Introduction to Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School
Writing poems in the classroom is unlike anything else. Poems are liberating and challenging for both the less able and the most able. Poems are free from the constraints of prose, so that the writer doesn’t have to worry about writing in sentences or using ‘correct’ punctuation. At the same time they provide an opportunity to take risks with language and experiment. Poems are challenging because of the demands of form and the discipline of saying a great deal in a few lines. Writing poems has a refreshing, unpredictable quality, it works a kind of magic so that the most disaffected students can surprise themselves by what they write.
Writing a story is a marathon for some, whereas the first draft of a poem can be a ten minute sprint. Poems are mostly short, which makes redrafting more acceptable: even if students think they have ‘finished’ a poem, you can always ask them to write an extra draft for a class anthology or display. Every word counts, so that drafting poems provides an opportunity to teach students about language in a context that is important to them. The skills learnt in writing poems improves students’ writing in all other areas, and improves their awareness of language in anything that they subsequently read. Finally, with poems we are onto a winner: young people spontaneously memorise poems of varying quality (in the form of song lyrics) for pleasure, and many will write poems anyway, at some time or other, for themselves.
When I started teaching I had reservations about teaching young people how to write poems. This unease is shared by many English teachers I speak to. It was like trying to show students how to draw and paint, armed only with qualifications in Art History. University had prepared me to criticise and theorise, not how to write or understand the process of writing. There’s a world of difference between responding to a poem in a university seminar and responding to a poem written by a student in Year 8.
I decided that the way into the business of writing poems was to talk with writers. The opportunity came with the Cheshire Poetry Project, set up to devise materials for teaching poetry in Cheshire schools and colleges. The philosophy was sound: give a group of teachers the time and resources, and they will devise practical, effective teaching materials. The key to the project was the opportunity to work alongside writers.
Around this time, inspired by working on the project, I started to write poems. Ian McMillan came into our school and things were never quite the same again. He introduced me to poetry magazines (in which my poems started to appear), encouraged me to go on an Arvon Foundation course at Lumb Bank, and opened my eyes to some of the things that are possible in the classroom. I also began to attend writing workshops.
The experience of writing workshops was invaluable: it was both relaxed and pressured, friendly and disciplined; it fitted exactly, therefore, with the classroom atmosphere which I had learned how to establish. There were elements of the workshop that leant themselves ideally to the classroom: the rapid changes in pace, the different kinds of preparation for writing, the actual intensity of the writing itself, and reading back. The only experience I had previously had of writing in a group was when I was at school. There was no comparison.
The writing workshop is also based on mutual respect: no one can write in a group which doesn’t take this for granted, just as no student will do their best if they think that what they say or write is not valued. We know as English teachers that the most fundamental ingredient in all successful teaching, including the teaching of poetry, is this relationship of trust between teacher and pupil. It is an instinctive thing: if students know that you are really listening to them, they will talk about what they consider important. And write.
Writing, and attending workshops, subtly altered the way I responded to students’ poems. I gained more confidence with drafting my own poems and also in helping pupils to draft theirs. It altered the way I read. I starting reading as a writer. As Peter Sansom says in the interview in Chapter 9: ‘The difference is not looking at the poem from the outside, like a finished artefact, but from the inside. It’s a living thing, not part of the canon of English literature.’
Reading and writing poems became related activities, not only for me personally, but also in the classroom. To write poems, pupils need to read them. Poems themselves, of course, can also be valuable models for students’ own writing. It is also true that writing poems helps give young people the confidence and insight to be able to read well. Both activities inform each other. When I set out to write this book, it was going to be about writing poems, not reading them, but I soon discovered that I couldn’t write about one without the other. So this book works in two ways: it describes how I get pupils to write poems and it also describes some of the ways in which I approach the reading of poems in the classroom. I haven’t attempted to deal with all aspects of teaching poetry but have concentrated on those areas that I find most useful when it comes to getting young people to write poems.
The poems I have used here are mostly contemporary. It is also possible to use pre-twentieth century poetry as a stimulus for writing, but contemporary poems are more useful in this context because they are mostly closer in style to how young people actually speak. It’s important to challenge the assumption that poetry has to sound ‘poetic’. Young people need to learn to write in their own voice, and in order to find their own voice they need to listen to the voices of their contemporaries. As Ted Hughes argues in Poetry in the Making: ‘Reading Milton or Keats to children is one thing. Asking them, or allowing them, to use such as models for their own writing is another.’ He talks about the dangers of striving for ‘a stylistic ideal’ when teaching pupils to write, arguing that teachers should have nothing to do with this: ‘Their words should be not “How to write” but “How to try to say what you really mean”—which is part of the search for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, grace.’
All the ideas and approaches described in this book are for this: to enable young people to say what they really mean. Not what they think they ought to say, not to please us, but to please themselves.