TEACHING POETRY – know thy context



Of all the complaints about the new English curriculum, none would be louder than those directed towards the poetry section. This is primarily because of the sheer number of poems students are expected to memorise; up to 18, depending on which examination board is used. To be fair to those examination boards, there’s a considerable amount of scope between passing and excelling, but obviously a student with a thorough and perceptive understanding of all 18 poems is certain to be in the top band. But I contend that achieving this thorough understanding is achievable for most students, and that committing to memory such a large number of poems is not only doable, but a necessary condition for students to then engage with the poems in a deeper way.

Here’s how I do it

The first thing to do is to ‘chunk’ the poems to prevent cognitive overload. Grouping poems immediately reduces the strain on the working memory. Some are natural fits: war, nature, time etc, but for some others I will need to make more abstract connections. The groupings will determine the order in which I will deliver the poems, and I really think this is the key: the order will act like a story, and because everyone is captivated by a great story, it will serve to assist the retention of the poems’ contents and help students to be able to make connections to other poems more easily.

Context is king

Because of the increased engagement that results, truly exploring the context of each poem is really worth your while. Take for example teaching students Romantic era poetry. I explicitly created a section called The Romantics, consisting of 5 poems in the Eduqas anthology (analogous to most other boards), and I taught them in chronological order. I began with Blake as he is the first of the Romantics in the anthology. Blake’s poem “London” was a perfect way to get stuck into the cause of the movement with some historical information about the French Revolution and industrialisation, but perhaps even more relevant to the students is the notion of the rebel, the artist speaking out against hierarchy and the establishment, with guts and bravery, considering the possible consequences of it backfiring (easily linked to modern artists or revolutionaries as starters). The students were immediately hooked, and the link to learning from other units, in particular the connection to 19th century Victorian historical discussions which took place in the Language course Non-Fiction section became immediately clear to the students, and their disgust at the conditions the chimney sweepers endured, and indeed the church’s ostensible participation in the exploitation of them, deepened the connection to one of the central themes of the poem. All of this added to their ability to recall the poem at a later date. In fact, by creating an easy mnemonic for how many key themes are in the poem (LONDON: 5 fingers), and by setting up opportunity to exploit what’s known about ‘elaborative retrieval’ by creating a mnemonic based on the feudal system for students to help connect to the themes: the corruption of the monarchy at the top, followed by the church, followed by financial inequality, oppression, and finally the death of the family unit, students were well on their way to having them secure in their memories. The next mnemonic exploited the clear structure of the poem and the rhythm created by the rhyme scheme. In fact the rhythm is so strong that it only took a few chants to get close to nailing it, and sending it to the long term memory was complete after returning over time, at least twice, to several recall activities, including jumbling up the lines and then putting them back into the correct order, and short quizzes on the order of the lines. The greatest benefit of these strategies though is that all the while key quotes were implicitly being learnt. But rather than simply rote learning the lines, by focusing on the tight structure ironically employed by Blake to symbolize a superficial London: appearing to be in control and running smoothly, but in reality riddled with lots of issues and irregularities under the surface (emphasized by punctuation), all building towards the the final comment of the poem: the destruction of family, and thus life, the poem became one the students really ‘got’, and not just some disjointed quotes that they just try to remember.

After Blake we moved on to Wordsworth, and explored the notion of him looking back over his childhood in the poem “Excerpt from The Prelude” (Eduqas version) and whether or not this was a fair thing to do: or is the evaluation full of bias? It’s a pertinent question as students are often told by parents and adults that childhood is the best time of their life, yet many students of GCSE age often don’t feel this way because of the seemingly endless pressures and a myriad of things to be thinking about. But the poem is cleverly balanced, with the extremely positive reminisces in the first half equaled by the strong negative semantic field towards the bottom of the poem. The student identifies with the balance, as opposed to the anecdote. At last, a chance to connect the adolescent to the natural but often unacknowledged feeling of melancholy that teenagers experience, the melancholy caused by the transition from childhood towards adult hood; the child moving into the pre-operational period, and often experiencing for the first time an identity truly removed from others. Ensuing discussions about the scariness of such a period ensures that the poem’s theme will be remembered, regardless of any front students present. Concurrently, as there are several colons and semicolons used in the poem, I pre-empted the contextual discussion with activities based around these high-level punctuation devices. In fact, this coupling of a punctuation technique or grammatical feature activity with the main content of each lesson is something that I am finding works very well, effectively killing two birds with one stone. Of course there are numerous opportunities to revisit punctuation and grammar throughout any unit, and the spacing and interleaving of testing to consolidate learning provides the perfect avenue to secure these skills.

The next poet on the list was Byron. To say that the students were intrigued by the contextual discussion around the poem “She Walks in Beauty” would be an understatement. Describing the scandal of Byron’s affair with the older, married, high society socialite Caroline Lamb, together with his affair with his stepsister Augusta (cue communal cringe), a relationship which produced a child named Medora who died at just five years of age, and then his eventual marriage to Anne Milbanke, a marriage that produced Ada Lovelace, one of the first ever computer scientists and good friend and associate of Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin (brilliant links to the Science course), the great Charles Dickens (obvious links), and Charles Babbage, the man closely associated with inventing the concept of the computer, was simply fascinating to the students, and they were hanging on every word. Byron’s scandals and eventual failed marriage after just five years, and Milbanke’s refusal to allow Byron any connection to Ada, forced his departure from England to Italy, but it was at the height of his fame in London in 1814 when he saw the character in his poem at a party. Mentioning then that the character in the poem is Anne Willmott, Byron’s cousin’s wife, was immediately met with great aghast, and expectation of further wrongdoing. But when students read the poem and realised there was no sexuality at all in its content, and when they were informed that Byron was supposedly sexually abused on two occasions in his childhood, a greater understanding of his issues with relationships was felt by the students and the poem’s content took on a deeper significance. The students interestingly felt a sense of empathy for Byron, knowing that having led an obviously difficult and troubled existence, he was still able to produce a poem of such incredible purity. Again, the advantage of such engagement in the story: a poem that the students can easily recall at a later date. In terms of ease of memory of the lines, the structure and rhyme scheme make it easier to memorise the poem, and mnemonics can easily be invented to help remember the key descriptions of the beauty.

Byron’s escapade to Italy resulted in a continuance of his friendship with Shelley, and the students loved hearing the story of the creation of possibly the original bratpack: Byron, the Shelleys, and Clara Clairemont. When Byron arrived in Italy with his friend Clara, who was besotted with him, he discovered that Shelley was having an affair with Mary Godin, Clara’s half sister (oh oh!, the class erupt, here we go again!), which surely had a part to play in Shelley’s wife committing suicide by drowning. Shelley and Mary’s elopement only weeks later was met with shock by the students, but when I mentioned that Mary then becomes Mary Shelley, the author of one of the greatest stories in all of literature, Frankenstein, written when she was just 19, it became a perfect introduction to the poem ‘Ozymandias’. Add to that the fact that Shelley shifts from 1st person to 3rd person the first line so as to possibly avoid getting into more trouble (cue discussion about him being expelled from Oxford for being an atheist, and losing his large inheritance in the process) and the students were well and truly hooked into reading the poem. A link to Blake’s explicit criticism of the church is evident in Shelley’s “king of kings,” but when students were informed that Shelley was risking treason with the implicit link to King George III, mocking his tyrannical warmongering ways and massive ego, the discussions around language techniques that emphasise the themes became thoroughly enjoyable for the students. The irony in the fact that Shelley himself died from drowning only several years later when he was only 30 years old was the icing on the cake in terms of cementing the poem into the long-term memory, but it was also worth mentioning that he was found with a copy of Keats’ poems in his pocket. Who is Keats the students cried: I’ll tell you tomorrow I said.

Keats is also an interesting tale, a sad tale that appeals to the students’ sense of justice and sympathy. It begins with the death of his father whom he was very close to when he was very young, and the subsequent remarriage of his mother to a man whom he didn’t like. In fact the mother left the family and Keats, being the eldest, had to take care of his 3 siblings. The mother only returned when she was on her deathbed, and it wasn’t long before she died of tuberculosis. He effectively educated himself, and trained to be a doctor, but had a tremendous passion for writing poetry. However, his poetry was continuously mocked and received countless rejections and scathing criticisms. Nonetheless, it didn’t prevent him from continuing. However, the death of his brother, whom he was very close to, again to the cruel master tuberculosis, severely affected him emotionally, which is why the acceptance of time passing as irrevocable in the 3rd stanza of To Autumn is incredibly impressive. It was in fact after his brother’s death that Keats wrote some of the most famous poetry of all time, including Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Melancholy, and Ode To Autumn. But it wasn’t until well after his death, also of tuberculosis, at the ridiculously young age of 25, that his poetry was finally recognised to be amongst the greatest of all in English literature. It’s a tale of a troubled existence peppered with moments of genius; a perfect hook into the reading of the poem To Autumn; it’s the students’ connection to the underdog that secures it. The poem itself is long, and potentially the most difficult in the whole anthology to memorise. However, structure returns to the rescue again, with 3 distinct sections. The final stanza reflecting Keats’ acceptance of the passing of time is a relevant point of discussion, considering the context he was in, and indeed, considering the context the students are in also: Carpe Diem and all that. The story-like nature of the poem, as well as the tremendous amount of imagery also assists in its recall, and again, many mnemonics can be devised to help.

The Power of Story

The process described above should be applied to all the poems in the anthology. The essence of the strategy is that by making the poems come to life for the students, absorbing them in the journey of the poets via good old fashioned story telling, and setting up numerous opportunities for them to recall the key ideas, structures, and images in each poem, you’ll have a far greater chance that they will remember the poems, know them thoroughly, and be able to make perceptive comparisons with other poems in the anthology.

Ps – further contextual discussions of the other poems will be added over the next few weeks

I’m @edmerger


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