English Teachers and Poetry: ‘Making Poetry Happen’ book review

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The pre-colon title of this article/review ought to be a mantra that encapsulates the symbiosis of Poetry and English Teachers [I mean more than just inverting that title!], as if an existing reality where a mention of both is as obvious as sky and blue, peace and love, hamburger and cheese. The mantra would be easier to sustain if simplified to Teach Poetry, but that could sound like a conditioning imperative, though if this works…..

It has always seemed the case to me that most English teachers are uncomfortable with teaching the writing of poetry, and are even more hesitant about writing it themselves. In the excellent Bloomsbury book Making Poetry Happen, there is reference to evidence to support this view, not that I think it can be seriously challenged. Teachers have, of course, had to ‘teach’ wheelbarrow loads of poetry at GCSE for years, but this isn’t anywhere near the art, and desire, of making the writing [and reading] of poetry an integral part of the English curriculum at all levels.

I like the way in his chapter The Challenges and Opportunities for Engaging with Poetry Nicholas McGuinn outlines the historical prompts – from HMI, DES, MES and right back to Matthew Arnold writing in 1852 – that either rue the lack of effective teaching of poetry or celebrate its importance. This is an essential cultural statement for its enduring importance to the English curriculum and how this was recognised by the Establishment, though even here that was more about its study than its writing. Indeed, one could argue Michael Gove as Education Secretary continued a similar recognition and promotion of its significance, were it not for the fact he is an idiot and wanted to legislate for the compulsory and discrete teaching of the Romantic poets at GCSE as an ideological rather than educational purpose [and he surely misunderstood the elements of subversion, creative and political and more, in much of their work].

But I do digress. Gove has this effect. Making Poetry Happen is a fundamental resource for all English teachers for the way if collates both thinking about and exemplifying the practice of getting students to write poetry. I will admit now I haven’t read it from cover to cover and I can’t imagine many teachers could or would do this for all kinds of obvious reasons, but it is a wonderful book from which to cherry-pick and it should be in every English department as a reference text. Cliff Yates writing in his chapter Inspiring Young People to Write Poems matches theory to practice with evidence from students’ writing that should of itself be convincing enough. My favourite, however, [of what I have read so far] is Mandy Coe’s chapter Teaching Poetry Based on Actual Writing Practices: Beyond Words where I recommend her many engaging and convincing ideas for prompting poetic writing, for example Connective Leaps.

I will mention one more chapter, Emma Benyon’s Engaging Invisible Pupils Through Creative Writing as this too is convincing, and supported by evidence from a Write Team project, in how it demonstrates the liberating impact of ‘free’ writing to name one common approach for those students who find it difficult to engage in lessons, but also how this impact goes far beyond just reluctant or reticent learners. It certainly chimes with my many experiences of working with students who were not conventionally ‘competent’ or engaged writers who could/would flourish in lessons and a focus that was creative for its own sake and not about tracking or progress or even the stumbling blocks of accuracy [and similar notions of right and wrong/conventions]. This significance of the Write Team project is in getting writers into schools and the influence and effect their sessions with students had on teachers themselves: and that is the whole point – this book cannot of itself address that fundamental problem of so many English teachers being uncomfortable [or just inexperienced] with teaching poetry/creative writing, but it does go some way to providing guidance and the encouragement not just of these ideas but also of experience.

What is needed ideally is writers in schools and teachers going on courses to be writers/or to write themselves. Cliff Yates makes that point in his chapter already mentioned: ‘a free Arvon Foundation course as part of teacher training!’ He is right, and I would go further as such courses should be regular throughout a teacher’s career, but for years we have been consumed by targets and tests and other sharps. I have been quite nostalgic in my writing on this blog but not for the rose tint of the reminiscences: my early teaching experiences in Devon were to attend LEA English courses designed explicitly to encourage and support teachers as writers, and I did attend one Arvon Foundation course for teachers, and these consistently inspired and motivated me in the classroom. Whilst always wanting to write anyway [and I do wonder how many English teachers do write for pleasure, and/or have the simple practice of writing regularly….] these courses were such dynamic fuel for that ambition both as a teacher and writer.

The editors of this book – Sue Dymoke, Myra Barrs, Andrew Lambirth and Anthony Wilson – have form in actively promoting teachers as writers and helping teachers to be writers. I have read a little of Sue Dymoke’s work and know she cares about poetry in education, and I have had the pleasure of working with Anthony Wilson when he would visit my school as a writer and work so positively and creatively with my students. They and the contributing writers can be proud of the collective theoretical background and practical underpinning that this book provides.

It does seem to me, as a final point, that the next few years may be the first time in a long time when English teachers can begin, however tentatively, and with whatever inspirational strengths those who have been around for a while still have [!], to seriously consider increasing the role of creative writing in the English classroom. With that despicable testing and target culture changing – though not completely gone, and many SLTs will hang on to the simplicities and power it provides them for dear life – English teachers can take back more control.

This will inevitably be at Key Stage 3 – the GCSE curriculum is too prescribed and full, and has Gove’s paw-prints all over it. As a concluding piece of nostalgia, I always used to have my GCSE English students write poetry for their Original Writing coursework, though sadly that option no longer survives. I was at that time able to argue honestly [Crafting Poetry: Original Writing for GCSE, dMEC] how writing creatively and in particular metaphorically/adventurously – I used existing poems as models for student to emulate – could without question help most students to meet the language/linguistic assessment objectives well above their ‘normal’ levels of attainment: with reservations about using those latter terms. One has to hope that placing creative writing at the heart of English KS3 could still have that impact, as Making Poetry Happen does argue, though not so simplistically or directly in terms of ‘attainment’. It seems highly unlikely, but I occasionally wonder that if I was still teaching would I encourage students to write poems for their GCSE English Writing terminal examination. One of the current AQA specimen papers for Paper 1 has a Writing task where students write a description based on a picture of a train on a coastal route being lashed by waves. Would my students be experienced and brave and cajoled enough to respond, perhaps using one of my list poem models:

The train surfing inside its curve of wave
The train cresting its way home
The train drying its tears inside
The train as grey as the bridge of stone
The train is just a train and it is on train tracks and it is carrying people…..damn that idiot Michael Gove……

5 thoughts on “English Teachers and Poetry: ‘Making Poetry Happen’ book review

  1. Pingback: Mike Ferguson reviews Making Poetry Happen | Anthony Wilson

  2. Sounds like a return to an era when we had world enough and time to be exploratory. Come to think of it, KS3 is now pretty much up for grabs, as you suggest here. Time, perhaps, to “reclaim English” as ex-HMI Phil Jarrett titled his recent keynote to the Pearson English conference.

    As part of that conference, I did a session looking back at the developments in English teaching over 40 years. Research for that session took me back to a book written by my college tutor, Robert Druce. As “The Eye of Innocence: Children and their poetry” was written in 1965, I had expected to find it all a bit twee and far-out. In fact it was a refreshing and closely researched case for putting poetry at the centre of both the reading and the writing curriculum.

    Is there evidence of a new beginning?

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    • Thank you for stopping by Martin. Your confirmation of the possible reclaiming carries credence because of your continuing regular visits to schools as well as finger on the pulse of external factors. I shall have to search out the Druce.

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  3. Pingback: Debbie and Mark and Creative Writing | mikeandenglish

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