Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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2.2 Teachers create and maintain a challenging learning environment

2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning

What range of English language and literacy teaching strategies does the teacher draw from?

How does the teacher enable students to engage with and make connections between school and community-based literacies?

  Teaching poetry
Year 8
David Lee

At the beginning of this term I had decided that I wanted to do some poetry with my Year 8 class. There were several reasons. First, while we had spent a fair bit of time on narratives of one sort or another, I was concerned that I had focussed my teaching on the elements of the genre, to the detriment of any focussed attention on issues associated with word choice. While some students' writing reflected their alertness to language, I wanted to make this a concern with all students. Second, there was the perennial guilt about not teaching poetry. In particular, I wanted to focus on metaphor and extended metaphors, for the sorts of challenges that these present to students.

The other important context is, of course, the class. In a word, they are difficult, verging, at times on the feral. Rowdy, with a lot of work needed to gain their attention. Class discussions, which had been an important part of my teaching with them last year, while they were in Year 7, were extremely difficult to manage, given the tensions between different groups and individuals in the class. A recent spate of stealing each other's pens, rulers and the like had contributed to the animosities. Of course, there are still a number of students who are 'compliant' and quietly 'doing the work', while there are others who are, at times, difficult to manage, but who I am actually, I think, negotiating relationships with, as they and I move in and out of our roles as student/young person, and teacher/older adult.

My announcement that we were going to do some poetry was met with derision from a couple of the 'boys' - girls' stuff, they reckoned. I began the series of lessons on poetry with a couple of extended metaphor poems, where I had erased the title and the subject of the poem in the first line. I asked students in pairs, to work out the title, on the basis of their reading of the poems. I had used this strategy previously with Year 7s and it had worked well, to get them to actively read and interpret the texts. With this class, however, it was a total disaster. The students simply did not take the activity seriously; the class discussion and argument, which the pair work led to, collapsed under their combined indifference and my difficulty in managing the class in this sort of context.

What to do next, then? The next lesson, I took in two series of books: A Book to Perform Poems By, a collection edited by Rory Harris and Peter McFarlane; and the only other class set of poetry in the English store-room - a dull collection, with student activities for a range of 'types'. My instructions were deliberately open-ended, after the disaster that had befallen the fairly closed task of the previous lesson. I asked students to simply read through the books, share the poems with others, then, for each group of students, to select one poem that could be read to the class.

At the time, I think I actually spent very little considered time thinking about the reasons for choosing this task. I just thought I'd take another tack - it was a strategy that I had used in the past, and it had worked. However, looking back, there was another consideration in my choice. It was a strategy that took attention away from me; it was less a matter of me teaching the class, but of providing me with the opportunity to share and discuss with the students what they had found. I hoped that it would provide the necessary impetus for further work.

Very quickly, it emerged that a number of students were taken by the performance poetry in the Harris and McFarlane collection. It is excellent material - the poems are lively, witty and varied, the illustrations arresting, and the collection as a whole escapes from any hint of being 'good' or 'improving' for students. The students laughed as they shared particular discoveries, and very soon one group of girls asked whether they could present the one poem, as a group. I seized on the opportunity. If there was one thing about this class that they had had considerable success at, it was in group presentations of one sort or another - interviews with characters from novels, dramatised versions of Poe's The Raven, Jabberwocky etc. I showed the group how they might break the reading of their poem up into different parts, and then told the other groups about this possibility. There was lots of noise but, this time, the talk was about how to divide the parts, and rehearsal.

The next lesson the students presented the poems, either in groups, or individually. A range of poems and forms of presentation were presented: a choral reading of a poem on domestic violence by a group of girls; a dramatised performance of a 'found' poem based on headlines by a group of 'the boys'; an excerpt from a bush ballad, etc. What was striking, for me, was the commitment to the presentations that students showed, and the inventiveness and sense of fun in the way many orchestrated their readings.

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Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia