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Teaching Poetry To English Language Students

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In this article, we discuss what poetry is. We look at different forms of poetry. We suggest ways that English Language Teachers can teach and use poetry in the classroom and give some personal reflections on the usefulness of poetic activities for learners of English.

Definitions. We all know what poetry is, don’t we?

The Oxford Dictionary defines poetry as “a piece of writing expressing feelings and ideas that are given intensity by particular attention to diction”. Dictionary.com says poetry is “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts,” and goes on to state it is a “literary work in metrical form; verse.”
So that is clear then!

Other sources refer to ‘structured and rhythmic language’, ‘meter, rhyme, and rhythm; metaphor, simile, symbolism, and figurative language…” And all that is before we consider particular forms of poetry such as sonnets, haikus, limericks or epics!

A Poetry Project-Personal Reflections

In my role as a travelling teacher, I was recently asked to lead a poetry project for advanced learners of English in a school in Switzerland. The project would culminate in a poetry slam at the end of the project week. I approached the week with some trepidation, to say the least. In this article, I will give some thoughts and reflections about how the week went and will try to give a broader answer to the question ‘What is poetry?’ Moreover, I will try to come to some personal conclusions about how useful teaching poetry is for learners of English.

Background

I routinely teach English in project weeks across Europe. I generally teach all levels of English to students from 12 to adult. I also write semi-professionally. So, I am not a stranger to poetry. However, I’m not particularly a fan of it either. Perhaps because of my dyslexic background, I have often found poetry too formulaic, and rule based. You must have a rhyme here and here… You must count the syllables in every line. You have to make sure the meter and rhythm work… There are just too many ways that you can make mistakes and fall foul of the rules! Whatever personal truth or glimpse into your soul you were trying to convey is just going to get lost in criticism because you didn’t follow the correct conventions.

And yet in my youth, I did write some poems and songs that nobody but me ever read. Most people do. Many of us have an urge to communicate. Some of us like to subvert the language we are familiar with to say something original or personal. But we keep it to ourselves because we don’t want to risk the spotlight of criticism falling on us, especially when we are exposing something quite personal. So, there was only one thing I was sure of when I began leading the poetry project; there would be very few rules.

Starting Points

My company provided me with a lot of materials and activity ideas to engage students with poetry. These materials included a selection of poems and songs, descriptions of poetry types and how they are constructed, and exercises focused on specific aspects of poetry such as rhyme and meter. To know where to start with all these materials it was important to get to know the students.

The fifteen-year-old students turned out to be very good at English, quite studious and hard working but rather shy and nervous when expressing themselves. I started by describing what was expected of them during the week. I told them that during the course (and in their home time if they wanted to) they would write as many poems as possible in a variety of styles and that by the end of the week, they should be able to choose three of the poems they had written to take through to the ‘Poetry Slam’. Using a few of the examples my company had provided and a few short pieces I had written the night before, I said a poem could be anything that involved putting English words together to express something. It didn’t have to rhyme, make sense, or obey any rules. I was not going to judge them because every poem is something personal. I said the only rule we might have, to make things fair and equal for everyone, was that any poem put forward to the poetry slam should be roughly ten lines long. The first exercise I gave them was to write down what they thought about poetry, in any style, long or short but without attaching their name to it. I would then read out the results. Which I did. There were a variety of responses which ranged from; “Poetry Sucks, Which rhymes with ducks.,” to, “Words that mean something to somebody, Thoughts which are shared in code, Hidden feelings caught in the light of language.”

I was quite impressed with their first efforts!

Writing, Speaking and Performance

At the end of the first day of the course, I wanted to give the students a picture of what a poetry slam looked like, to give them an idea of what we were aiming for at the end of the week. Moreover, I wanted to show that poetry could be modern, moving, relevant and sometimes funny. I chose a few extracts which are easily available on YouTube (you can find some examples here).

I chose the extracts to be both entertaining and inspirational (which indeed they are) but I hadn’t really considered how de-motivating they might be. As I looked around at the slightly bewildered faces in my classroom after the last extract finished, I found myself having to quickly backtrack. “Well, of course, nobody expects ‘you’ to be at that level by the end of the week. The people you have just seen are more or less professional poets. They can make a good living by performing poetry in slams and shows. Yes, you can make money from poetry! But you don’t need to be that polished in just a few days. When it comes to our poetry slam, we will be looking more at the poems themselves, rather than the performance…”

But was that true? There is a big difference between writing a poem and performing it. A natural performer could probably sell a bad poem better than a shy and stuttering student could perform a good poem… How would we judge?

Type, Style and Method

Over the next three days, I decided to concentrate on three main types of poems. My choices were based on the materials I had with me and time constraints. I wanted to give the students time to experiment with simple formulas that could be built on, and added to, if necessary.

Acrostic Poems

An acrostic poem is a type of poetry where the first, last or other letters in a line spell out a particular word or phrase. The most common and simple form of an acrostic poem is where the first letters of each line spell out the word or phrase. For example; ACROSTIC

A piece of poetry
Created by letters
Refined by thought
Or time
Spelling out meaning or
Telling a story
Inviting interpretation or
Critical reading.

I started with acrostic poems because I thought it was a simple concept that could be both fun and challenging to the students and by using examples like the poem given above, it would wean students off the idea that poems had to rhyme. I suggested some starting words but said they were free to use their own. They seemed to find the activity quite absorbing and produced some very good poems of their own.

Song and Verse

In common with their contemporaries, most of my students enjoyed listening to music in their free time. I wanted to make the point that song lyrics and poetry are very similar and thus poetry is very much part of their own cultural background. I distributed a selection of well-known songs and poems among the students. I asked them to pass them around and note down which ones they liked and why. I also asked them to come to their own conclusions about what is the difference between song lyrics and poems when there is no music. They identified that most songs have a repeating refrain which poems generally don’t. Then I asked them to write something in verses. I told them they could think of it as a song, a rap or a poem; whichever they felt comfortable with. I didn’t give them much more guidance other than to keep in mind that poems entered in the end of week slam should be ‘about’ ten lines long. Interestingly, most of them used a lot of rhymes in their own poems without any prompting from me.

Cut And Paste (Découpé)

There are many variations to this poetry writing technique. I kept it as simple as possible. I distributed a variety of texts. You could use old newspapers or magazines. I had several unused texts from other courses I teach which included a magazine article about the death of the ‘American Dream’ and a technical pamphlet about airline maintenance among other things. (I have no idea where that came from)! Basically, the idea is to cut and paste bits of text, moving them around on the paper until you come up with something interesting. I told my students that they could pass around and exchange texts and add their own words or phrases if they wanted to. They enjoyed the activity and again came up with some poetry that I was impressed with.

Artificial Intelligence.

For most of the week, the students worked on paper in the classroom. Most of them requested to do extra work at home and, not wanting to curb their enthusiasm, I let them. During a rehearsal on the penultimate day, a few of the students suddenly produced work that was much better than anything they had done previously. I was very suspicious that they had copied, plagiarised, or simply asked ChatGPT to write something for them. I addressed the class as a whole and said that using artificial intelligence would be cheating and went against the whole ethos of what we were trying to do. The people I thought might be cheating loudly proclaimed their innocence. A bit too loudly maybe? I will never know. But we live in times where it is increasingly hard to tell.

The Slam

The slam took place on the final day of the course. Other students and teachers had been invited to attend. The slam would be in a knock-out format. Students would be randomly selected to go up against each other. The audience would vote on which of the two would go through to the next round with myself and the Class Teacher casting the deciding votes in the case of a tie. Because of the numbers involved, this would produce three rounds. In the final round, the best two students would compete against each other. All the students were very nervous. So was I.

During the course of the slam, the students performed renditions of the various poems they had written during the week. There were one or two students who had not taken the week as seriously as others and were unsurprisingly voted out in the first round. However, most of the poems were quite good and impressed the audience. Some were funny, others were poignant with personal references to immigration, racism and teenage mental health. The eventual winner by an almost unanimous vote was a girl who had been one of the quieter students during the week. She was not the best speaker or performer but the words she had composed touched the hearts of the audience. In a quiet voice, she described the confusion of emotions that had overwhelmed her on the day her parents sat her down to tell her they were getting divorced. Several members of the audience and her fellow classmates had tears in their eyes by the time she had finished reciting her poem.

Conclusion

At the beginning of this article, I gave several different and perhaps confusing definitions of what poetry is. There are plenty more I could have quoted. I think people will choose whichever definition resonates with them. We all know what poetry means to us. Perhaps that is enough. It is certainly less intimidating and more liberating not to be restrained by other people’s expectations of what poetry should be.

Certainly, students of literature should study the forms and traditions of poetry. That is part of the cultural heritage they are studying. But do students of English (or any other language) simply as a means of communication, need to learn and understand all the forms and conventions of poetry? Well, they may not ‘need’ to, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be gained from engaging with poetry. It is a means of communication that sometimes conveys more than the normal conventions of grammar allow. People remember song lyrics and poems because they are something more than simple sentences.

The various activities we participated in during the poetry project made us all look at words and language differently and gave us new perspectives on how it was possible to use English. Questions remain about the importance of composition versus the ability to perform. In future, I might organise the competitive element of the slam differently. It is also clear that teachers need to be mindful and vigilant about the use of artificial intelligence. With all that being said, the eventual winner of the slam was a student who was not a natural performer and whose words hit home because of their authenticity. Poetry gave her a means of expression and communication that she might not have had otherwise. For me as a teacher, the poetry project was worth it for that fact alone.

In the following download, we have provided some Poetry activities for you to try with your students. We would love to know how you get on in the comments!

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