Karen Morris, Senior Lecturer in Primary English, Department of Children, Education and Communities, Edge Hill University, explores Poetry for a Change, the new National Poetry Day Anthology.
There are really positive insights on children’s enjoyment of poetry from a recent online survey for National Poetry Day (A Thing That Makes Me Happy: National Literacy Trust, 2018). Nearly half the 8-18 year olds sampled said they engaged with poetry in their free time: not just as readers or writers, but as viewers, listeners or performers. Although print is still important for this age group, the most frequent poetry consumers and creators turn to poetry on their screens: sharing their own work and the poems they like online.
An opportune time, then, to publish a new poetry anthology entitled Poetry for a Change (Otter-Barry £6.99). Its contributors are contemporary poets whose work is shared in schools, libraries and at live events across the UK. The poets’ energy and joy for celebrating language is engaging and the immediacy of their connection to their audience strengthens the collection. For example, the edible nature of secrets is perfectly conveyed by Joseph Coelho in his poem Secret Eating in which he explores the sensations of a trying to keep quiet while your body is consumed by a desire to set a secret free! A CLiPPA prize winner (2015) and National Poetry Day Ambassador, Joe’s poetry is both playful and thoughtful, demonstrating that we must work at words to make them fly.
What does the anthology offer primary teachers, teacher-educators and student teachers? A diverse range of poets as contributors and selectors and a variety of forms which can help teachers move away from traditional fare. Interestingly, the collection includes a greater number of female poets than usual and draws on several BAME voices. Imtiaz Dharker’s poem, Front Door begins the collection with an observation of changing perspectives on language and identity. Fluidity of identity establishes an appropriate introduction. Whilst Carol Ann Duffy recognises Imtiaz Dharker as a significant presence in the poetry world, her name may be less well known amongst primary teachers and teacher educators. I shared the poem with my class of PGCE student teachers and displayed it around our Faculty building on National Poetry Day. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
Variety and diversity are important
Variety and diversity are important. Research indicates that many teachers find it challenging to name more than a handful of poets and those named are often very well known (Cremin et al, 2008; Lambirth, 2017). Lessons learned from the CLPE’s Reflecting Realities (2018) report also attest to the benefits and enrichment gained from representation of all voices. Interviews by Cremin et al conducted during their research reveal that classroom selections tend to favour tried and tested poets, humorous poems or lengthy classics. Poems featured in commercial schemes also feature heavily in some schools. Reports from our student teachers on professional practice indicate a focus on weekly units of poetry, which require mastery of genres with tightly prescribed examples to be examined and replicated. However, Lambirth’s (2017) study of the CLPE Power of Poetry project noted that after sessions with professional poets, teachers showed increasing confidence in trialling different forms of poetry writing. The Arvon Teachers as Writers study (2014) also notes that working alongside poets opens the classroom door to wider opportunities and greater pleasure and play.
Self-expression is, for the 2,948 children surveyed in the NLT report, a vital aspect of poetry. A poem, such as Marjorie Lotfi Gill’s Sunflower from Poetry for a Change recalling a cherished possession from home might be a stimulus and possible outlet for deep reflection. Her depiction of a seed as having little monetary value, but enormous personal worth provides a thoughtful lesson. A recent discussion with our student teachers about the value of airing the lines in poetry and taking the words off the page reminded us that we each interpret poetry through the lens of our own experience.
The use of drama to explore themes in poetry would work effectively when reading Matt Goodfellow’s poem in the collection Chameleon Kids. Developing still images, freeze frames or thought-tracking would allow children to view the school day from the perspective of a shy child and could be a salutory experience for both self-confident children and garrulous teachers alike. Numerous rich opportunities for exploring the poems can be found in the excellent free Teaching Notes from the CLPE published to accompany the anthology.
Poetry can stop you in your tracks
For me, a creative use of form and the precise use of well-chosen nouns are communicated effectively in Joshua Seigal’s poem The Both of Us. Structurally the poem provides a framework for use in the classroom and it would be easy to focus on its potential as a teaching aid. Returning to it after a few days, I read the poem for meaning – and it is heart-breaking. Poetry can do that – it can stop you in your tracks.
Why not encourage children and student teachers to use this book as a model: they could create class anthologies combining their own poetry on a theme (Change in 2018, Truth in 2019) with that of poets they admire – and writing short passages about their choices? This can be an effective means of underlining the importance of poetry in school and support the development of subject knowledge on ITT courses. Providing a range of single volumes of poetry by individual poets can prompt an exploration of value and personal preference, and anthologies in which poets talk about their motivation or ideas, as included in Poetry for a Change, provide a fascinating insight into the creative process.
Poetry for a Change contains a wealth of poetry and certainly merits exploration with a class and for an individual to discover. Enjoy!