Education consultant and author Alan Wright says both teachers and students need to open their minds to the possibilities in poetry.
It comes as no surprise that the greater exposure children have to poetry the more they can embrace it in their literacy and writing. But it’s just as important for teachers to ‘step outside their comfort zones’ with poetry, according to Alan.
He told literacy experts Sharon and Phil Callen on episode 30 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy that teachers can often struggle with getting students to connect with poetry because they’re not reading widely or ‘taking risks’.
“Teachers find [poetry] a bit of a struggle I feel simply because they’ve either had a bad experience with poetry or they’ve had a very narrow experience with poetry,” Alan said.
“What happens is that they tend to stay safe and teach those forms of poetry that they feel most comfortable with, and there’s not a lot of risk taking involved. And therefore what again is continued is that narrow corridor that young poets are taken down, rather than a broader landscape for poetry.
“So I think what we’ve got to do first of all is demonstrate to teachers that if they’re risk takers, their students will be risk takers.”
Alan explained that teachers also need to be writers and offer their own work to the classroom, which will help children engage with different poetry techniques and styles.
“Teachers, they need to be writers too, because [poetry] is a journey that the inexperienced poet and the most proficient writer in the room need to go on together,” Alan said.
“So, if a teacher’s trying out these things, noticing the patterns in poetry, playing with line breaks, using repetition, and then using all those literary devices like alliteration, rhyme, simile, metaphor and onomatopoeia, and having fun with words and indulging in a bit of wordplay, then kids are more likely to say, ‘I want to be part of this. This looks good. This looks like something that I might enjoy’.
“I worked with a young teacher in Melbourne’s west, and he came into his grade three class and he told them that he was writing some rap poetry and he shared it with them. And he said that he then realised his capacity and power to influence, because by the end of the week he had about 10 students having a go at writing their own rap poetry.
“So, if you want something to get some traction in your classroom, all you need to do is have a go at it yourself and bring it in and share it – just simple as that.”
Alan also said classroom libraries and school resources need to be better equipped with a variety of poetry, and teachers should strive to expose their students to as much poetry as possible.
“When I’m visiting schools, I make a point of going into the library and quietly looking at the poetry resources, and sometimes I come away feeling quite dispirited because I get the impression that poetry stopped being collected after about 1960. So we’ve got to make a point of bringing poetry back into people’s visual eyeline,” he said.
“It’s about the discoveries … tomorrow, I’m taking a suitcase of poetry books into a school, and that’s going to be the best starting point, letting kids clamber over those books, open them up on the floor and just find out what it is that they like about poetry.
“What appeals to their ear, what appeals to their eye? Is it a particular subject? Is it the fact that a poet actually took the time to write about this? And I maybe had never considered it as a possible topic for a poem. And to let them then talk to one another about what they are noticing about poetry, and then we will document some of those things.”
Finally, the trio revealed that the exploration of poetry doesn’t have to be confined to literacy or English, but to any school subject. By doing this, teachers can also embed poetry writing more regularly into the classroom, as opposed to only doing a single unit for the year.
“There’s lots of opportunity to make poetry permeate the entire curriculum. I know I’ve written poems that have a mathematical feel to them and a scientific feel to them. Sometimes it’s to do with sport and physical education. You can write poetry across a range of curriculum areas, so it becomes more natural to be embedded across our lives and across our day, rather than being something that is cocooned into a unit of work,” Alan explained.
“You could start the day with a poem. You can end the day with a poem. Sometimes there are time fillers where you can, read a poem. And again, it can be just purely for the enjoyment of listening to poetry, or you can use poetry as part of an investigation or celebration, or let kids develop performance poetry and choral reading and those sort of things.”