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Poetry By Heart Blog

The Power of Poetry For People With Dementia

2nd December 2015

Daffodil

Image courtesy of Feggy Art Creative Commons

I am a firm believer that the arts play an important part in all our lives. We might not be conscious of it, but whether we take our pleasure from curling up with a good book; watching a spellbinding performance on stage or our televisions; or losing ourselves in the creation of our own masterpieces, the arts can leave a significant impression on us all. At Alzheimer’s Society we champion the arts as a way for people with dementia and carers to express themselves. We believe everyone has the right to participate in the arts, and for people with dementia, we know that there are many benefits. It can improve quality of life and well-being by stimulating emotions and creativity.

Organisations like The Reader champion shared reading groups which they believe improve quality of life through cognitive stimulation, social interaction and meaningful engagement each week. From Betjeman and Blake to Wordsworth and Yeats, there is also some evidence that reading poetry could have therapeutic benefits for people with dementia and a number of poets have explored dementia in their work. Gillian Clarke’s famous poem about conducting a poetry reading in a hospital captures the moment when a man who has not spoken for many years suddenly recites Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’:

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

(Gillian Clarke Collected Poems Carcanet 1997)

For those interested in this subject it is worth noting that The National Association of Writers in Education produced a volume of their journal devoted to ‘Writing and Dementia’. (Volume 61 www.nawe.co.uk )

Many of my colleagues are lucky enough to witness the power of poetry first-hand. Reciting the rhymes and rhythms, metre and cadence of a good poem can bring great pleasure as Pam Ollis, Alzheimer’s Society’s Social Events Coordinator knows only too well. At an Alzheimer’s Society Memory Café several poetry sessions have taken place, one featuring a local poet who read her own poems and encouraged others to read theirs as well.

Pam said: “The sessions went down really well and a stand out moment for me was seeing a lovely lady who has been living with Alzheimer’s disease for five years, read out ‘Jerusalem’ when she had never uttered more than a few words in the entire year of knowing her. She really came to life and it was fabulous to see the power of poetry.

“A carer also read out a poem ‘My love is like a red red rose’ to his wife who has dementia and the whole room was moved to tears.”

Most people with dementia remember the distant past more clearly than recent events. This is because memories tend to decline in reverse order to when they were experienced. People will often have difficulty remembering what happened a few minutes or hours ago, but can recall, in detail, life when they were much younger.

For that reason, poetry can be a useful tool for reminiscence activities; a poem has the potential to unlock memories and emotions. Perhaps there was a poem that someone will remember because their parents or grandparents read it to them when they were a child, or a poem that was used in English lessons at school. Maybe there were poems written by husbands or wives in the early days of a budding romance.

It is worth acknowledging that a poem may not always elicit fond memories, a particular subject may cause someone to recall unhappy times. Or it could be that for some people with dementia poetry and English lessons are not the things to get hearts racing. But that said, the power of both the arts, and poetry in particular, certainly strikes a chord with many of us and a project like Poetry By Heart has every chance of encouraging creative engagement with poetry in the classroom and beyond.

‘Your story’ is a place on Alzheimer’s Society’s website for people to share their experiences of living with dementia. Stories can be submitted by anyone who has been affected by dementia, including people with dementia, carers and relatives. Visit www.alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory to find out more.

It seems fitting to sign off this blog with some poetry. This verse from a 16 line poem was shared with me by a colleague on behalf of 78 year-old Pat McCarthy. Pat is living with dementia. She is very creative and enjoys painting as well as putting pen to paper and writing her own poetry.

AUTUMN

Autumn is a lovely time, with leaves all brown and yellow.

It’s like the autumn of my life when I began to mellow.

When I was young I had no time to sit and look around

But, now I’m getting older all these pleasures I have found.

There now seems to be a growing body of evidence that the structure and patterns of poetry and the reminiscences of poetry can be beneficial for some people with dementia as they engage with, in Clarke’s words, ‘the music of speech’.

JAbout the Author: Jenna Hopkinson is the media officer for Alzheimer’s Society covering the South West of England. She has an interest in communication and has a BA in English Language and Communication from Cardiff University. Alzheimer’s Society encourages people to share their experience of living with dementia by submitting poetry or stories to the ‘Your Story’ page on their website.

Visit alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory for further details.

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‘A Momentary Stay Against Confusion’

7th October 2015

Rachel Kelly reflects on how the therapeutic power of remembered poetry helped her through serious depressive illness.

 

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Shortly before his death, the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert sent the collection of prayers and poems he had written privately throughout his life to a friend. He requested that his friend only publish them if he believed they could ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected soul’ and would be ‘of use’.

 

Fortunately for us, his friend opted for publication, and Herbert’s poems have been a source of comfort and enjoyment ever since. Herbert’s idea that poetry should be of use is central to my own love of poetry and informs my working life: after many years as a journalist, including a decade at The Times, I now run poetry workshops for mental health charities including Depression Alliance, Mind, and Cooltan Arts as well as for bookshops such as The Idler Academy in West London and Alain de Botton’s The School of Life.

Poetry first provided solace for me when I was struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’

These thirteen words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped reverse my feelings of despair. I would become stronger because of the ordeal. I often think of depression as like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the words my mother gave me endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.

Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with depression, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I am keeping my ‘Black Dog’ on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’, famously quoted by Winston Churchill in his wartime speeches.

In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright’. 

Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all –’

I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.

I began to put my own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation. http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/love-iii/

A powerful poetic line can diminish the sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple our sense of time: involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past. But the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.

Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.

In my new book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, I record a diary of my year and the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy and manage my depression: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more.  These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is the poems I have included at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.

 

Rachel Kelly Colour High Res About the author

In her memoir Black Rainbow, bestselling author and former Times journalist Rachel Kelly tells the story of how poetry was at the heart of her recovery from two depressive episodes. Now she campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, speaking at schools, universities and literary festivals on the healing power of words. She also runs poetry workshops at her local prison and at mental health charities. Rachel is an ambassador for UK charity SANE and Vice President of United Response. Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness will be published by Short Books in November 2015. For more info on Rachel and her work please visit www.rachel-kelly.net.

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Libraries at the Heart of Communities

23rd September 2015

DSC01830 - lower size

PBH 2014 Champion Matilda Neill of Whitley Bay High School receiving her trophy from Sir Andrew Motion

This year 15 Poetry By Heart county competitions will be organised by much admired library services in association with Poetry By Heart. Our second September Blog is provided by not one but two librarians who talk about their experiences of Poetry By Heart

 

Libraries By Heart 1   by Gareth Ellis (Library Manager Whitley Bay High School)

 

It was the delicious simplicity of the idea that first struck us: memorise a poem by heart. The process, long abandoned by schools as a routine method of teaching, suddenly seemed both a new concept and a tradition worth saving. Using it as a means of exploring the depths and breadths of a poem, of building confidence in students and, ultimately, of having fun, made it irresistible. For us, the prospect of learning and competing within a school context, a county environment and maybe even on a national level breathed fresh air into this most fundamental – and actually rather ancient – activity.

Whitley Bay High School, a large state comprehensive of over 1600 students in North Tyneside, first took part in Poetry by Heart in 2014 and then again in 2015. In 2014 we were lucky enough to see our hugely talented student Matilda Neill go on to win the competition and our competitor in 2015 also got to the finals, so we’ve been privileged to see how Poetry by Heart works from the beginning right through to the end! But ultimately the real reward has been the opportunity to work with young people and watch as they choose, inhabit and possess their poems and how they draw an audience into their reading of the piece through their own unique interpretation of it.

The process is very straight-forward and the Poetry by Heart team are always on hand to assist. In Whitley Bay High School the competition is run as a joint venture between the Library and the Drama Department, with help from English teachers too. We advertise the opportunity to all students in Years 10 – 13, meet with keen and interested competitors to delve into Poetry by Heart’s incredible online poetry timeline and then offer students times to come along and rehearse their poems, if they want to. We found that all our competitors were keen to come and practise regularly and these meetings turned into treasured lunchtimes during which we heard their performances and fellow competitors supported each other, offering feedback and constructive criticism. Then we launch our school event, inviting staff and students to watch and witness the announcement of our winner who then gets the privilege of performing at a county level.

We’ve found Poetry by Heart to be a hugely positive experience and the competition has become an annual expectation within school, with staff and students eagerly anticipating it. Furthermore, it’s raised the profile of poetry within the school community, generated an excited discussion around literature and given students the chance to explore and develop their own communication and literacy skills. It’s also opened doors into poetry rooms our students might not have otherwise found the key to. They’ve discovered poems and poets they might not have normally encountered, have been exposed to movements and styles, genres and modes and have been (thanks to the online timeline) able to place these within the wider, greater tradition of poetry in English.  When students memorise a poem they’re possessing something that will stay with them forever and as their lives develop, take shape, shift and change, so too will their understanding and interpretation of the poem. The poet Don Paterson often describes a poem as ‘a little machine for remembering itself’. Poetry by Heart oils the cogs of that machine, and our students who have been involved in the competition have come away all the richer for it.

Ellis, Gareth GJE copyAbout the Author: Gareth Ellis is a Chartered Librarian and has been the Library Manager at Whitley Bay High School for over a decade. He has an interest in and a passion for poetry and has an MA in Modern & Contemporary Poetry from the University of Bristol. Gareth runs a variety of reading and poetry initiatives at Whitley Bay High School, including school visits from the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, and an annual Literature & Performing Arts Festival. He has recently been designated a Specialist Leader in Education.  

 

 

Libraries By Heart 2  by Ian Anstice (Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council)

Poetry By Heart 2015 The Cheshire County Contest at Chester Town Hall

Poetry By Heart 2015 The Cheshire County Contest at Chester Town Hall

Much to my shame, I had not heard about Poetry By Heart before being told it was one of my duties to arrange the Cheshire judging.  This pained me as I’m both a full time librarian and responsible for Public Libraries News so most of my time is spent in public libraries one way or another and I should have known about it, especially as I was to discover how great it was.  Thankfully, my very helpful colleague Debbie Owen had arranged the competition the year before and ensured I did everything necessary.

The first thing I learnt was that, and this was quite a surprise to me being used to local council finances, the whole thing was fully funded. Yes indeed, money was attached.  This meant that we could book a great venue (the very impressive Chester Town Hall)  and arrange a Master of Ceremonies for the evening (the no less impressive – but a lot more fun, sorry Chester Town Hall – performance poet Dominic Berry). There was even (whisper it) something left over for refreshments, a photographer and presents for the judges.

Yes, judges.  This is a proper thing. There’s not just one judge.  Oh no. There’s at least two main judges (we kept the Cheshire poet Gill McEvoy and newspaper reporter Carmella De Lucia from the year before) who judge how good the poem readings are and also an accuracy judge who checks basic things like words, or even whole lines, being missed. Not wanting to pass everything off on others, I got to be technical judge that evening.

The actual schools are contacted by the Poetry By Heart regional co-ordinator and do all the preparatory work themselves so for me I could concentrate just on the judging event. The co-ordinator just let me know how many schools were attending and the names of the students so that was pretty easy as well, especially as I quite enjoy producing programmes. So the big day came and everything was ready and I was quietly confident the day before

And then it started snowing. Not just a little snow, oh no.  Big snow. And although I got to work OK, it was clear that the east of the county was getting far more. When I phoned one of the schools to see if their students were still on for that evening, I could tell that the school secretary (while polite) clearly thought I was stark, raving insane.  Panic stations. Thankfully, ten phone calls later we had got agreement from Chester Town Hall to reschedule at no extra charge and contacted everyone to let them know it was not happening.  Except, sadly, one judge who we simply could not get hold of who turned up in the evening. I am so glad to say that Gill took it in great part, and happily turned up for the rearranged evening.

And, my, was I blown away. You hear a lot about how terrible teenagers are.  You know, slouching around, growing their hair long, listening to loud music (or was that the 60s?) but, my goodness, all of the contestants were beyond good.  These were teenagers who not only had memorised whole poems but could speak them clearly and also put emotion into it. Their teachers came too and there was a lot of pride in the air for all their performances.  And, quite right too, because every single one was impressive. The talent clearly showed what a good idea the whole competition was, with the students doubtless about to go on to do wonderful things and this experience will help to give them confidence to do it. Frankly, also, it will  instil in them something better: a love for poetry that will be of uncountable benefit.

For public libraries, the Poetry By Heart competition gives us entry into that most difficult of markets, that of the teenager.  Although junior schools are a prime source of readers for us, all that changes when the kids go to Big School. Often we don’t see them again until they come back again while they’re studying at University or when they have kids themselves.  The competition gives libraries a chance to remind students of our existence and how we can help them.  It also hits the spot when it comes to poetry, which again, is not an easy sell. I would also suggest that for those authorities who have school library services, running the competition could strengthen a natural connection between schools and libraries.

So, librarians, if someone tells you it’s your chance to run a competition by these people, grasp the opportunity in both hands.  You never know, you may even learn some poetry in the process yourself.

Ian AnsticeAbout the Author: Ian Anstice is proud to have been a librarian in Cheshire since 1994 and now works as Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council. He is responsible for reader development and children’s stock as well as other things like the Summer Reading Challenge.  In his spare time, he created the Public Libraries News blog which is now a main source of information in the sector, regularly used and quoted by library users, campaigners, the media and politicians.  He was named IWR Information Professional of the Year in 2011 and has won two Winsford Town Oscars for customer service in 2012 and 2014.

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Organising a Competition

7th September 2015

Photo: courtesy qthomasbower ‘Big Heart of Art’ Creative Commons

Firstly, let’s get something clear: I am a busy, but essentially, pretty lazy teacher.  I’m the Head of A Level English Literature in a large sixth form college with over 200 students and several members of staff to manage.  So when I first heard about Poetry by Heart my initial reaction, like it is to so many other initiatives, was “No, I just don’t have the time.”  But this initiative was giving me  the chance to be involved in something that had made me want to become an English teacher in the first place: Poetry!

 

So what do I do to make it manageable?  I begin by using the website, www.poetrybyheart.org.uk as a learning resource.  When our AS students return for a fortnight of A2 and HE research one of the tasks they have to undertake is to explore the timeline, find a poem they love and then share it with the rest of the class; just a lovely thing to do.

I also use a drip, drip effect throughout the year.  All my AS classes learned ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Cold Heaven’ (actions included) as preparation for their exam in May, “See – you can all learn a poem off by heart.”  Then in September I start to advertise the competition and hold my first meetings.  I’m always surprised by who turns up, often some of my ‘quietest’ students want to take part.

I hold my comp just before Christmas, an entire evening given over to poetry, live music and wine.  I’m lazy but I also like to show off my students so I host the night too, inviting a panel of judges made up of local heads, the Editor of the Northern Echo and, last year, Matilda Neil who gave a stunning performance (another advantage of living in the north east.) Each year I offer the audience the chance to vote for their favourite performance and the winner receives a small prize; this generates a lot of buzz during the interval.  Teachers perform poems towards the end as the judges deliberate and the winner comes back on stage for a final recital.  As the audience leave they each receive a handwritten poem in an envelope, each chosen by my  students and copied out in their best handwriting.

But you don’t need to go to so much fuss,  just a lunchtime with the librarian and a few other judges will suffice, because what I really love about PBH are the conversations and preparations that take place along the way.  Asking students why they chose a particular poem is so enlightening. Often they find it difficult to articulate beyond “I just like how it sounds” but that’s a wonderful starting point for discussions on tone, meaning, and emotions.  Listen to competitors at Cambridge meeting for the first time and they’ll spend ages discussing their poetry choices like freshers discussing their A Level results.

Note from the editor: We might need to consult the OED on the definition of ‘lazy’ as reading the above we think it might mean creative, industrious and imaginative!

We are very grateful to one of Julie’s students who writes below about her participation in the Poetry By Heart project:

What Poetry by Heart meant to me by Emily Popple

“Last December I took part in the Poetry by Heart competition at my college, thanks to a lot of encouragement from my English Literature teacher because, for a drama student, I was very reluctant to take part. That sounds stupid, but I was not fond of poetry and I did not like public speaking – at least not when I wasn’t playing a character. But, with Julie’s help I eventually picked out two poems and learned how much I actually love reading and performing poetry. The first poem was a no brainer for me, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns. Burns’ poetry has always been a huge part of my life, my mum is from Ayr and so I’ve always had that connection to it. My brother and I used to have Burns’ poems and songs as lullabies, including this one, so it was an easy choice.

The more modern poem was more difficult as, like I said, I was not a poetry fan. I ended up with ‘Two Pages’ by Choman Hardi, which I just thought was so interesting. And it’s Poetry by Heart I have to thank for my new found love for poetry, I think that some people would find not winning discouraging and maybe that would reinforce a dislike for poetry, however, in my case it has just made me more determined to enjoy poetry and take part again next year. I can now say, with confidence, that I like poetry and that is all down to Julie Ashmore and the Poetry by Heart competition.”

Julie Ashmore (right) pictured with Poetry By Heart Regional Development Co-ordinator for the North East, Griselda Goldsbrough

 

About Julie Ashmore

Started teaching in 1999 and has been Head of A Level English Literature at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington for the last 10 years. Julie also teaches creative writing to adults and always includes poetry activities. She is passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, running and her two gorgeous daughters. 

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Helping Students Connect With Poetry

24th August 2015

Dr Aisha Spencer from the University of the West Indies reflects on exploring poetry with Jamaican High School students.

In late 2014, I was invited to assist a group of secondary school students in rural Jamaica, who were said to be having serious difficulty with understanding and responding to poetry. These students were in their final year of high school and were about to sit their Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certification examinations (CSEC) (which would be equivalent to the UK’s GCSE examinations).

 

The group comprised predominantly Creole speakers, who lacked fluency in the use of Standard English. Additionally, they were a part of a non-traditional school environment, which, in Jamaica, meant that they were seen as low academic achievers from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These factors led to the students being labelled as ‘unable to do poetry’. But, what makes any student ‘unable to do poetry’? Typically, an evaluation like this is solely based on how well students are able to meet academic requirements. Classroom instruction geared towards helping students to be successful in their external examinations tends to focus heavily on very technical aspects of understanding a poem, rather than on the use of various strategies to help students personally connect with and understand the poems they read. An understanding of the technical aspects of a poem is important, but very often, we start at the wrong place when introducing students to the world of poetry. Examinations play an important role in helping students to matriculate so that they can gain access to various institutions or into the world of work, but as was argued by philosophers like Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey over a century ago, education ought to be a much wider and more experiential process which cannot itself be solely contained in the act of sitting a test for one to three hours. There is nothing a student is unable to do when he or she meaningfully connects with the subject matter or task at hand.

As I thought long and hard about how to help these students better understand and respond to the poems on their English Literature syllabus, my mind became activated by Louise Rosenblatt’s characterisation of literary interpretation as occurring through a transaction between the reader and the text. Rosenblatt describes the literary process as occurring through the prior knowledge and experience readers bring to the text as they internalize the textual details present. I began to reflect on the actual classroom experience of poetry many young people have today, both locally and internationally. These experiences are often quite static, focusing on the teacher as the crystal ball holder who contains all the ‘right’ ways of reading, interpreting and responding to the poems being studied in the classroom and who in turn passes on this ‘knowledge’ to his/her students. I therefore wanted to alter the ways students were ‘expected’ to react to poetry in the classroom by surrounding the student with that which was already familiar and by utilizing that which was already a positive feature of the student’s context. I wanted to allow students to ‘enter’ the poem (as spoken of by Milner and Milner (2008) as the way through which to introduce students to the literary content to be explored) based on the personal connections they were able to make with the poem, rather than solely based on their knowledge of the technical structures of the poem, such as the literary devices present or the traditional rhythmic patterns used in the poem. This kind of knowledge, I felt, could come after students were allowed to first establish a point of connection with the poem; a reason for wanting to read and explore the poem.

Many of the artistic and cultural experiences of students in Jamaica are framed by the deep-rooted presence of orality and music in the nation. Researchers (C. Brown(1970); Bernhart and Wolf, 2004) have already shed light on the intricate relationship between music and poetry, but few of us, as educators, understand the value of the ‘sound’ of poetry in helping students to truly appreciate, understand and respond to poems. One of the sub genres of poetry which pulls both orality and music together is Dub Poetry, a form indigenous to Jamaica, which emerged in the mid-twentieth century out of the well-known genre of Reggae music. The results were amazing! The students engaged with poems from poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Mikey G. Smith, Mutabaruka, Lillian Allen, some young local amateur dub poets, and many other dub poets across the globe. The oral component of dub poetry exposed the students to their history, culture and identity, and helped them to listen and respond to the poem with ease because students were already comfortable with this oral context. The musical component, which has its roots predominantly in the genre of reggae music, awakened their appetites for further engagement with the poetic by allowing them to evaluate the use of proverbs and other cultural forms present in the poems, which were embedded within their society’s oral tradition.

Rather than have students focus solely on dub poetry however, the dub poems were used as a tool through which to engage the students in other forms of poetry, including free verse poems, sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, and other types of poetry. Through focus on the ‘sound’ of the dub poetry and the ways in which this ‘sound’ was articulated by the poet on the page, students became skilful at analysing how sound can be produced in other poems through various rhythmic patterns, the specific arrangement of stanzas and lines, the placement of words, the use of literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, puns and so on. They were given the opportunity to create their own dub poetry, recite dub poems and other forms of poetry and were also asked to articulate the similarities and differences in sound present in various parts of a poem based on the use of such patterns as the iambic pentameter, the pattern of lineation in certain sonnets, internal and external rhyming patterns and many of the technical elements of prosody often present on the CSEC English Literature examination. Students also examined the use of tone and the power of the speaker’s persona and voice in representing events, situations and emotions within the poem. Through moments of intense and close listening to the ‘sound’ of the poem and through a number of recitations both of the poems being studied and their own creative pieces, the meanings of so many poems suddenly came alive and their figurative meanings no longer seemed so ‘impossible’ to comprehend. Students were able to comprehend, talk and write about their interpretation of the poem’s content based on their understanding not simply of ‘what’ was being said, but also of ‘how’ meaning was articulated in the poem. This played a crucial role in helping them to appreciate, understand and respond to the poems on their syllabus and eventually, in their exam.

In my interviews with these students about the use of dub poetry to help them better connect with other forms of poetry, the students expressed above all else, how much listening to and ‘sounding out’ the poems helped them to better interpret the poem on the page. Some students also shared that by remembering the poem and the way certain parts of the poem functioned, they were able to note similar patterns in other poems they read. By the end of the term, the students’ test results improved significantly, their attitudes were positively transformed, and more importantly, they no longer feared poetry but saw it as something to which they could respond, once they found the right point through which to personally connect with the poem.

 

Dr. Aisha Spencer is a lecturer in Language and Literature Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. She has been teaching language and literature for eighteen years and is especially passionate about finding innovative material and alternative forms of literary pedagogy to help children and young people better connect with and enjoy all genres of literature. She is the co-editor of a recently published anthology of Caribbean poetry, entitled ‘Give the Ball to the Poet’ : A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry. Her areas of research interest are in Gender and Nationalism, Postcolonial Literatures, and Literature Education.

 

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Bursting into Poetry

21st July 2015

Image courtesy of Noel Hankamer – Arching Oaks

English teacher Alison Shaw recounts three experiences of getting the poem right off the page – twice out of the classroom too.

 

I love Glyn Maxwell’s idea of the first line of a poem being  ‘the precise moment at which the pressure of [a] silence breaks into utterance that has to be heard ( Julie Blake, March 2015). It puts me in mind of the transition which is the hallmark of musicals – the sudden switch from speaking to singing, the giddy energy that leaps out when a character launches into song.  Who can resist Maria in The Sound of Music when her answer ‘Raindrops on roses…’takes off into melody  ( well, perhaps many of you can, but I can’t!)

Poems often burst onto the page in a similar fashion and it struck me that it would be illuminating and fun for students to explore what could have prompted that bursting forth and show it in a mini performance.

I chose some of Shakespeare’s sonnets – ones whose first lines were direct and immediately engaging.  We read them through together and then pairs of students decided which one to make the climax of their drama.  Improvised conversations sprang up all over the class.  Friends started chastising friends; jealous lovers gave vent to their anger; there was a gradual crescendo then ..there it was…’Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day/ And make me travel forth without my cloak..’ uttered Priya, an accusing finger pointing at Emily; ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend/Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?’ said Ruth from the window corner, sitting back to back with her partner.   The poems spoken in class were spoken TO someone; they had a real purpose; two of the secrets of great poetry, according to Adrian Mitchell.  The students had personalised the poems, made them their own.  I realised they had got the poem right off the page and into themselves and the more I could help them do that, the better.

So, when I saw the first line of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’:  ‘ O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,’ , I knew my A level class would have to go outside. A blustery October day helpfully came along and we left the classroom and each student positioned themselves by a tree and shouted out the poem.  Soon they were battling with the wind more than the poem – they wanted to get those words into the turbulent air. The ‘hear, O hear!’ took on a real power, an energy it could never have harnessed in the classroom.

My most recent attempt at getting the poem off the page was a poetry flash mob for National Poetry Day.  We had a little steering committee and the poem finally chosen to commit to memory was Masefield’s ‘I must go down to the sea again’.   ( Just the first verse – it was our first attempt, after all!)  It had a suitable te tum te tum te tum te tum rhythm  – being in ballad form, we could even have practised singing it to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun  – try it sometime ( Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence)!  It also had a pleasing sense of urgency at the outset and the students loved the aural effects in the line ‘And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking’.  Copies of the poem were surreptitiously distributed at the ends of lessons and on corridors.  Rehearsals took place behind closed doors.  Planning was meticulous: place – the outdoor café; time – first break; technical support – Kevin, the Drama teacher, with whooshing waves sound effects. We were very nervous when the time came, but, all in position, on Roberto’s cue, we nimbly climbed on top of the benches ( I had practised this in advance to avoid inelegance) and, from on high, the recitation began!  We had already decided to do the verse twice, but once the rhythm and vision got hold of us we really did not want to stop!   We got a good round of applause at the end and felt quite triumphant.  Living the poetry – that seems to be an answer!

Alison Shaw is an English Teacher and volunteer gardener.

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Romford Primary Schools Celebrate Poetry Week

7th July 2015

Poetry Week celebrations in Romford Primary Schools

For the past three years the Poetry By Heart London East county competition has been held in Romford Library. Karen Jordan and her staff at the library have organised superb events and in the last two years the London East champion has made the final eight of the national competition. But it is not just in the 14 to 18 sector where the act of taking a poem to heart is flourishing.

 

Over the course of a week the Multi Story Theatre Company worked in seven Romford Primary schools with a variety of year groups. Hillene, Broadford, Pyrgo and Mead Primary, along with Brookside and St Ursula’s Infants and St Ursula’s Juniors all took part in an inspiring Poetry Week celebration.

The ambition for the week was to engage the children in the joy of speaking poetry out loud: how do the words sound and feel as they’re spoken, where does the poem connect with you – head, heart or body?

One of the joys of the week was seeing how the children responded to a challenging collection of poems. W.H.Auden with 10 Year olds? Amy Lowell with 8 year olds? You bet! Several of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems were featured and these bought out the best in every age group.In fact, the more complex and challenging the poem, the more mature the response.

Bill Buffery from the Multi Story Theatre company commented: “As theatre practitioners and workshop leaders we can honestly say that leading these Poetry and Performance workshop weeks is one of the most satisfying experiences of the year. It’s really moving  to watch the quality of the children’s understanding of the world developing through their engagement with poetic language. It is also so pleasing to see a group of schools working together to champion the performing arts and use them to inspire the children!”

In the finale performance, all of the pupils joined together to perform AA Milne’s poem ‘Sneezles’. As a cluster we offer the pupils a wide range of opportunities to showcase their skills and talents: poetry, spelling, sports and maths. Seeing them all collaborate and enjoy the language of some great poems was a real joy. To also share that with parents from all seven schools made the event even more memorable.

I will leave the last word to Ruby Burchell from Broadford Primary: “Our poem was ‘Begged’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It was great fun to read it out loud as it was packed with tricky rhymes, alliteration and twists. I did feel nervous, but I loved the performance and want to do it again.”

 Malcolm Drakes is the Headteacher of Broadford Primary School – which is situated in Harold Hill, Romford. As Chair of the local cluster of primary schools, Malcolm initiated a Poetry Week. The key aim is to widen the cultural experience for the area’s pupils who often come from deprived backgrounds. It also celebrates performance poetry and provides an opportunity for pupils to enrich their knowledge of language. Through their YouTube Channel and blog the school seeks to promote and celebrate a wide range of learning opportunities that have helped Broadford Primary become one of the top performing primary schools in the country.

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Memorisation, Recitation and the Muslim Tradition

10th May 2015

 

A boys’ hifz class – north east London mosque. Photo: Bill Gent Used with permission.

Being involved in an organisation and a project like Poetry By Heart can be both an exciting and rewarding experience. For, watching the process through which young people commit passages of literature to memory, learn to live with it ‘inside’ themselves, and then stand up in performance in order to recite to others, stirs both head and heart.

 

But, there are other traditions of memorisation and recitation too, which are driven by their own histories, dynamics and expectations. Such a tradition is that of hifz committing the whole of the Qur’ān to memory – within the Muslim community.

The sound of the Muslim Qur’ān

‘The Qur’ān (Koran) is the sacred book of Muslims.’ Such a statement is indisputable … or is it? In one sense ‘yes’, but in another, ‘no’. In school RE pupils often learn to think of the Qur’ān as one example of the category ‘sacred books’. The resultant mental imagery is then obvious: a book consisting of pages of text of Arabic which is, of course, written from right to left. But, unstartling though this might seem, this does a great disservice to the place of the Qur’ān in the experience of Muslims across the ages. For, digging deeper into Islam reveals that the prime experience of the Qur’ān for Muslims is as sound. Indeed, fieldworkers in Islamic societies have observed, the sound of the Qur’ān is omnipresent in Muslim societies: it comes from the radios of taxicabs, from recordings played in open-fronted shops, from schools and mosque classrooms. Even the hallowed call to prayer (the adhan) might be heard from several minarets at once in the lead-up to prayer times. Yes, indeed, as one American scholar has put it, ‘The Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, has to be heard’.

But this aural quality of the Qur’ān is not just a consequence of its multi-layered use in Muslim society: it is part of its essential quality. To understand this means going back to the beginnings of the Islamic religion and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 CE). At the age of 40, Muslims believe, Muhammad had a life-changing experience in which the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) revealed to him the first words of the Qur’ān. Muhammad then committed these words to memory in order to recite them to other members of the first Muslim community in Makkah. Such revelations continued for the remaining 23 years of his life and it was during the month of Ramadan each year, it is said, that he rehearsed everything that he had already memorised. And, by the time of his death, many others within the early Muslim community had also memorised the revelations and recited them, often with great beauty and finesse, so that others could do likewise. This body of memorised and recited material constituted the Qur’ān, an Arabic word that means ‘recitation’. It was only later that the memorised material was gathered together to form a book, but this has always been secondary to the recited Qur’ān.

The chain of transmission

Thus we have the central place of memorisation and recitation within Islam, but more than this: we also have the start of a chain of transmission through which, from one Muslim generation to the next, not only the words that were revealed to Muhammad were passed on but also the sound of those words being recited. Moreover, in being memorised in Arabic (the Qur’ān is not the Qur’ān unless it is in the original language of revelation), it was embodied in the bodies and lives of the memorisers. Indeed, in the West African Muslim tradition, those who have memorised the whole Qur’ān are sometimes called ‘walking Qur’ans’.

To the present day, all Muslims will learn parts of the Qur’ān in Arabic; its recitation is both needed and vaunted in everyday Muslim life. During each of the five daily times of prayer (salat), for instance, pious Muslims recite passages from the Qur’ān out loud, particularly its opening words (al-Fatihah). There is no tradition of silent reading within the Muslim community: even when recited in private, the words will be sounded on the lips.

Within the historical Muslim community, there have always been those who have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to memorise the Qur’ān. Still to this day, such people might be encouraged to commit the whole of the Qur’ān to memory. And do remember: the Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, is in Arabic and the majority of Muslims worldwide are not native Arabic speakers. And remember, again, that this is not only a case of learning the ‘words’ but also of being able to recite them in a beautiful manner, according to tradition. As such, the fullness of the revelation which is the Qur’ān is believed to lie in both its words and the sounds of those words being recited. This has the consequence that, in order to learn the Qur’ān by heart, the learner must sit at the feet of a teacher who can correct mistakes and demonstrate to his/her pupils the appropriate sounding of the Arabic words.

The memorisation of the whole Arabic Qur’ān which consists of 30 larger sections (juz), themselves comprising 144 smaller chapters (surahs), is an extraordinary mnemonic achievement and those who achieve this have been likened to elite athletes. Such people are given the honorific title hafiz (male) or hafiza (female) but no-one knows how many huffaz (the plural term) there are in the word today, though Muslims often talk in terms of millions. Even so, it is certain that many British Muslim students who go to state or private school during the day will then also go on to mosque classes each weekday evening (and sometimes before school too) in order to complete hifz – the memorisation of the whole Qur’ān, a task that might take three or four years.

You can’t retire as a hafiz

On achieving hifz, there will be family and mosque celebrations for the Muslim boy or girl (or man or woman, for there is no age limit). But, in one sense, achieving hifz is not the end: it is also the beginning. For huffaz are then expected to retain their memorisation, so that it can be called to the front of memory at a moment’s notice, for the rest of their lives. Huffaz adopt different ways of keeping their Qur’anic memories alive – through a daily period of recitation at home, perhaps, or quietly reciting a passage of the Qur’ān on the way to and from work. But, if they find that they are struggling in this, then the month of Ramadan comes to their rescue for, during the whole of this month, additional late night prayers (tarawih) consist of the male congregation gathering together as, at the front of the often very large gathering, one or several huffaz in turn, recite a whole thirtieth section of the Qur’ān. And those who have also memorised that particular Qur’anic section are duty bound, if the reciter makes an error at a particular point, to interrupt and recite correctly so enabling the main reciter to correct himself and then continue on. In light of this, huffaz will make sure that they have rehearsed the passage for the particular day, working with another memoriser, perhaps, to identify where difficulties in wording and sounding might be met. Ramadan, then, is not only a month of fasting but is also a month of intense reading and revision.

Poetry by Heart and Qur’anic Memorisation

So, to begin where we started. There are many traditions of memorisation and recitation. In the same way as there is an annual Poetry by Heart competition leading to finals, there are also, throughout the Muslim world, Qur’anic recitation competitions. There are famous reciters, too, many of whom will be able to recite the Qur’ān in one of the several dialect forms (qira’at) in which it was passed down. The Internet has also come to play its part in each context: Poetry by Heart competitors can hear their chosen poems being read out loud by others in the same way that Muslims can hear, and be inspired by, famous Qur’anic reciters – many of them Egyptian – on CD or on YouTube. And, in each case, perhaps, the end-result is the stirring image of a human being, often young in years, who has dedicated immeasurable time and energy in order, with beauty and meaning, to recite to others. Indeed, as Andrew Motion says on the Poetry by Heart website, recitation – perhaps in all its many forms – creates both ‘an excitement and a dare’.

 

For further reading

Gent B (2011) ‘But You Can’t retire as a Hafiz: fieldwork within a British hifz class’, Muslim Education Quarterly, 24: 1 & 2, 55-63

Gent, B (2011) ‘The world of the British hifz class student: observations, findings & implications for education & further research’, British Journal of Religious Education, 33:1, 3-15

Gent, B (2015) ‘The Hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim community’, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life

Nelson, K (2005) The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān, New York: American University in Cairo Press

 

Dr Bill Gent is an Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) and editor of ‘Professional REflection within RE Today, the journal of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). billgent49@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

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Planning For Risk

26th April 2015

Creative Commons Jake at Gocredit

When I read about the “unplanned” lesson on the Poetry by Heart blog, I was certainly nervous about trying it. In fact, a reasonable amount of planning was essential for this lesson. I now realise that what I was doing was planning for risk…which is something rather different. It is somewhat unnerving and very, very worthwhile.

 

The starting point for the lesson was to use the random poem selection facility on the Poetry by Heart website, pulling out an “unplanned” poem from their excellent anthology. My first challenge was how to solve the problem of making the randomly chosen poem available for the students to work on, as soon as it had come up. My solution was to have a poetry starter involving some memorisation. While it ran, a colleague completed the printing for us.  Thank you Emma – what a star! The starter was a group challenge – see how much of the opening of “Night Mail” you can learn in five minutes. Pretty much everybody got most of the first two stanzas, but some got further, and had fun doing it.

The poem that came up by chance  was Christina Rosetti’s “A Frog’s Fate”. When the poems arrived, I issued one A3 ideas sheet to each table of four. Their first challenge was to work out the story, the narrative. And as I started to read it for the first time, I panicked. They wouldn’t get it. They’d rebel. It was awkward, complicated language, contrived, alien, I could hardly get a grip on it myself. They’d reject it and resent what I’d imposed on them. It would be a disaster.

Very quickly, most groups had latched onto to the Frog’s death as the key component of the poem’s narrative. I pushed them. I said I needed more than that. I gave them another two minutes. Then, going from group to group, I picked up their sheets and read what they’d got to the rest of the class. One group had absolutely nailed it – and so I was able to ensure that all groups understood that basic narrative and felt secure with it.

Next: questions, feelings, atmosphere.  This was when the noise in the room changed. While the class had been trying to get the story, they were fairly loud, with some off task chat as they struggled with it. Now, knowing the shape and outline, they really settled in. Much quieter, much more thoughtful. We were all struggling with the deeper ideas, though. They wanted me to tell them what it meant and what it was about. This was where not knowing the poem before the lesson really helped. They were seeing me having difficulties, and I was responding to their questions with more questions. We were in it together. Fantastic.

With ten minutes to go, I took photos of the A3 sheets, so the class could see what the other groups had been up to. Here’s a selection of what they came up with:

– about a person, but also not

– he didn’t realise he knew nothing about the village beyond; his arrogance led to his death

– a sad horrible death, no one notices, and he dies on a hideous highway

– the highway may represent karma

– he thought he was important, but when he died, no one knew.

– it’s a fable, but about what?

In that short time they’d really got to the heart of the poem and its driving ideas. The discussion as I went round the groups had been very encouraging indeed. This is a class who seem to need huge amounts of reassurance all the time; during this lesson they developed confidence and began to work independently in a way I’ve not seen before.

Three cheers for random poetry selection…thank you, Poetry by Heart.

 

 Caroline Mortlock is  currently having a wonderful time as Lead Practitioner in English at Beacon Academy in Crowborough, East Sussex. Previously Caroline has led a variety of English departments and been an assistant head teacher. She is a voracious and prolific reader who is just beginning to start writing again. Her love of poetry began after bravely standing up and reciting “I like Noise” at the Norfolk County Verse Speaking Competition in 1972!

 

 

 

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First Lines

31st March 2015

In his excellent little handbook “On Poetry”, Glyn Maxwell talks about a poem’s conception, the poem arising “from the urge of a human creature, once, upon a time – to break silence, fill emptiness, colour nothing with something, anything.”

 

He invites us to think about the opening line of any poem as the precise moment at which the pressure of that silence breaks into an utterance that has to be heard. Maxwell suggests letting photography help us think about this, imagining any first line as a photographic frame. Imagining this as a “snapshot” encourages us to slow down our reading, to really think about the moment at which this voice starts to speak, where it’s coming from and its orientation to us, its readers and hearers. Maxwell suggests these key questions:

“How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet? Is his or her whole figure in the poem, is he or she farther away? Back to you, gesturing in the distance? Hovering spectrally above? Seated, standing, walking? Is the picture in colour? What does he or she think of you? Can you be seen at all? Is the poet present at all?… Consider how he or she is there, how the poet is imprinted on the poem.”

It’s a set of questions that can take us a long way, just with the first line. At another point, Maxwell also suggests storyboarding as a creative way of getting inside a poem. Try it in conjunction with his ideas about opening lines and interesting things happen. Take a storyboard sheet and use the final frame to visualize the moment of the opening line. Then fill in the four or five frames before that. What happened to cause such a build up of pressure that the first line became inevitable?

Try this with any line of poetry you like but the Poetry By Heart website could help students find their own favourites. From the homepage of www.poetrybyheart.org.uk click on “Resources and Downloads” and then “Index of First Lines”.  This is an A-Z list of the opening lines of the 200+ poems in the Poetry By Heart timeline anthology, hyperlinked to the full poem pages. Alternatively, from the “Resources and Downloads” page click on “Learning Resources” and you will find a pdf of the index of the first lines that you could download and share.

To go further, give students the first and last lines, and consider how the poet might get from A to B before reading the whole poem. You might explore the first line and then have students writing one or more next lines to explore where it might go and then where the poet took it. And if your students are planning to enter the next Poetry By Heart competition, it’s another way of exploring the poems to find ones they might want to commit to memory.  Taken completely out of context, they offer surprising and delightful little voyages of discovery.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and co-director of Poetry by Heart. Pictured here at the opening of Poetry by Heart 2015 at Homerton College, Cambridge University March 2015

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Poetry by Heart in York

18th March 2015

Above: Winner Georgina Watkiss and Poet/Judge Helen Cadbury

 

University of York students Kate Murphy, Laura Wood and Becky Goodwin share their experiences of a PBH County Contest at York Explore – the venue for the North Yorkshire and East Riding County Contest.

 

The County Contest:

Despite the nervous excitement of the competitors, the entire day at York Explore felt relaxed and enjoyable, and the atmosphere was hugely positive and encouraging. There were cakes with the PBH logo on to welcome us with tea and drinks and the chance to relax and chat about reciting poetry before the competition started.

Teachers, parents, contestants, judges and librarians all told us about the value they placed on the competition. Here are just a few reasons why Poetry by Heart offers such a fantastic opportunity to everyone who gets involved:

It’s something different to get involved in. Frances Postlethwaite, Explore Library’s Children and Young People’s Librarian, said how the competition caters for an age group not often seen in libraries, and that it was nice to see young people in such a positive light. The parents we spoke to also valued the competition for encouraging students to do something different: poetry often seems less relevant to young people, but Poetry by Heart gives students a way of engaging with it on a very personal level.

The opportunity to engage with poetry in the way it was intended to be enjoyed: out loud!  When we spoke to the judges after the competition, they were impressed by the contestants’ successful engagement with difficult themes such as war. It was clear that the interpretation of the poems they gave came from the contestants themselves, and the dramatic aspect was clearly something the students enjoyed!

The competition element and excitement of competing beyond school level. The regional event was particularly exciting, with judges from various backgrounds covering creative writing to academia.  Georgina Watkiss, the winner from Ripon Grammar School, spoke of how she enjoyed speaking to contestants from different schools. At the final prize giving it was clear from the nervous excitement that all the contestants were fully invested in the competition, and went home with a clear sense of achievement (and quite a lot of cake)!

The winner:

Despite Georgina Watkiss’s three fantastic recitals, when finding out that she won the Yorkshire division of the Poetry by Heart semi-final, she was what could only be described as gobsmacked, although this does reflect on the extremely high standard of performances presented on the day. However, what is somewhat more surprising are the A level subjects that Georgina studies. The majority of students competing at the Yorkshire semi-final studied English literature, and as a result it was easy to see where their love of poetry and drive to enter the competition stemmed from.

On the contrary, Georgina doesn’t study English literature and rather than immersing herself in the humanities, Georgina studies maths, biology, chemistry and psychology. Therefore, it is especially impressive that Georgina did so well, considering that poetry is purely a hobby for her. Georgina commented, “I can’t really spell and I’m not very good at it but I really like poetry”.

However, although Georgina certainly spent a great deal of time practicing by herself in her room, the English department at Ripon Grammar School supported Georgina leading up to the competition and on the day.

When choosing the three poems for the competition, Georgina noted that it was initially daunting as the anthology was so big, however she knew that she wanted poems that contrasted. Georgina’s elder sister, being a “huge Oscar Wilde fan”, helped her to pick The Ballad of Reading Gaol, whereas Georgina chose The Wedding as she liked the way in which it built up using similes, and finally Rain, a poem which she knew of before the competition and really enjoyed.

When asked what she thought of the competition, Georgina commented saying, “The competition is great because it’s different and poetry is supposed to be spoken, and through saying it out loud you can often understand it better than simply reading it”. Furthermore, the judges said that through trying alternative accents when reciting poetry, you can learn so much more about the poem due to the change in rhythm and stresses on distinctive words and phrases”.

Georgina’s win at the Yorkshire division semi-final is not only an impressive feat, but also proof of the accessibility of the competition. Although, Georgina doesn’t study English literature A level, her love of poetry and enthusiasm for it to be read out loud secured her a first place position.

Teacher involvement  from The Mount school in York:

How we are involved: We have participated in the competition for the last three years and Mount students Niamh Devlin and Amelia Cook went on to win the county competition and perform at the Final. Both students comment on how it has really opened their eyes to the power and beauty of spoken poetry. Interestingly, I think participating in the competition has also really improved my students ‘ability’ to respond to poetry in a more exploratory manner, in their written work. We think ‘Poetry by Heart’ a wonderful and very valuable initiative in promoting the love of and deeper understanding of poetry.

What we do:  At The Mount we get all students in Years 10 and 11, plus our Sixth Form Literature students to learn one of the poems for an initial, internal round. We get the GCSE students to make the poem a presentation, with an introduction about the poet and a personal response to the poem – this can then also be assessed for Speaking and Listening purposes. We get Lower Sixth pupils, who are studying AQA Spec A, to learn a poem from WW1-their chosen area of study-and Year 13 students to learn a ‘Love’ poem. Their area of study is ‘ Love through the Ages’. We also publicise the competition more widely and encourage any student, if she so desires, to participate, regardless of whether they are studying English Literature or not. Once we have selected class/year group winners, we have an internal competition, where the students recite their chosen poems. The winner goes forward to the County final.

The County Contest: The Mount participants and myself thoroughly enjoyed the experience at York Explore this year which was a lovely venue and as always, at Poetry by Heart, the support staff were delightful and what really strikes me about the competition is how friendly and supportive the whole experience is for students. Even though our representative Isobel Sygrove, was not a winner, she found the experience very enjoyable and particularly welcomed the opportunity to hear how the same poem can be interpreted in different ways.

The Future…

As everyone involved in the competition spoke so highly of it, it seems natural to talk about the future of Poetry by Heart. Now in its third year, the competition has been growing steadily in reputation. However, a question posed by several people that we spoke to was: how do we get more people involved?

Teachers Simon Chapman and Fiona Holland (Woldgate College) stressed the importance both of getting children involved with poetry, and of finding a way to make space within the curriculum pressures for those children who really do enjoy poetry.  This competition seems like a perfect way to do that, and in fact, Woldgate College suggested getting children involved from a younger age.

The competition is open to years 10 – 13, but perhaps engaging children in poetry, specifically this kind of performed-poetry, from a younger age would encourage more students to get involved when they reach year 10. It was noted by everyone we interviewed that the performance element really brought something special; it was clear that these poems had come to mean a lot to the young people reciting them.

Parents of one of the competitors on the day mentioned how valuable the videos of previous winners performing had been, telling us that they made the competition and the poetry less daunting.

The videos showcase the competitors, and also what the competition is about. Poetry by Heart isn’t about being a professional poet, or a professional performer; it’s about the students using their own voices, and their own interpretations to really connect with a piece of poetry, and then pouring that emotion into their performances. The video resources are a really important way to demonstrate to those taking part (and to those thinking of taking part) that, as Georgina, the winner on the day, declared: they can do it!

These videos are readily available on the Poetry By Heart website, so let’s spread the word!

Finally, Georgina told us that she would definitely do it again, and would definitely recommend it to others- surely that glowing review will inspire you to get involved? But if not, how about this quote from Don Paterson (courtesy of Hugh, one of the judges on the day): “Most of us can’t own a Leonardo, or a Turner, but if you know a poem by heart then you’ve got one of the world’s great masterpieces”.


About the Authors

 Kate Murphy – I’m a second year History of Art student. I was keen to take part in the PBH work placement as I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved with something happening in York. Also I  loved the poetry competitions at school when I was little, so the idea of revisiting that but seeing the poetry recited at a higher standard really grabbed me. I was curious and excited to see the performances.

Laura Wood – I’m a second year undergrad studying English and Related Literature. I am really passionate about educational opportunities outside the classroom, and knew about Poetry by Heart from college, so I thought it would be a fantastic thing to get involved with.

 Becky Goodwin – I’m a 3rd year English language and linguistics student. I wanted to get involved in the project because, as a drama-lover, I really liked the  sound of the poetry recital competition.

 

 

 

A view of  Poetry by Heart from Ripon Grammar – Georgina’s School

 

Here at RGS we have followed the Poetry by Heart scheme from its quiet inception three years ago.  Nationally, and within our school, it is growing steadily, and is particularly appealing to students who aim to pursue any career which might involve public speaking.

However, it has also given us a new focus on poetry.  In July a former student, Dr Paul Hullah, visited to speak at our annual prize-giving.  He attended RGS in the ‘70s and is now Associate Professor of British Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan.   Dr Hullah is also a published author and poet and during his visit he shared his detailed knowledge of the Haiku, running workshops where students produced some fabulous work of their own.

In 2015 we wanted to extend Poetry by Heart and encourage more of our students to take part.  Therefore, in celebration of National Poetry Day, we ran it as a House competition and involved all year groups.  Each of the four school Houses sent representatives and we ran a series of heats at lunchtimes, using the same criteria as Poetry by Heart.  Lower School students could choose any poem, while the older ones had to use the Poetry by Heart anthology. House points were awarded to the successful contestants.

Prior to the competition we took the opportunity to involve our Patron of Reading, Dave Cryer (www.davecryer.co.uk), who ran a ‘hints and tips’ workshop for the contestants on performing poetry out loud.

The school final was held in the library during lunchtime and the performances were wonderful, with all the competitors doing themselves proud.

RGS competitors and judges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The judges for the competition were Mrs Mars, English teacher, and Simon Edwards, proprietor of our fantastic local independent bookshop, Little Ripon Bookshop.  Mr Edwards commented:

“Thank you for the lovely opportunity to judge the Poetry by Heart Upper School Heats. All the contestants were confident and well prepared and they had chosen some very interesting and challenging poems. I’m sure that the winner will do very well in the next round.”

Juliet, one of our impressive competitors, said:

“We had to select one poem from a given list and learn it well enough to perform, being judged on criteria such as ‘voice and articulation’ and ‘evidence of understanding.’ We all then performed our poems on the Friday in the library with a special guest judge, Mr Simon Edwards of The Little Ripon Bookshop. I must confess that it’s a nerve-wracking experience (certainly not helped by the fact that I left learning my poem until the last minute) but very enjoyable to hear everyone’s takes on their respective poems.“

We are hopeful that some of the younger students will be enthused and will themselves take part in the national competition in a few years’ time.

Of course, the main objective was to find our school winner.  This was Georgina Watkiss, who then went on to represent Ripon Grammar School at the county contest which was held in York on National Libraries Day last month.

We were welcomed to the fantastic, newly re-opened Explore Library York.  Georgina and the other county finalists had the opportunity to take part in a pre-contest workshop to warm them up and then the performances began.  The level was extremely high, with all eight contestants giving fabulous recitations of their poems, and we were delighted when Georgina was announced as the winner of this county contest!  As I write Georgina and I are preparing to travel down to Homerton College in Cambridge for the regional and national finals, and are looking forward to meeting the other competitors and their school chaperones for what promises to be an experience we will never forget.

I am lucky to have a very supportive English teacher, Helen Mars, who is my ‘partner in crime’ for Poetry by Heart.  When she recently attended a cluster meeting with local primary staff she put forward the idea of a competition based on Poetry by Heart for Year 6 children.  The new National Curriculum programme of study for Upper Key Stage 2 includes “preparing poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action”, and so this suggestion was met with enthusiasm.

We now plan to pilot this scheme in the Summer Term this year.  We will encourage local primaries to hold their own poetry recitation competitions to a find a school representative who will then attend a final event hosted here at Ripon Grammar School.  Helen and I will put together an anthology of poems from which they can choose.  The event will consist of a poetry masterclass and the final, where the Year 6 champion will be crowned.  I am really looking forward to this development, so watch this space!

Mrs Dring

Learning Resources Manager/Literacy Co-ordinator

Ripon Grammar School

 

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Planning the Unplanned Lesson – Poetry by Heart in the Classroom

12th February 2015

Pietro Zanarini 2010 How to Mind Map – Creative Commons

Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the North West, Karen Lockney and Head of English, Susie Cooke at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith discuss the lesson that refused to be planned!

 

Walking into a classroom about to teach a lesson you know you could have spent longer planning, is obviously not the best thing to do with Year 10 last thing on a Friday. Yet this lesson was deliberately unplanned (beyond the most skeletal of outlines). It’s lack of potential to be planned was part of the lesson’s very concept – it offered risk and, like risks tend to do, it offered opportunity.

The aim was to use Poetry by Heart web resources to introduce pupils to poems that would be ‘unseen’ to them, but crucially ‘unseen’ to us as teachers also. We would look at poems that neither we nor the class were likely to have seen before, and try to read and respond to them together. ‘We’ll read poems with you’, we said, ‘but be warned, we might not be able to tell you exactly what they mean, we might not even be able to fully understand them yet ourselves’.  They didn’t look 100% convinced.

However our intention was to develop confidence in dealing with unseen poems as part of their exam preparation. Their views on such questions are probably not atypical: ‘We might not understand it’, ’What if we don’t find the correct meaning?’ There it is, the ultimate fear that a poem has a ‘correct meaning’ to be teased out, and even worse, teased out in the pressure of an exam room. The idea of the ‘unseen’ poem may pose a particular challenge as classes cannot be prepared in the same way as they are for named anthology poems, for instance.

We showed the class the Poetry by Heart online anthology. It has a fantastic feature called ‘random dip’ (clearly accessible in a yellow box on the home page). Press this and any one of  over 200 poems will appear. True, we know some of the poems on the timeline, but we agreed that we’d be honest about this and tell the pupils if we had a significant head start. In fact the first poem generated was ‘Blackout’ by Grace Nichols which neither of us knew.  The poem was read out and the pupils were simply asked to note down and discuss images which leapt out to them, which we then discussed together. The overall context did not present itself straightaway, but most of us immediately felt a powerful mood of danger, and we honed in on images and language which gave us that feeling.

All well and good so far, but we were keen to move on. This was all going to be light touch, emphasising the idea that encouraging confidence with poetry comes with frequent exposure that is sometimes very light touch indeed, ‘little and often’ poetry reading, vehemently denying the urge to analyse every poem to within an inch of its life. Easier said than done though, as we realised when we got ready to generate the next poem and one girl said, ‘But what does this Nichols one mean?’, pen in hand, ready to scribble our pearls of wisdom down. Our response seemed counter-intuitive: ‘We aren’t entirely sure yet, but we are interested in going back to it later’. It’s more difficult than we might think to tell a pupil directly that we aren’t going to tell them the answer because we don’t know it ourselves yet, but this was at the crux of what we hoped to illustrate.

We then used the timeline filter (click ‘filter timeline’ in the grey bar at the top of the anthology page). With a glee for the macabre the pupils chose  the ‘Nasty Ends’ category and then ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas. We spent longer on this poem, asking each group to learn a 4 line stanza by heart, putting these together so we had a fairly informal class recital. They made light work of this, and it allowed us to ask them more about their own stanza, and what they noticed in those they heard from others. We talked about whether their increased intimacy with the poem had developed understanding. Some very powerful personal responses emerged about humanisation within the dehumanisation of war. Pupils tentatively offered readings and were asked to justify them. ‘But I’m just not sure if I’m right’, insisted one girl, and we encouraged her to see that could well be an A* type of comment to make, provided the justification was there, and it was. Some of us thought the weapon in the poem a grenade, others a rifle. Which was ‘the right answer’ ? We debated this, searched for clues, wondered how we’d feel in an exam offering our thoughts. A great feature of the anthology is that there are some fantastic notes under each poem, just enough to give pointers and direct further thought. Having decided it would be OK in the exam to suggest either possibility about the weapon, we looked together at the notes. Lo and behold, they suggest there isn’t clarity in the poem. The right answer was that there was no right answer. In terms of the lesson, this was a godsend; we couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned it.

This was the first of regular, sporadic lessons with the ‘little and often’, ‘light touch, deep meaning’ approach, and they will of course complement other lessons where pupils spend much more time with poems, often in more structured contexts. But this sort of risky, ‘let’s see what we get’ lesson does, we feel, have its place to raise confidence with  poetry, to take it off its pedestal a bit, allowing the brilliance of lines, images, ideas within poems to shine briefly and randomly, and to allow fresh, personal response to emerge with increasing confidence.

From left to right: Karen Lockney, Andrew Forster, Poet and Literary Officer, Wordsworth Trust and Chair of Judges for the Cumbria Final; Susie Cooke and Nikhil Choudhury, Cumbrian Champion and Year 10 student at Susie’s school.

 

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Teesdale School and Poetry By Heart

1st February 2015

Chair of Judges author Anne Fine

Teesdale English teacher Cassie Flint reflects on the use of Poetry By Heart in the classroom.

 

Teesdale School had a great start to the competition with the delightful presence of award winning author Anne Fine as our chief judge. She had some really inspirational comments to make about our students and hopefully this will help them in the next round. We also had an international judge as a colleague was visiting from Pakistan, where the oral tradition remains remarkably strong and recitation of poetry  is, for many students, a daily experience.

Teesdale competitors and judges

Our school is partnered with a school in Abbottabad which is in the north west of Pakistan where I visit each year. Each day  begins with a recitation of a passage from the Qu’ran. As a result of being a judge on the competition, Rafia Naz, our partner from Pakistan is going to be running a Poetry by Heart competition in the school in Abbottabad. The national poet of Pakistan is Allama Iqbal and he is much loved, as we love Shakespeare. Here is one of his poems

 

 

The Age of Infancy

 

The earth and sky were unknown worlds to me

Only the expanse of mother’s bosom was a world to me

Every movement was a symbol of life’s pleasure to me

My own speech was like a meaningless word to me

During infancy’s pain if somebody made me cry

The noise of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon for long hours

Staring at its silent journey among broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and plains

And how surprised would I be at that prudent lie

My eye was devoted to seeing, my lip was prone to speak

My heart was no less than inquisitiveness personified

Recitation by girls at the school in Abbottabad

We had prepared for our Poetry by Heart competition by having an extra session of our weekly Poetry Club: in one of these we decided to do a Memory Workshop, chiefly to help our entrants to think about which ways would work best for them in the task of memorising poetry. The main technique we tried was the use of the ‘memory palace’ which  works both visually and by association – and it seemed to work for our students . Here are some useful sites if you are interested in finding out more. We took the verse we were trying to remember and found an image from the first line and made that image as ridiculous and as larger than life as we could, so for example, in Mary Robinson’s Female Fashions for 1799 ( from the Poetry by Heart Anthology) when the first line is

A form, as any taper, fine;

it would make me think of a form, the ones I had to leapfrog over as a primary school child, brown varnished wood and little rounded rubberised feet which cushioned it on the floor- this one would be very bendy and it would be standing on the path outside my front door.

Then, inside the front door there would be a very long thin taper, made of white wax and attached to its side was a massive parking ticket – with that black and yellow edging to it- telling me I had got a fine…..and so it goes on as you construct a whole building ( or palace) within which the strong visual images from this poem will be contained.

Usually in our Poetry Club we do something which we’ve named ‘Wild Writing’ where we devise different ways in which to write poetry both individually and collaboratively. We are a mixed group, though usually sixth form students and a few teachers. One of the early experiments we tried was to do this:

  • Select One from :
  • Playing with the idea
  • Experience
  • Concept
  • Narrative

and then having identified  a ‘way ‘ to write we then came up with a list of words. Our first ones were: element, bus, oak and yellow. We then wrote poems using these parameters.

We also tried our hand at writing song lyrics, writing two lines each, a villanelle and found inspiration from the poetry of the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik ( whom we have recently discovered).

Here is one of our collaborative ones;

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,

striding out along the midnight sidewalk:

I am painted in navy blue and the

thin strips of luminescence cast down by the moon.

The calm footfall is a son

only I hear.

Lately though we have been looking through the Poetry by Heart timeline and selecting ones to read and give our reactions to as we prepare for the next round of the Poetry by Heart Competition.

 

Memorising poetry

TED talk on memory

How to use a memory palace

 

Cassie Flint

I have been an English teacher for many, many years and throughout all the changes I have seen, the one constant in all my English teaching has been my love of poetry. I have written myself since I was a young girl and maybe, being the daughter of a novelist, in a way encouraged me. I grew up in St.Ives in Cornwall at a time when there were great artists there and I met them as my father’s friends. For that reason too the sea and the literature which asks the big questions in life appeal to me.  In my later years I have begun to travel and have been lucky enough to be part of a British Council Connecting Classrooms Project which takes me to Pakistan and to work in a school there each year. You might be interested in an article I published on my last visit: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/07/schools-taliban-power-of-education

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Why Poetry?

19th January 2015

Chew Valley Participants at their Poetry By Heart competition.

Deputy Headteacher Chris Hildrew reflects on the importance of poetry in his personal and professional life and his commitment to his ‘Poetry Promise’.

 

This year, I have made a Poetry Promise. My promise is to mark each month of the year with a favourite poem, shared online, with an explanation of why that particular poem is so special to me. The aim of the Poetry Promise is to raise the profile of Poetry by Heart and, by extension, share the love of poetry itself. How could I say no? I was knee deep in favourite poems on New Year’s Eve, trying to find that one I wanted for August!

Reflecting on my choices, I took stock of my relationship with poetry. Poetry has always moved me, really ever since I can remember. But it was at secondary school that it took hold of me, truly possessed me. I wrote tortured teenage verse in my diary, tried in vain to write a sestina that worked, and sat back in awe as my A-level Literature course took me on a tour through time from Chaucer to Heaney. It was the work of Sylvia Plath that was, and remains, my all-time favourite. Reading her work left me feeling like the hanging man in her poem of that name: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.” I sizzled in the electricity of her verse.

As a teacher, I’ve always looked forward to teaching poetry. There’s something magical about unlocking it, about seeing it click into place in a student’s mind. Poetry never fails to provide those lightbulb moments. But what is it about poetry that makes it so distinct?

One of my favourite lessons that I planned as an NQT, and still use today, is an introductory lesson for A Level literature. In it, I present a series of texts: some prose, some poetry. Some of them are presented as written, others disguised: poems laid out like prose, prose laid out like poetry. I challenge the students to see through the disguises, with the aim of answering the question: what makes a poem a poem? The answers don’t really matter; the discussion is always mind-bending.

From years of teaching that lesson, I think I feel comfortable with the answer “a poem is a poem if we say it’s a poem.” Because the act of saying “this is a poem” lifts the language “above a common bound”, and gives it muscle. Words in poems have extra heft, like they’re loaded with lead shot; but they are nimble, their associations skipping across the page like spiders on a web.

When the occasion demands it, only a poem will do. Wedding, funerals, falling in love, the pain of goodbye…at these moments, dribbling prose won’t cut it. Only the poem can do the emotional heavy lifting required by these landmark events. That’s why the poet laureate is still such a key role, as Carol Ann Duffy has been admirably proving since 2009, in capturing landmarks in our national life. I still think “Translating the British” did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of London 2012.

Chew Valley Poetry By Heart participant.

As a teacher in a school it’s my job and my pleasure to open up the spinning world of poetry for young people, not so they can pass exams and memorise the difference between a trochaic and an iambic rhythm, but so they can sit back with their eyes shut as they try to touch the edges of the emotions they have just experienced in the words of another. When I saw our students in our Poetry by Heart final this year, I almost forgot to breathe as they animated, inhabited, lived their recitations. The head judge was moved to tears. I will never forget it.

That is why poetry.

Chris Hildrew with his Poetry Promise

 

 

 

Chris Hildrew is Deputy Headteacher of Chew Valley School near Bristol. Follow @chrishildrew and read Chris’s blog at chrishildrew.wordpress.com

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