Last Friday, I spent the day working with groups of PGDE Primary students on poetry in the classroom; I had a lot of fun, and discussing creative writing pedagogy with Primary teachers was really enlightening for me.
I start from the premise that we kind of get poetry wrong in schools. Pupils’ experiences of it tends to be either for construction (“let’s all write an acrostic poem together”) or deconstruction (“let’s all highlight all the similes in the poem”), or a combination of both that, for example, uses deconstruction to elicit construction (“let’s all analyse the genre markers of the haiku, and then write one ourselves”). And while all of these types of activity are valuable and indeed essential to understanding poetry, it is, for me, quite a limited and sterile experience: poetry is something we do something with, something that generates work. Students – even English graduates looking to be English teachers – come with a great deal of anxiety about poetry, and that is, they say, down to their experiences of poetry at school.
And yet, why do we read poetry? Well, for enjoyment, of course. And I don’t think there’s enough of that, so we started each session with the students browsing through some poetry anthologies and magazines to find something they liked to read to the rest of their group. Then put it aside, because the worst thing we could do is to analyse it to death for the next three hours.
Having warmed up our poetry reading, we then warmed up our poetry writing with a quick poetry word wheel exercise, a simple resource of three concentric discs containing an adjective, a noun and a verb that provides a three word stimulus for a short poem. With “scientist”, “kind” and “eats”, I came up with“Working late, the scientist Fills his lab with sparks, eats Chinese food from a takeaway carton. Kind of tangy.”
For some unaccountable reason, I’m quite proud of that. However, some of the students’ responses were lovely: Heather, using “big”, “girl and “swims”, wrote“The girl swims slowly Big arcing movements of her arms Pulling her towards a warmer kind of peace.”
Catriona, using “empty”, “animal” and “hopes” thought of:“The dawn stretches empty over rooftops Below an animal limps across the road A dog? A cat? A fox? The sullen hopes of a city life are waking”
Poetry is stripped out of the curriculum, studied almost as a separate entity. I’m a great believer that the poetic sensibility should be embedded and integrated much more into the day to day work of the classroom, and that a poem is as much a way of recording knowledge as a report or a close reading test or a storyboard. To illustrate this, we spent some time looking at poems from Gerry Cambridge’s lovely poetry / photography / natural history collection “Nothing But Heather”. Cambridge’s poetry is gorgeous, but what is so striking about “Nothing But Heather” is the informative quality of the text. I remember looking at one of my favourites, “Chrysomelid Beetle Pollinating a Wild Orchid”, with a Fifth Year pupil, and she said she learned more about plant fertilisation from that poem than she learned in 5 weeks in Higher Biology. All the students particularly liked “Shore Crab”, which they could easily see themselves using with their classes: you can hear a musical version of it here, with Cambridge proving his Rennaisance Man credentials by playing a mean moothie.
So poetry, much more than simply being a form, also informs. We looked at typical Primary school topics, and brainstormed a wordbank. For example, with Vikings, we came up with:
Long ships Sails Shields Mead Sagas
Hats with horns Horned helmets Swords battle-axes Pigtails
Ginger beards Storm Fjords Fiery funerals
Gruel Seas France – Normandy
A technique I’ve used often with older poetry writers is close redrafting: you can read more about it in “Wind Them Up and Let Them Go: The Primacy of Stimulus in the Classroom”, an article I did for Writing in Education magazine a few years back. You can download a copy from the University of Strathclyde by clicking the link.
Basically, when we assess prose, we tend to mark it holistically, taking in an extended piece of writing and assessing it with broad brushstrokes such as “vary your sentence structure” or “avoid repetition”. It’s my feeling that this kind of assessment is inappropriate for poetry, since here the aim is to condense, distil. As a result, we need to do away with prepositions, conjunctions, articles, all the chaff that makes a piece of prose flow, because those are not the words that signify meaning to the poet.
So, we get the pupils to write three simple sentences from their word bank – something like
|Viking long ships sailed through stormy seas from their homes in the fjords to invade Scotland. They arrived on beaches in the north and battled the locals with their swords and axes. They told stories they called sagas about these events.|
Now, looking at this as prose, we’d probably never comment on the fact that the phrase “in their” is repeated, or that the word “they” is used three times, because we feel they are somehow ”essential”. The poetic way, though, is to get rid of all those little words in red to strip us to the words that really mean something, the words that communicate the core idea. With a little beating and shaping, we can begin to mould something that looks like poetry:“Viking long ships Through stormy seas From fjord homes Invading Scotland Swords and axes For locals On beaches Sagas to be told.”
I’ve worked with teenage boys who love this way of building poetry, bit by bit, three sentence prose chunks developed into verses. Working with groups in a Primary classroom, you could have your very own Viking saga in less than half an hour.
So the poem becomes not a poem on its own, something seemingly independent of the rest of the curriculum, but becomes a quick, relatively easy way of providing another source of evidence of pupils’ understanding of a topic. In addition, unlike the passivity of a close reading, it demonstrates individuals’ ability to make choices about the language which means most to them from a topic, and their ability to manipulate that language to express something that is genuinely an individual response. Light bulbs seemed to be going on in the groups, thankfully. Now, the poetic way of handling language simply became another literacy skill in the arsenal.
And what poetry also does is combine the objective with the subjective. We looked at simple items that might be found on a nature walk – a dead autumn leaf, a pebble, a scrap of wool caught on a barbed wire fence – and brainstormed it with a simple “Objective / Subjective” column. After sharing and developing, the task was to write a short poem that contained at least two informative details and two emotional details. With a picture of a bird’s skull, I came up with:“ A fragile piece Of weather bleached calcium It’s tiny brain cavity Empty sockets And beak All that is left Of what it once was A feathered, flighted beauty, Built for tearing flesh.”
Again, many of the students outdid me. Matthew wrote about a broken egg-shell:“On the ground broken, discarded A small cracked egg lies on its own once a house to a new walk of life. Or is it now dead? A defenceless lunch for creatures passing by.”
What Matthew was very clear about was that he had no idea when he came in that he would have been able to produce that in five minutes – and that is, I think, an extremely powerful message to keep giving children: five minutes ago, you had nothing. This poem didn’t exist. Now look at what you’ve done. That message has been hugely motivating for my pupils over the years. And it also encourages an increased quantity of writing: every student went out the door having done a lot, they had been busy, busy, busy. In classrooms, pupils will drag their feet for weeks over a big set piece essay; with five or ten minute poetry exercises slotted in here and there into their everyday activities, they actually produce a great deal
A final stimulus exercise using Farrow and Ball’s ludicrous paint colour range – Dead Salmon? Elephant’s Breath? – and some discussion about the possibilities of using the poetic form much more regularly in classrooms as a means of allowing children to respond to the topics they study wound up the sessions. I think they all got the message; that rather than “doing poems” as a box tick for the curriculum, divorced from the reality of the rest of their learning, poetry can be an everyday way to respond to experience. And in doing so, I reckon, that can only help develop a love of poetry that can last a long, long time.
Today the Jordanhill campus of the University of Strathclyde had an official closing event, though the buildings will remain open for a few weeks longer before staff move to the refurbished Lord Hope building in Cathedral Street. I had lots of work to do and so didn’t attend what was billed as a “celebration of Jordanhill”, but I’m quite sure the 400 people or so who did go heard some inspiring speeches and had a very nice buffet while listening to the jazz band.
Jordanhill has been one of Scotland’s key institutions over the last century or so. I’ve been working in teacher education there since 2001, and it’s the one job in education I always wanted to do and the one place in education I always wanted to work ever since my own training in 1982. In the short time I’ve been there, I have personally been responsible for the training of well over 200 English teachers, and my English section has trained about a thousand. The potential for having an impact on how children have been taught is enormous and hugely rewarding.
Factor in all Secondary subjects, Primary teaching, social work, community education and a whole host of other graduate, postgraduate and professional courses, and we’re talking of several hundred thousand people in the history of the place who comprise a web of interconnectivity across Scotland and the world that is huge. So, despite the fact that most of what is still done there will be transferred to a new beginning on the city centre campus, there is a sense of the closure of an iconic part of education and the end of an era.
The process has taken some time, ever since proposals to build a brand new, £50 million “bespoke “city centre Education Faculty building with offices and state of the art teaching space were mooted in the mid 2000s. Times and priorities have changed since then. The Hope building houses accommodation for the School of Education staff to work side by side with many of the other subjects that have been subsumed into the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty in integrated working environments: teaching accommodation for the influx of the additional students is provided by the existing city centre campus stock. However, we are almost there now. I’m looking forward to meeting and working with people we have been dislocated from for so long, and having access to the facilities of the city centre; I’m also looking forward to the undoubted fun I’ll have delivering my annual Behaviour Management lectures in the Cineworld cinema complex!
As for the old campus: well, it seems it will be mothballed until the University can sell it to private developers, a transaction that will help finance the University’s ambitious aspirations to create a “leading international technological university” with a new £89 million “flagship” Technology and Innovation Centre. Most of the existing buildings will be bulldozed I imagine, but I’m sure the grand old lady that is The David Stow building, along with perhaps the beautiful red brick student accommodation, will be retained, possibly for development as luxury flats. It’ll be a pity that I’ll never be able to afford one of them – I reckon they’ll be out of reach of all educational professionals below Directors of Education or University Principals – because it would be lovely to live in a place that has had such an important influence on my life and my career.
Of course, the University of Strathclyde will continue to provide the very best teacher education you can find. You can find out about the School of Education and the courses it offers here:
Last autumn, I was contracted by the then Learning and Teaching Scotland to create support materials for the development of persuasive writing for the new National Qualifications courses in English.
Designed in much the same way as the materials I produced in 2010 to support creative writing for the Higher folio, these materials support writing as an ongoing process throughout a course. Teachers can pick and choose the PowerPoint lessons as and when they wish to reinforce work that is going on in the class. There are also regular activities to be done as lesson starters or homework, such a tweet sheets or blogging tasks.
I hope you find them useful. They can be downloaded, saved and adapted as you see fit and as topicality demands. They can be found here.
Since LTS was subsumed into the new Education Scotland body, the web address for the creative writing materials has moved. You can now find and download the materials, including videos of authors talking about creative writing, here:
Had an interesting day at the annual STEC conference. Highlight for me was the opening keynote, delivered by Tara Fenwick of the University of Stirling. Looking at the issue of teacher education with an “outsider’s” point of view – she’s Canadian, and had worked mostly in workplace research rather than teaching per se – she looked at the issue from the perspective of globalisation, with trends in the blurring of boundaries, conflicts over territory, authority and rights and mobility and migration which characterise the global flows that present us with new challenges. She posed various questions: why prepare teachers only for school when most will end up in some other form of education job at some point in their lives?; what do we do to counter the damaging stereotypes of teachers as, for example, hero-rescuers or healers which limit the ability to respond to a variety of contexts? ; how do we prepare true professionalism, which often works between the codified criteria of “professionalism” imposed by an accountability culture?; why on earth do we flog Kolb’s learning cycle to death?
She presented a far-sighted vision of what we can do that was really refreshing; I couldn’t help wondering, though, where, in our current bureaucracy, the leadership for such a vision was going to be found.
The rest of the day was fairly predictable. Graham Donaldson spoke to his recent report, a document in which a lot of sense is talked. However, he still persists in some of the old prejudices about the way teacher trainers do their job. For instance, he keeps saying that schools need a central role in the assessment of student teachers when they already have that role: students spend half of their time in schools, where they should be exposed to high quality formative feedback and clear assessment of strengths mapped on to the Standard for Initial Teacher Education (SITE) benchmarks, and where they should receive a detailed report that is at least as important as university tutors’ assessments. Whether or not they are doing it well enough is the real issue.
In addition, he parroted an insult I have heard from senior academics about university tutors “tootling” around the country to visit their students. Our own research into this clearly indicates that students value this visit more highly than any other feedback they get while on placement, and I suspect schools want us to visit more, not less. I’m all for finding ways of communicating better with students, but I haven’t seen an improvement on the present system yet, because most alternatives are driven not by pedagogical reasoning but by a cost-cutting university-driven agenda which has little sympathy for professional education courses or for what the paying students want.
The day finished up with some words of wisdom from a panel of the great and good, though there were worrying signs of the Newspeak flimflam so beloved of a cynical managerialist culture. For instance, I am all for the re-accreditation of teachers; everyone (including me) should be regularly assessed to ensure we haven’t become obstructive, lazy and ineffectual, and we do the greatest harm to education when we allow incompetent teachers to remain in the profession. However, even given that, it worries me when we are invited to view re-accreditation as a teacher’s “entitlement”. We are entitled to a pension scheme, to holidays, to sick pay; to say we are also “entitled” to have our competence assessed is simply disingenuous, especially when that assessment brings with it no “entitlement” to bonuses, promotion or other forms of professional recognition. Let’s call it for what it is; dressing it up as something it is so patently not will only create suspicion and resentment.
Similarly, the phrase “reinvigorating professionalism” seems to me to be a non-sequitur. Isn’t professionalism always vigorous? If the powers that be believe that teaching needs to be reinvigorated so regularly (McCrone, anyone?), can it really be called a profession at all?
So – good and not so to be taken from the day. Tara Fenwick, though, provided the freshest breath of air when she warned against being too “up ourselves” about the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in case it obstructed our engagement with the real world. And she’s a Professor of Education. Good for her.
Am engaged in an interesting debate on the Times Education website about Gaelic education, with many teachers suggesting that as it’s a dying language, it should not be funded as a subject in schools. They miss the wider picture, I think.
It seems to me that every time a language dies out, the oral traditions, the histories and music and rhythms of a culture die too. To suggest that languages should just be allowed to wither for “practical” reasons is as shallow-souled and short sighted as allowing endangered species to die out for economic reasons. The result would be a world without natural and human beauty. This planet has been successful because of its vast, gorgeous diversity – and I reckon it’s worth paying a few quid to preserve that.