An account of a poetry lesson, with some thoughts on efficiency, on how we treat texts and on knowledge.
When I became an Advanced Skills Teacher, in 2002, the designation was still fairly new. There was quite an intensive appointment process involving a portfolio of documentary evidence, a set of testimonials and a visit by an external assessor, who watched me teach a mixed-ability Year 10 class. For this, I served up a ‘sure-fire’ double lesson on a poem, which I thought went very well. However, while the assessor enjoyed the lesson and was complimentary about it, she had a major reservation. Just the week before (she told me) she had seen the same poem “taught very well in just half the amount of lesson time.” I found this a little irksome. I argued that I could very easily have ‘taught the poem’ in half the time, but that the lesson was about more than covering curriculum content as quickly as possible. But did she have a point?
The lesson was on a Simon Armitage poem, which students needed to study for GCSE English Literature and which they had not seen before the lesson.
Poem And if it snowed and snow covered the drive He took a spade and tossed it to one side. And always tucked his daughter up at night. And slippered her the one time that she lied. And every week he tipped up half his wage. And what he didn't spend each week he saved. And praised his wife for every meal she made. And once, for laughing, punched her in the face. And for his mum he hired a private nurse. And every Sunday taxied her to church. And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse. And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse. Here's how they rated him when they looked back: sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that. Simon Armitage
It was a lesson which I had taught before and which I have taught since, both to GCSE classes and at Key Stage 3. So: is it weakened by time-wasting gimmickry, or not?
Before meeting the poem, students have a few moments to ponder this question, which has been on the board as they come in and settle.
At the end of your life, how would you want to be remembered by others?
There will be some brief sharing of thoughts on this, before students are introduced to the main ‘agenda’ for the lesson: reading and thinking about another of Armitage’s poems.
The lesson starts with a sequencing exercise – a classic ‘DARTs’ activity. Rather than reading the poem intact, pairs of students are given the lines cut-up, to sequence. There are even ‘blanks’ to go between stanzas.
This approach is not unfamiliar to them; what they don’t know is that three key lines have been held back.
During this process, there is still plenty of teaching. As in any effective problem solving activity, students’ thinking is supported by targeted questioning, moments of modelling, encouraging feedback and – where necessary – direct explanation. Students are encouraged to unpick narrative, but also to identify and explore elements of form (stanzas, rhymes and half rhymes) and of structure (the triple arrangement, and the couplet – which some place as an announcement at the start and others as a conclusion at the end.) These ideas are further clarified in a follow-up class discussion.
Students then write briefly and silently about their impressions of the presented character. Sharing these impressions leads to further observations about the form of the poem: the initial “And” implies some sort of inevitability or even weariness; the word’s insistent repetition and the poem’s simple diction reinforces a sense of ordinariness and even boringness; the end couplet suggests a sort of mundane finality to the summing up. We talk about who “they” might be and about the idea of eulogy. There is some discussion about how we, as readers, might feel about the man and his simple, dutiful existence. There is usually also some dissatisfaction shared about the poem itself – hard to pin down, but expressed as a sort of “So what?”
Next, with a flourish, the students are told that three lines were actually missing and they are given these to add in – on different coloured card, for maximum effect.
This is invariably a moment of some drama. As they place the missing lines, students always express strong reactions. It’s a curious response – a mixture of anger at the character and relief that there’s more to the poem after all; there’s a sort of pleasurable catharsis, as students finally have something to react to. They are meant to (and do) feel betrayal. They’ve been tricked by me; they’ve been let down by the character.
Students are now given copies of the poem, they listen to it being read aloud and then they read it to themselves. Again, they record their thoughts and feeling in silent writing. Again, these are shared in a class discussion.
At this point, there is debate about what we should now make of the man. What are we to make of ‘one time’, ‘once’ and ‘twice’? Now what do the repeated ‘And’s suggest? To some, he is monstrous; to others he is human and flawed. (There is no given answer here and it is essential to keep in mind that some students will themselves know abuse in their families, possibly very similar.)
During this discussion, I try to make sure that structure and form are still foregrounded: how does Armitage exploit repetition and pattern to maximise the emotional dissonance of these three key lines? How should we read the couplet now? It it also elicited (and explained) that the poem is a sonnet and is written in iambic pentameter, with all of those forms’ associations to contend with.
To give this discussion focus, after some initial to and fro, students are given a series of provocative statements about the poem to discuss in pairs and groups. These are then debated by the class.
Throughout all of this, I annotate the poem on the interactive whiteboard, and each student annotates their own copy.
The lesson ends with the setting of a consolidatory homework: sometimes, students write about the process which they had gone through, explaining how their perceptions of the character and their understanding of the poem have developed through the double lesson; sometimes, I ask them to choose three or four of the ‘statements’ to explore in writing.
How we treat texts
A fair criticism of this lesson would be that it doesn’t allow the poem to stand for itself. As a piece of teaching, it is both emotionally and didactically manipulative, intended to steer the students into a strongly felt understanding of the poem by inducing a sense of betrayal and of emotional dissonance. To do so, the lesson denies students the chance to encounter the poem in its intended form. But then we do this sort of thing all the time in English lessons, if not by asking students to reconstruct a text, then by releasing it slowly to them, by interrupting it with didactic questions, by requiring particular modes of response, by the artificial setting of the classroom, and just by telling them to read it on our teacherly terms, not the text’s.
Another criticism might be that the lesson is in a way tasteless – that the poem is too serious to be messed with like this. I knew an NQT once who upset colleagues when he turned Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’ into a sequencing exercise – a jolly game, played with a heart-breakingly sad text. But I’m not sure this is the case here: the poem is itself morbidly playful and it accommodates some controlled messing about.
Efficiency & knowledge
So what of my AST assessor’s suggestion that I might somehow have wasted time? Well, efficiency in teaching is a problematic idea. Of course time and energy shouldn’t be evaporated away by gimmickry or activity with no purpose. But an element of theatre, an injection of emotion, or a playful unwrapping of ideas can be worth the time if ideas are more memorably imprinted or are more deeply understood.
And anyway, the aims of a lesson can’t necessarily be pinned down to the storing of curriculum content in long-term memory; knowledge is more complex than that. Students can be taught about a poem’s linguistic and poetic features; they can be taught about its possible interpretations; they can be taught about how it sits within a context; and so on. All of this can be usefully prescribed in a written scheme of learning, can be helpfully mapped on a ‘knowledge organiser’, can be quizzed for recall and can be assessed through a particular kind of analytical writing. However, English teachers tend to believe that to really ‘know’ a poem, students need to have formed a relationship with it which is more than intellectual.
In Act 5, Scene 1 of Macbeth, Shakespeare plays with the idea of ‘knowledge’ in this exchange between the Gentlewoman and the Doctor, who have witnessed Lady Macbeth’s incriminating sleep-talk.
Doctor Go to, go to; you have known what you should not. Gentlewoman She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that: heaven knows what she has known.
The knowledge which the Gentlewoman has (but ‘should not’) is of the Queen’s words, and of how they can be interpreted. Only ‘heaven’ knows what Lady Macbeth has really ‘known’ – the depths of her experience and its human meaning. And that, of course, is the knowledge which we, the audience, feel we share.
When teaching literature – or any texts – English teachers tend to aim for more than just knowledge of the words and knowledge of interpretations. They want at least to try for a knowledge more like that of Shakespeare’s ‘heaven’ – something deeper, more personal, more felt.