Sunday, 21 May 2017

Poetry and stories for primary and lower secondary schools 2.

Some teachers have told me that on occasions people who manage schools have told them that they shouldn't just be letting children read to themselves, and/or they shouldn't just be reading and enjoying poetry. The teachers need to be doing some specific teaching and the children need to be doing a set task. 

In this blog, I'm going to try to answer this. I'm going to defend the activity of reading and enjoying poetry in the primary classroom. Just that. No task. 

This involves me imagining a situation in which a teacher has to justify this in a meeting with someone who is telling that teacher that there is little or no point in simply reading and enjoying poetry. 

Please feel free to adopt or adapt any of the following:

1. Learning to read is never simply or only a matter of decoding letters. No one says that it is. In order to learn how to understand words, phrases, paragraphs, verses, chapters and books, we have to relate what's on the page with 'meaning'. There are many ways of doing this. One way is to share the enjoyment of a piece of writing. One of the ways we can do this is to read, say, perform and talk about poems. In short, then, doing poems together in class is a great way of learning how writing has meaning. The shorthand for this is 'comprehension'. I prefer the word 'interpretation' because when any of us, children or adults, talk about something like a poem, we have different views of what things in the poem, or the poem as a whole means. We have different views on how we feel about the poem. We interpret parts and the whole of poem. The discussion we have around these different interpretations are great for discovering and refining ways in which words and phrases mean things. 

So, poems are a great way of helping children learn to read for meaning. 

2. Most poems are good for saying out loud, particularly ones that have been written for children, or ones for adults that have been selected specially for children. These kinds of poems, then, have a quality in them that is potentially oral: we can pass them to each other over the airwaves. This of course is what we do with speech. These poems are then a specialised form of speech. They have been written to be said. The importance for this with children is that it makes them ideal for being a kind of 'bridge' between the oral and the written. 

Why might this be important? 

I think we know that for some - possibly many children - the written word poses a challenge. Even when some of it makes sense, other parts of it don't. By having a written form that has feet in both the oral and the written word, poems enable children to move easily between the two. Poems they hear, they can then find on the page. Poems on the page can be turned into things that can be said. 

What's more there are all sorts of hints and suggestions in poems about how to say them. And where there aren't, after a bit of reading two or three times, it's great to discover how reading poems out loud in different ways alters the meaning. In fact, every time a child engages with how to say a poem out loud, he or she actually engages with the meaning in a very easy and satisfying way. 

So, again, for a slightly different reason, poems are great ways to help children read for meaning. 

3. Real writing is never just words. As we all know, a test like the Phonics Screening Check is a list of words. That's because it is testing for children's ability to decode letters. Nearly all writing and reading outside of a test situation involves sequences of words (phrases, clauses, sentences, lines, verses, paragraphs, pages, chapters, whole books and the like). This is how we get sense from language: in sequences or groups of words. But we also get sense from context: who's saying what to whom? What are the phrases around the phrase that I'm actually reading? What happened in the poem, play or story that came before the bit I'm hearing or reading? How do plots 'unfold'? How do we 'get' character? How do flashbacks and flash forwards work? How do I know who is speaking in a story? How do I get it that some writing is about what's going in people's minds and some of it isn't? And so on. 

These are things that we have to learn if we are to understand writing. 

One of the great things about poems is that the sequences are often very memorable. This may be because they have a regular rhythm, a regular rhyme, a regular shape, sequences that have something that 'chimes' - e.g. alliteration, assonance, some other kind of 'echoing' effect, repetition of words, or phrases; symmetrical balancing of words or phrases and so on.

All this means that poems are great ways of learning how language is much more than words, but that it comes to us in groups. 

So, poems are a great way of learning that language is more than words: it's about sequences of words.

4. Flowing from all the previous points is one about dialect and 'register'. One of the problems for children reading for understanding of the written code is that writing is not speech. In other words, having spent five years learning how to speak and understand speech (and all its specific ways of going on), children have to not only learn how to lift signs off the page so that they correspond to words, they also have to unpack the particular methods that writing uses which are different from speech. These are things like: writing usually gets to the end of a train of thought without self-interrupting, without being interrupted by someone else, without repetition, without lots of hesitation, without lots of 'ums' and 'ers', without phrases like 'you know what I mean?' 'eh?' 

Writing can have a train of thought (usually a sentence) that has more subordinate clauses in it, than we usually say when we're talking. The most common of these is the relative using 'who', 'which', 'that' and sometimes 'where'. Instead: oten in speech we start a new bit beginning with an 'It', 'This' or 'That'. Quite often in writing we put subordinate clauses beginning with words like 'When', 'Because', 'Although' (and many others) in front of the main clause, when in speech we tend to put them after. (None of this is a rule, these are just tendencies). 

If, as I've said, poetry is a bridge between the oral and the written but it is itself a written form, then in a way it's a method of cheating the reader to get hold of written structures through the ear, ie orally. This is great for children to get the sound of written sequences of language. They will probably remember whole chunks of written language. It's as if they've been tricked into getting the way writing works into their heads.

So, reading poetry together is a great way to learn how writing works. 

5.  One of the tasks facing us in education is how to help children get hold of abstract thought, abstract ideas. A good deal of poetry appears to be just the opposite (by no means all of it, though). A lot of poetry is about feelings, looking closely at specific objects, processes, scenes and people. Some of it is focussed on telling a story. Some of it is focussed on the sensation of actions and processes. Some of it is about celebrating or talking about cultural features of our lives: how we eat, sing, have ceremonies, how we dress. Some of it is about the kinds of dialogues we have with others. None of this seems to be about abstract thought. 


....if we invite children to talk about poems, they will inevitably select aspects of poems they enjoy or are puzzled by and the like. Sometimes this takes them very quickly into telling or describing something analogous. It may take them into telling an analogous story or anecdote. In its own way this is doing something abstract. It involves selecting one item from many from the poem, and selecting from many memories, a memory that overlaps with the one in the poem. This is in effect doing what we invite children to do when they make a 'series' out of objects in maths. It is a matter of creating a category to hold a thought from the poem and a thought in their head. Some have called these 'schemas'. So, in what may seem like quite inconsequential comments and stories, may well be something sophisticated going on: the bringing to the surface and/or the creation of schema. These may involve feelings, processes, actions, sights, scenes and much else besides. 

So, poems are a great way to help children make the transition from thinking in concrete, specific ways towards making abstractions. Or, in brief, talking about poems is a great way to help children with abstract thought.

6. It's very hard to remember how we thought of language when we were young. I have a feeling that quite a few children think that the stuff they say every day in not part of the same thing that goes on with reading and writing in school. Though we talk of the 'English language', in fact we create compartments for different kinds of usage. If I was a child again, I think it would be very easy for me to think that the specialised use of language that goes on in school, was not really 'mine'. It's something that was owned by teachers, text books, dictionaries and exams and the like. I think that one of our tasks in schools is to help children get a sense that this 'school language' can be taken over and owned by children. The great advantage of reading, hearing, performing and talking about poems, is that a good deal of them are easy to own. Parts or all of them can, with repetition, become very easy to learn off by heart. This is one way for school language to become owned by children.

So, poetry reading is a great way for children to make formal language their own.

7. Related to this is the fact that poetry in the twentieth century not only copied and adapted itself - e.g. limericks, sonnets, ballads, and the like, but started to copy and adapt any form of language that was out there. It could do this by e.g. parodying prayers, or imitating ads, mimicking the way politicians, or scientists, or teachers or anyone spoke; it could imitate street signs, street cries and much else. I often think that poetry is a 'scavenger'. Unlike almost any other use of language, poetry feels free to grab an example of a type of language-use from anywhere and play with it. 

Schools usually ask children to do something very different with language. We ask children to perform tasks to fit an already-made shape and purpose: recounts, stories with beginnings, middles and ends; sentences that contain certain fixed characteristics like fronted adverbials or relative clauses. The great thing about poetry is that it can home in on any way of speaking or writing it likes and do what it wants with it. Think of the poems in Allan Ahlberg's 'Please Mrs Butler'. A lot of them are in a 'teacher's voice'. Children hearing or reading these can get very quickly that poems can borrow anyone's way of talking. It isn't a fixed 'genre'. You can just decide to adopt a voice and run with it. 

This suggests that it's OK to treat language as something to grab, or plunder or play with. This helps children feel (as above) that language can be theirs. They can own it. 

So, poetry can help children see that language is theirs to adopt and adapt. 

8. One of the key concepts that we want to help children get hold of is 'empathy'. One way to look at empathy is to say that it is about understanding how others think and feel. Because poetry is often about a poet's thoughts and feelings, if we enjoy a poem, there is every chance that we are developing our empathy. 

There is another way to think of empathy: it is about getting to see how other people's culture(s) work. Poems are good for this too. A lot of poems (some would argue it's 'all poems' but let's leave that to one side for the moment!) express people's culture. Whether it's talking about food, home, school, hopes, fears, habits, particular ways of talking, slangs, celebrations, styles of dress, proverbs, sayings and much more, poems often show us culture. If it's done in a catchy, interesting, funny, intriguing, even sad way, we might be caught up in thinking about people who have cultures different from our own. This is another way of thinking about empathy. 

Either way, poems are great ways to help us learn empathy.

9. Related to this, poems are often about values. The poet is quite often trying to say that such-and-such is important or valuable or worthwhile. It may not be the 'thing' at the heart of the poem but the fact that the poet is looking at the 'thing', dwelling on it, or wondering about it, spending time gazing at it or trying to understand it. It may be because there is a story at the heart of the poem which indicates that one or more things are worthwhile, or significant. 

Ultimately, education will involve values, even if it's not more than saying that 'this subject is worth studying' or 'it is worthwhile for you to learn this, learn about that' or just that it's worthwhile learning, per se. 

So, poems are a great way to engage with values. 

10.  Schools spend some time in a month engaging with children's feelings. Some people do 'circle time', others do it through specific lessons. Some do it when 'issues' crop up, e.g. bullying, bereavement, loneliness and the like. Some work to a syllabus. 

Clearly, a good deal of poetry talks about feelings. They often show someone or some people experiencing something and implying or talking about emotions. 

This means that poems are a great way to bring emotions to the surface. There is an advantage in that because a poem will be about the emotions of the person/people in the poem, the reader doesn't have to talk about their own individual experience (which may be too raw, or too embarrassing to talk about directly) in order to engage with the feeling that is bothering them. The reader or listener can talk about the feelings of the person/people in the poem instead. Poems can deflect or 'contain' the emotions of the reader/listener so that they are 'safe' even as they engage with those emotions. 

So, poems can be safe ways to engage with feelings in a helpful way. 

11. Some schools do philosophy to help children think about how we think. We have different strategies for thinking about things. Across a range of poems, we come face to face with poets using different ways of thinking about things: sometimes very empirically as if they're being scientists, sometimes very speculatively as if they are 'brainstorming', sometimes relating personal experience to shared experience, sometimes in very open-ended ways, sometimes in very closed-ended ways and so on. 

This means that poems are one way we can begin a discussion about how we think and how we have different ways of thinking. We can discuss how we let emotions affect our judgement. We can discuss how sometimes we say one thing and mean another and much more. Poems often explore these areas. 

Because to engage with this requires 'interpretation', poems are a) great places to start discussions about how we think but also b) a great way to discover that we are all 'interpreters', young or old, capable of coming up with ways of making a meaning out of some words or all the words in a poem. 


I hope these 11 points will help you justify the activity of reading, sharing, performing and talking about poems. Please note, I'm not talking here about any specific or targeted activities other than just these. In some future parts of this 'Poetry in the Primary School' I will tackle some more targeted activities. However, I don't want to suggest that 'targeted' is necessarily any better than the kinds of sharing I suggested in Poetry in the Primary School 1. Please remember that poets write poems in order that people who read them have conversations: with themselves as individuals and with others. By reading, sharing, performing and talking about poems, you will be going with the flow of the art form of poetry. You are being true to poetry. That's worth something too, of course!