The importance of making poetry relevant to pupils

24 Nov 2015

Poetry is one of those eternal battles English teachers take on. Pupils can sometimes be apathetic, and woefully unappreciative of the relevance of the power of words and reluctant to step outside their comfort zone of popular culture to access something different.

As adults we must bridge that gap and vault over into the MTV-infused world of teenagers and take a leap of faith for our pupils.

Building the bridge between Chaucer, Shakespeare and Tupac was a risky move. Pupils’ favourite teacher fail is usually when a teacher is standing, laughing at their own joke…the awkward one that no one else in the classroom understands.

Risking my teacher cred to confess to my Year 9 boys that I actually thought Tupac was pretty cool, and that he was an English academic before his words lured the limelight, I began a lesson of my own. Starting with finding poetry and lyrics to make my pupils sit up and listen, before ‘spitting lyrics’ with a Year 11 in the corridor, I found my confidence as an English teacher and a learner slowly blossomed.

I was, and I still am, a learner of young people, of the relevance of their world, of the curriculum and how to synthesise all these ingredients into something that works in my classroom.

Starting with Tupac as an access point, I quickly learned the importance of that ever important ‘hook’ all the super-experienced teachers on Twitter always blog about.

Taking that risk for my pupils quickly taught me that they were also willing to take that risk for me. So long as I made a fool out of myself rapping for them first, of course. I jest; it is not just that I tried something different that worked with my pupils: it was that I brought the real world ‘inside the black box’.

For some children, classrooms are isolated, walled-in worlds of numbers and letters that jumble across pages irreverently. But to bring the real world in, to welcome Tupac and his controversy, to discuss the realities of the ever-evolving education system and to bring poetry to life, brings meaning to classrooms; it allows young people to see the source of the words on the page, to credit Chaucer and Shakespeare with being someone, at some time, who had something to say. More importantly, it allows our pupils to recognise that they also have something to say.

This scheme of learning is by no means the rule book or textbook for how to teach poetry; some parts may work and others need developing, but it is an access point, a hook, a way of bridging gaps and building blocks to a sound understanding of great poetry through time.

Mewash Kauser, a teacher at Appleton Academy Bradford, has developed a teaching resource with our Bradford Hub: Great Poetry through Time: Chaucer to 21st Century Poets which is available to National Literacy Trust Network members.