Teachers' Blogs

What value and place does poetry have in the classroom?

Author: The Royal School
Categories: Categories: Teachers Blogs

Recently I found out two great facts about Brian Moses and Pie Corbett; the first is that they taught together (way back in the day) and the second is that, often on Sunday mornings when they don’t have anything better to do, they write collaborative poetry on twitter. I spent much of the next part of the day ‘uplevelling’ my twitter profile and then following them, in the hope that I could become privy to these Sunday morning poetry writing sessions. Imagine being a pupil in the school that Mr Moses and Mr Corbett taught in? Imagine being a pupil in the school that Mr Moses and Mr Corbett taught in, and also being completely in love with reading and writing stories and poems? 

Children become influenced by great teachers. We all have that one inspirational teacher who shares a great responsibility for shaping us into the individuals we are today. In a rather strange coincidence, I learned last week of the death of mine - an unassuming, absent-minded Latin master (often the butt of a schoolboy prank) from my prep school in Norfolk. He had a passion for Catullus and Virgil that saw me aspire to take A Level Latin and still sees me reaching for poetry books thirty years later. 

Brian Moses captivated all of us, adults and children, at the More Able Writers Day with his performances of Snake Hotel and Shopping Trolley, and left us wanting more. There is something magical about a professional poet performing his own poems; you can’t create the same effect watching them online or reading them out loud yourself. Brian Moses captured us all with the musicality, sound and theatrics of his performance; and although he warned us he was going to scare us, he did - again and again. 

So how can we possibly translate this magic into the classroom? All children need to hear, read and write poetry. Poems should have an audience and not be kept in books. Poems should be shared in dens, under tables, written in the woods with charcoal from the burnt out fire, with a percussion accompaniment, off by heart, they should be filmed and watched back, they should be performed in assemblies, they should be shouted, whispered and rapped to a beat. We should enable children to have the possibility of seeing themselves as poets. Enthusiasm for poetry needs to come from us as teachers; we have a responsibility to get them excited about poetry and to write poetry alongside them. Children should understand that poetry is for everyone.

But it shouldn’t be easy. My Year 3s understand that we don’t DO easy in our classroom. In the initial stages, poetry can look like it’s just for fun (and therefore easy). In the early years, reading poetry aloud can be an opportunity for establishing and developing speaking and listening skills. As they get older, reading their own poetry aloud helps build relationships and encourage trust and empathy among children. If it starts in the early years, by the time they are writing their own poetry they will already have the confidence in themselves and their peer group to express themselves freely. 

There’s plenty of time for analysis, for appreciating its ambiguity, for unlocking and unpicking the hidden meaning. If they have confidence, understanding and enthusiasm for poetry then the analysis, when it comes, will be at a greater depth. These higher level skills can only be established if the children already have a rich vocabulary. 

A lot of educators are talking about building vocabulary in young people and closing the word gap. It’s widely reported that the size of a child’s vocabulary is the best predictor of success in future tests, and that children with a poor vocabulary at five years old are four times more likely to struggle with reading in adulthood. Poetry can be one vehicle to create classrooms that are, according to a recent TeachIt article “rich in language, where adults model the way speakers and writers are constantly making choices, choosing words that are more or less formal, more or less technical, more or less colloquial – to show children that self-expression is a set of choices, not a matter of predetermined intelligence”.

Brian Moses encouraged our pupils to express themselves through their poetry writing; he set them up (as Pie Corbett also does so brilliantly) with scaffolds, he provided models and encouraged them to constantly improve their word choice by not being satisfied with their first attempt. He praised them sincerely when they wrote something he approved of. Praise from a poet of Brian’s calibre does something marvellous for a Year 6 boy on the brink of achieving his potential; it makes him swell with pride and become determined to write something even better.  

Rosenshine’s principles of modellling, guiding student practice and daily review fitted seamlessly into Brian’s workshop and are being adopted across all lessons at The Royal School. Their simplicity and clarity make sense and correlate with what we are already doing in (and out of) the classroom. Adopting these principles gives teachers more confidence that their teaching is making a difference to student outcomes, even in areas where they might not feel as confident. Poetry lesson anyone? 

Written by Mrs Clare Mee, Prep 3 teacher at The Royal Prep School