Australian music legend Paul Kelly says kids will engage with poetry when they are exposed to a wide variety and the meaning behind poems.
One of the all-time greats of Australian music, Paul’s passion for poetry resonates through his many award-winning songs.
The ARIA Hall of Famer joined literacy educators Sharon and Phil Callen on episode 28 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy to enlighten teachers on how to unlock the power of poetry in the classroom.
While there are many techniques to enhance the teaching of poetry, Paul said the most powerful thing a teacher can do is to simply allow children to understand their own interpretation of a poem, while avoiding the trap of attempting to summarise it.
Instead, teachers should be a guide with questions like ‘what does this mean for you?’, which opens the discussion for different meanings.
“It can be taught in a way where the teachers will say, ‘what’s the meaning of this poem or what is the poet trying to say?’ And I think that’s the wrong way to approach your time,” Paul said.
“To sort of paraphrase the meaning of a poem is in a way destroying the poem. To me, it reduces the poem. I mean, the poem exists … it’s a thing in its own right. It’s not something to be summarised.
“[Instead], teachers can help students enjoy poems by pointing out some of the things going on with the way that the rhymes and the rhythms are working in, and the questions that the poem might be posing.
“But I think going at it from the point of view of what is the poet trying to say is giving the wrong view of what writers do. I think most writers don’t know what they’re doing until they’re in the middle of writing. I mean, for a lot of writers, a lot of poets, writing is a way of syncing. It’s not like you have a thought and then you try to express it. You don’t even know what you’re doing to just start the poem.
“You’re just going with an image or a sound or a rhythm. And then the poem starts writing itself, with the writer involved, but never quite knowing what they’re doing.
“So, even if you’re not quite sure what’s going on with the poem, I think with good poems you’ll come back to them and they’ll keep revealing things … you also don’t even have to find the meaning. Sometimes you can just enjoy the feeling it gives you or enjoy the sound and the richness of the language.”
Paul also encouraged teachers to expose students to as many different poems as possible to give them the opportunity to find poems that they truly connect with.
“I think people think poetry is difficult or they feel afraid of it, or they feel that they don’t understand it … Poetry won’t always click with everyone. It’s finding the right poetry that resonates with your students – I think that’s a really good approach,” he said.
“A lot of poetry, because it’s rich language and compressed language, it’s dense language, and often symbolic, it may not reveal its meanings to you or speak to you in any meaningful way. But that’s not to worry about because you may find another poem that jumps out at you.
“It’s actually easy to respond to a piece of writing that you like. I know you do that subconsciously, but it can be a conscious act to say ‘oh, I really liked the rhythm … or that rhyming scheme. I might try to do the same.’ They’re going to be picking up things within the language that they don’t even realise they’re picking up, which then they can use in their own writing.
“Or, you can write a poem in response to another poem or almost like an argument or a different point of view or just take a poem as a starting off point for your own poem.
“And I think it’s probably a way that teachers can have fun introducing that element of making a game out of this. It’s playing with it rather than over-analysing it. You’re just having a lot of fun with it and experimenting and trying to adapt.”
Sharon expanded on the benefits of giving students better access to poetry techniques like rhyme and repetition.
“The more poetry we read, the more patterns and ways of organising [students are shown]. We see free verse through to how we shape those words on a page … different literary devices that are used. The wealth and the richness and the range in a collection covers a lot of different forms and a lot of different styles, a lot of different techniques and devices,” Sharon said.
To fully spark fun and creativity in the classroom, Paul also recommended bringing Haikus into a poetry lesson.
“I think they’re fun for students to play around with, because you just got five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, to try and write something. It’s like a puzzle. Can I get these things to fit and make this thing,” Paul said.
Sharon added: “It’s a way for them to surprise themselves about the way they can put words together. It’s not going to be in the same way as when you’re writing a sentence … the way of arranging the thought is a way that they don’t get to do very often”.