Every year, on the first Thursday of October (7th October 2021) National Poetry Day celebrates the wonder of poetry. This year’s theme, ‘Choice’ is ironic, as it comes at a time when the English exam regulator Ofqual, offered next year’s GCSE English literature students the choice to opt out of the study of poetry altogether! Ofqual’s decision was predicated on the impact of Covid-19 on teachers’ ability to prepare students for the poetry aspect of the syllabus. With no certainty of a full return to school in the autumn, Ofqual believes that it will be ‘extremely challenging’ to teach this aspect of the syllabus and difficult for students ‘to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely’.
Jill Pritchard, who was the head of English at Clifton High School, Bristol, and is now a freelance English Literature tutor, editor, and English consultant, shares her thoughts on the importance of poetry in the curriculum and its remote delivery.
Sadly, we see a creative and thought-provoking element of the curriculum being squeezed out, with the implication that poetry is dispensable and ‘difficult’ and challenging to teach remotely, which from my experience is just not true. My view and that of many other teachers I speak to, is that poetry should continue to be compulsory at GCSE. It is much closer to what students are more likely to write and listen to and it is the epitome of word power. When delivered imaginatively it is fun to teach and learn at any level, including GCSE. As Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, highlighted when talking about the diversity of contemporary poets, ‘Poems do so much more, getting into spaces [and] subjects [that] other modes of language can’t.’
If students don’t study poetry now, they will be missing out on their preparation for A Level, reducing the number going on to study Literature at university.
It is true that there are many students who start by hating poetry because they think it should rhyme, but when we see the impact that award-winning poet, and teacher Kate Clanchy with her book “How to Grow a Poem’ has made on poetry teaching, it’s clear that with good teaching, schools can ‘build up a culture of success and confidence around poetry.”
Studying poetry can help students to express their own feelings and ideas effectively, as well as analysing and understanding texts.
*A Defence of Poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821
Thankfully students appear to be gaining a fresh appreciation of poetry arising from their interest in the poets’ life and times and the vision they want to share. As well as the literary aspect of poetry, it is a way to understand the conditions that produce it.
Literary study now requires students to understand different analytical approaches to texts, such as Marxist feminist and eco interpretation, as well as relating to them on their own terms. This necessitates an understanding of various movements and schools of thought, which is very enriching and helps them to develop their own ideas about life. Students study lots of current writers from varied cultures, expanding their awareness and empathy while also developing their own language skills and analytical powers.
Through poetry we are helping students to explore issues that they care about.
There are many highly effective ways of engaging students in this valuable subject whether they are in class or learning remotely. Possibly the hardest part to teach remotely is close literary analysis, but with guidance from the teacher, this can be undertaken in discussions online and independently.
Schools use a variety of active approaches to give their students the jumping off point for further study rather than just delivered content. The Poetry Society has been placing poets in schools for over 50 years. There are competitions, events and library days but more recently through the pandemic schools have adopted active approaches that are easily transferable from classroom to remote learning.
Before and during lockdown we’ve used short, curriculum aligned video content, helping students to understand the social and literary context in which the poetry was written It’s hard for teachers to have the time to do all the background research on the poets and their lives, so such short films about the context and background of individual poets are an invaluable teaching tool. There are films providing background and context for the more challenging, but very rewarding, Heritage texts: Romantic, Victorian and World War One Poets. These provide clear explanations and stimulating visual material, evoking the worlds the poets inhabited and the ideas and social conditions that influenced their work.
I like ClickView’s poetry series, which offers a range of videos about modern and older poetry aligned to the curriculum at GCSE and A’ Level. I contributed to the Heritage parts of the learning content.
Students enjoy learning about poets’ lives and through discovering their different worlds may find common interests with them. Taking the First World War as an example, these soldiers weren’t much older than our students; their poems provide a tremendous emotional impact.
The Romantics, for example, shared our interest in individual psychology, and in our relationship to the natural world. Seeing the art of the time represented, or a picture of a 19th century factory floor, gives the student a vivid impression that can make the era more real to them and in turn, stimulate their interest. The ClickView videos also provide tasks for the student which consolidate their understanding of the given content and allow for independent study. Some are formal writing tasks but there is also scope for visual and oral presentation of findings.
Working in the classroom or at home, with the Romantics video, the students ‘see’ the way in which the 18th century Romantic movement progressed in response to the Enlightenment, and advances in science
The visual aspect of ‘seeing’ people of that time, being able to picture where poets were coming from, engages students’ interest. Whether the students are studying Keats, Byron, Blake, Shelly, Wordsworth, or Coleridge the learning can be applied to any poet.
The more students understand the experiences of these people, the more powerful the learning. For teachers, the interactive short questions that accompany the videos ensure that the students have watched them in class or at home. The broader assignments encourage students to do their own further research into the poets.
Clearly it is important to provide students with a level of guidance through the literary content to ensure they look at the poetry through the right lens, but there is no reason that this can’t be done remotely.
Studying poetry can help students with expressing their own ideas and feelings as well as understanding and analysing those of others.
There has never been a more important time to keep poetry in the curriculum, because more than ever, our students need a way to understand other people’s struggles and connect with their own emotions. Poetry, allows students to explore meaning, and connect with others on a deeper level: vital at a time when the pandemic has isolated so many and yet connected us in a global misfortune
ith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society recently told the BBC that, ‘poetry “speak[s] directly to young people’s lived experience.’ She said that the study of poetry ‘opens up a space for the discussion of challenging subjects such as loss and isolation’ and stressed that ‘in these Covid times, poetry has never been more relevant,’ noting that many students returning to the classroom will be processing trauma. She continued, ‘all our usual certainties have recently been washed away. Poetry is all about uncertainty. It doesn’t give answers, it poses questions, and helps students understand that life may involve learning to live with complexities.
Poetry starts conversations and debate. It encourages a love of language and history and supports students’ moral, cultural, and spiritual development. It helps them to add an informed perspective and value to society. Poetry should be a central part of every student’s learning.