a top set class, but C/D borderline, and boys were in a majority.

When the essays were all handed in, I was marking them in the staff room, annotating them as the board required, and giving an overall grade, with closing comments. I was absolutely thrilled with the essays, and quite a few were gaining A and B grades, according to the exam board’s criteria. The head of department saw me marking them, and asked me what poems I had done with them, presumably out of professional curiosity. I passed him a copy of the booklet. He glanced through it and said something which astonished me. ‘These are A level poets, that GCSE group can’t study these, they won’t understand them’. This was an alien concept to me. I’m certain Plath didn’t write thinking ‘oh these poems can only be studied at A level’. Poems are for everyone, and just because the names had appeared on an A level syllabus didn’t mean there was a law of the land saying no GCSE student could look at them. Out loud I said: ‘but they DO understand them. Would you like to read their essays?’ I gave him a couple of As, a B and a C. There was nothing below that. He took them to his desk to read them. He couldn’t dispute my marking and was fairly astonished this class had done so well. But on noticing that Craig Raine’s poem about a body in a mortuary included the word ‘nipple’, he said, no wonder, if the poems are using words like that!

This was my first experience of such limiting thinking in schools. It wasn’t my last. Incidentally, my candidates’ folders were singled out in the coursework moderators report for being just what they were looking for: challenging enough to stretch the students. It is a mistake to limit one’s pupils by having low expectations. Only doing easy, straightforward texts with them severely limits what points they can make, what heights they can rise to.


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