Back Friday 7 Jun 2019 9:54 am

A Curriculum of Substance and Real Knowledge

How do you get Y7 pupils engaging with poetry in meaningful, enlightening ways? Richard Long describes what happened when his English team used strategies that combine choice and personal response with input from experts and critical rigour.
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Last September, we invested in EMC’s KS3 Curriculum Plus; and by invested I don’t just mean bought. I mean that we invested in the subject expertise involved in its design and the carefully thought-through pedagogical approaches to teaching English that lie within it. 

We have followed one of the recommended curriculum plans that was provided in the resources we received, a plan that moves at pace through short (often two week) schemes of learning; the aim being to flood students with texts at KS3 and to not labour over close analysis of texts before students have even had the basic opportunity to enjoy and comprehend them – a welcome movement away from the trend of GCSE style, Assessment Objective-led learning which is in danger of suffocating KS3.

What follows are some reflections on just one thread of the curriculum as it is unfurling with our classes, our work on poetry. The experience of teaching Year 7, using the early units of EMC’s Poetry Plus book, has brought with it a significant shift in our practice that is already reaping dividends. When considering KS3 curriculum design with regards poetry, where should we begin with Year 7s (bearing in mind that our students will have had very different experiences of poetry and poetry study in their home lives and school careers up to this point)? I like the fact that the EMC curriculum begins with a unit titled ‘What is a poem?’ We soon discover that this question is anything but simple and straightforward and so the unit sets an effective, challenging tone straight away. Students are asked to engage with a range of different types of text and discuss in groups whether or not they think each text is a poem. The use of exploratory talk is key, both here and in the unit as a whole. The debate that opens up is fascinating. Assumptions are challenged, a growing understanding of the differences between prose and poetry starts to develop and questions and furrowed brows appear around the room in abundance. 

At the same time, subject specific vocabulary about poetry begins to pour forth as students start to discuss aspects of line length and issues of non-standard grammar and punctuation. As the discussion goes on we soon leave behind the all too familiar response at this age, that of ‘a poem is something that rhymes’. Students are made to think and made to get stuck with their thinking, understanding that this is okay and that as they continue experiencing poetry they are going to get stuck a whole lot more. They are starting to realise that this is part of the pleasure. 

Below is an extract of a response from one of my students, Michalina, with regards to this stage of her learning. She was asked to challenge the idea that ‘poetry is boring’:

I don’t think poems are very boring at all and it is a fun and creative way to express your feelings about a subject. It doesn’t have to be specific. Poetry is spoken and performed as well as written and this makes poems unique to other pieces of work like prose and drama. It uses different techniques like onomatopoeia which adds to the creativity involved. Poems all have different structures and line lengths so their stanzas can include different amounts of lines. They also have different forms using standard and non-standard English. Even if a poem is short it can have a lot of meaning. Poetry has playful language, alliteration, metaphors and so much more that it is extremely powerful in the way it breaks the rules of prose.

As the unit of learning moves on students are asked to consider what they like in a poem, another aspect of learning which is at risk of being forgotten when responding to texts in KS3. A broad-ranging anthology of poems is provided in the coursebook from the likes of Beowulf and Sir Thomas Wyatt, through Blake, Wordsworth and Barret-Browning to Angelou, Mohja Kahf and Inua Ellams (to name just a few). The choice that students are given here is another key element of the success of the unit. Offering students a chance to decide on some poems to talk about is both changing and raising our expectations of what students are interested in and what they are capable of. We can make all kinds of dangerous assumptions about what students should study in Y7, what they will or won’t like or what they will or won’t be able to understand. In one or two lessons in this early unit, students are asked to talk about their choices of poem with their peers in small groups. To stand back and listen to this as a teacher is an absolute joy. What we learn about our students reading preferences and the way we hear them speak about literature at this stage is eye-opening and invaluable.

The next stage of learning asks students to draw on the expertise of poets from the past to the present, considering intriguing statements they have made about poetry, some of which include Ferlinghetti’s ‘Poetry is external graffiti written in the heart of everyone’ to Thomas Gray’s ‘Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn’. It has been fascinating to see the way students have engaged with their ideas. In a later part of her essay response, Michalina wrote: 

I particularly love W.H. Auden’s quote of memorable speech. The full quote is ‘Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: memorable speech.’ I like how Auden said this as it makes me think of how poetry was remembered in the old days because people could not read or write and everyone was desperate to prove that poetry in fact is worth remembering.

Whilst only in Y7, Michalina is starting to grapple with sophisticated and important ideas about what poetry is and its worth. Having this as starting point to her secondary English education might just help her understand that real engagement with poetry is not about identifying and labelling devices on the page of an anthology or regurgitating taught meaning in a test but that it is much more, that, in her words, ‘it is extremely powerful… and worth remembering’. This is the real knowledge I want my students to take away with them into their futures.

While the poetry resources and the thinking behind them have blown a breath of fresh air through our classrooms and are encouraging serious thought and the development of strong ideas in students, other elements of EMC Curriculum Plus are proving equally valuable in focusing our attention on rich, diverse texts and important knowledge and ideas, all taught in ways that engage students in the big conversations of our subject. But that’s a story for another blog…

To read Michalina’s and Alyssa’s full written responses following the learning in this unit, please click here. 

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