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Poetry By Heart Blog

Poetry By Heart Goes Global

3rd February 2022

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For a long time we’ve had schools beyond England enquiring about taking part but the world is a very big place and we’ve been thinking about how best to respond in a meaningful way. In recent years, we’ve supported the English Language Schools Association in France in running a Poetry By Heart France competition, and we helped Talk The Poem in Jamaica to set up their competition too. And we maintain friendly relations with our colleagues in the USA, Canada and Ireland who run similar competitions too.

But at last we’ve decided the best way to find out how to run a Poetry By Heart international competition is to start with a small-scale pilot this year and to work closely with a modest number of schools on the future design. So, if you teach in a school that is not in England, or if you have a partner school elsewhere in the world, or if you have friends, colleagues and family who teach in other countries, get in touch at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk to find out more about the pilot. We’d love to talk to you! This is your chance to shape what happens!
The international pilot competition will offer…

· bespoke support by email, phone and Zoom to help you and your colleagues to develop Poetry By Heart in your school

· access to our online Poetry Forums (we’ll figure out the timezones as we go!) to meet and share ideas with the PBH team and other PBH teachers

· a digital copy of our 2021-2022 poem-a-month calendar with monthly learn-a-poem challenges to help you get pupils started

· access to the 2022 competition kit with downloadable certificates, fun Zoom backgrounds (in case you’re teaching online at any point), launch slides and learn-along poem resources

· open access to all the poem collections on the website, for use in the competition as well as for other teaching and learning purposes

· access to the online competition entry system for easy video upload of your winning performances by the deadline of midnight on 30th April 2022

· up to 12 pupil entries in total in the Classic competition category, up to 3 per eligible Key Stage.

Every pupil correctly entered will receive a digital certificate. A number of finalists in each key stage will be given individual feedback about their performances and invited to polish and resubmit them (if they want to) for our final judging panel of top poets whose task will be to select a Poetry By Heart International champion in each key stage. In this pilot phase we will work with participating schools to explore the most realistic options for celebrating these champions.

The Poetry By Heart international competition pilot does not include countries that already have equivalent competitions such as Ireland, France, Canada, Jamaica and the USA. However if you’re teaching in those countries we’ll be very happy to link you up with your national competition so you can take part there.

We’d love you to take part in the Poetry By Heart international pilot competition. Can we count you in?

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My poetry by heart learning journey

1st December 2021

In this week’s blogpost, UEA teacher educator Vicky Christoforatou shares the story of her personal journey in learning poems by heart, starting in Year 1 of a primary school in Greece and leading to Poetry By Heart in Norfolk. If you have a poems by heart journey to share with us, we’d love to hear from you!

One of my earliest school memories was a poetry recital as part of a whole school assembly on the theme of nature. There were 20 of us in Year 1 (6-7 years old) and we were each allocated a different but thematically linked poem. My poem was ‘The Little River’ by Zacharias Papantoniou, a prolific early 20th century writer whose work celebrated the language of the people as opposed to standard Greek. The poem is a simple dialogue between a young persona and a playful little river in regular rhyme and question-answer structure – not that any of that mattered to my Year 1 self! I loved playing the part of the little river while my mum asked the questions helping me rehearse at home. Standing in front of the big mirror in our living room I practiced different voices, expressions, gestures demanding an engaged audience (any adult in the room) and feedback on the preferred performance. ‘The Little River’ has stayed with me and I taught it to my daughter when she was younger as we strolled along River Wensum in Norwich.

Learning poems by heart was part of our everyday experience in class and not just an activity for special occasions. We practiced choral readings with our teacher and our homework was routinely to memorise a stanza or a whole poem to be delivered in front of the class the following day. Progressing to high school, I learned more complex poems; free verse, longer epic poems and poems set to music. The words, the lines, the stanzas are still with me like a personal anthology. Recently, my current PGCE cohort asked me to contribute a poem to their anthology celebrating National Poetry Day. The theme was choice. I chose Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy; a poem that taught me not to be afraid and to enjoy the journey. I have no recollection of analysing poems in class; we never annotated the features, but we learned the different meters; we never wrote critically about the poems but sometimes drafted our own poems, changed the poems into other forms and talked about the ideas. Every time I came across a new poem, I would size it up; a product to be consumed, not analysed. How long? Does it rhyme? Can I hear the rhythm? Can I see the images? All of these would help me memorise it and make it my own.

learning journey

By the time I took the module Introduction to British Poetry as an undergraduate of English Language and Literature at the University of Athens, I considered myself an expert on poetry; just because I had read and remembered so many poems (although none in English). During those early encounters with literary criticism and analysis, I did not feel overwhelmed. It seemed logical that there are different ways to analyse a poem as there as different ways to perform and recite a poem. When faced with an abundance of poetic terms, I was not confused; I had a bank of poetry under my skin to give flesh to the labels.

When I started teaching English in South East London, September 2000, my relationship with poetry was shaken. I struggled to plan lesson and activities that would produce effective analytical paragraphs written by my students. Matching the tasks to the assessment criteria felt like wearing ill-fitting clothes, uncomfortable and restrictive. It must have been around 2014 , a chance discovery of this competition –Poetry By Heart- giving me license to give the poems back to my students, hear their voices while allowing them to develop their own anthologies, their own journeys, and interpretations. At first, it was not about entering the competition; it was about validation and the freedom to recite poems in class, with the class.

Poetry by Heart brought poetry home for me…

 

Vicky Christoforatou is a Lecturer in Education on the Secondary PGCE Course (English) at the University of East Anglia. Vicky also leads the Lesson Study module as part of the MA Educational Practice and Research.  Having enjoyed a long and rewarding career working with secondary school pupils and their teacher, Vicky’s main interest is developing innovative professional development opportunities for mentors and early career teachers. Vicky’s favourite poem is ‘Ithaka’ by C.P. Cavafy.

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ELSA Poetry by Heart 2021 – France

11th June 2021

Antony McDermott of the English Language Schools Association tells us about Poetry By Heart France’s 2021 competition, the challenges of persevering through Covid-19 and their list of winners from schools across France and further abroad…

 

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Once again the ELSA Poetry by Heart France competition has been a wonderful experience for everyone concerned and we are proud to announce this year’s winners – but before scrolling down to find out who they are – let’s go back in time to September 2020 when we launched the competition.

Back in September 2020 we were hoping to organise a competition where once again all of the schools could meet up and take part together. It soon became clear that this was not going to be possible and that we would need to switch (once again) to a virtual competition. Once the decision had been made, we were unsure how schools would react, but the response to our initial email was extremely positive with schools from all over France and one from school from Nairobi signing up for the competition. We ended up with around 20 schools taking part in either the Middle or High School competition – a record number for our competition here in France.

In what has turned out to be a difficult year for many schools, the Poetry by Heart competition has been a real highlight. For us here in France it has allowed us to create a sense of community, bringing different schools together through a joint love of poetry. All of the schools that have taken part have expressed the enthusiasm and motivation that their students have for the competition, and the joy that the different performances have brought to the other students in the school.

What struck the judges the most when receiving the different entries was how varied the choice of poems has been this year: some students have chosen canonical poems while others have gone for the newer voices of contemporary poets; some students preferred poems with a clear political message while others showed a preference for poems with a more intimate feel – what is undeniable is the passion and emotion that all of the students put into reciting these poems.

We would like to thank everyone who has made the ELSA Poetry by Heart France competition possible: all of the teachers and schools who helped organise in-school competitions; all of the judges who kindly gave up their time; all of the wonderful students who took part and gave life to the competition; the ELSA (English Language Schools Association) for their support in promoting the competition in France; and most importantly, the Poetry by Heart team in the UK for their continued support and guidance with our competition.

And now, here are the winners…

 

GRADE 6
1st place
Zabel – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris)
2nd place (equally placed)
Amelia – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Lille)
Lois – Lycée Français Denis Diderot (Nairobi)
3rd place
Chiara – American School of Paris (Paris)

 

GRADE 7
1st place (and Middle School Overall winner)
Valeria – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris)
2nd place (equally placed)
Maude – Institut Saint-Joseph (Limoux)
Louise – Ermitage International School (Maisons-Laffitte)
3rd place
Aimée – Collège Sévigné (Paris)

 

GRADE 8
1st place (equally placed)
Juliette – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris)
Zoe – American School of Paris – Extension Program (Paris)
2nd place (equally placed)
Uma – EIB La Jonchère (Paris)
Hélène – MS & HS Blanche de Castille (Le Chesnay)
3rd place (equally placed)
Ella – Ecole Massillon (Paris)
Penelope – Section Internationale Paris Ouest (Paris)

 

GRADE 9
1st place
Luke – Institut de la Tour Paris (Paris) – with the poems ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Goodbye’
2nd place
Melanie – Lycée Français de Nairobi (Nairobi) –  with the poems ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘To the Snake’
Special Mention
Annajulia – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris) – with the poems ‘Envy’ and ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’

 

GRADE 10
1st place
Sofia – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Lille) – with the poems ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’
2nd place (tied)
Claire – Lycée Camille See (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Things That Matter’ and ‘The Beast In the Space’
Ian Sacha – Lycée Français de Nairobi (Nairobi) – with the poems ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘Dusting the Phone’
Special Mention
Ilona – Institut de la Tour (Paris) – with the poems ‘There is no God’ and ‘The Cleaner’

 

GRADE 11
1st place
Ysée – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Mistress’ and ‘The Lost Woman’
2nd place
Charlotte – Institut Notre Dame (Paris) – with the poems ‘A Song for St Cecilia’s Day’ and ‘Langley Lane’
Special Mentions
Francesco – CIV Valbonne (Valbonne) – with the poems ‘A Blockhead’ and ‘Minority’
Lucy – Collège Sévigné (Paris) – with the poems ‘Envy’ and ‘The Thought Fox’

 

GRADE 12
1st place
Camille – Blanche de Castille (Le Chesnay) – with the poems ‘If’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’
2nd place (tied)
Jihane – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Song of The Smoke’ and ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’
Emma – Institut Notre Dame (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Things That Matter’ and ‘Not My Best Side’
Special Mentions
Elivre – SIS Sèvres (Paris) – with the poems ‘I Started Early – Took My Dog’ and ‘Poetry’
Tanguy – Lycée Français de Nairobi (Nairobi) with the poems ‘Love’ and ‘Wedding’

 

Special Mention – HORS COMPÉTITION
Victoria – Grade 5 – Bordeaux International School (Bordeaux)
Poem: A Ballroom For St Bernards

 

2021 Poetry by Heart High School Overall Winner
Sofia – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Lille)


 

Antony McDermott is Head of English at Ecole Jeannine Manuel in Paris. He is the competition organiser for Poetry By Heart France.

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Lost voices of the First World War

29th October 2020

In 2017 and 2018 Poetry By Heart collaborated with the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme to run three very special tours to France and Belgium. There we read and recited First World War poems in the places related to the poems and poets –  including lost, forgotten and neglected poets of the war too. We knew about these poets from Professor Connie Ruzich’s blog, Behind Their Lines, so we invited her to join us – and to help us to choose poems to read and recite. 

In this blogpost ahead of a commemoration taking place when our world is once again in turmoil, we talk to Connie Ruzich about her just-published anthology, International Poetry of the First World War: an anthology of lost voices. This anthology includes a wonderful selection of poems alongside Connie’s contextual explanations, in sections about ‘Soldiers’ Lives’, ‘Minds at War’, ‘Noncombatants’, ‘Making Sense of War, ‘Remembering the Dead’ and ‘Aftermath’. We’re busy adding some of these poems to the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase. Connie also shares her memories of the moments she especially remembers from those wonderful battlefield tours with Poetry By Heart students and teachers, when taking students on field trips was What We Did.

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In International Poetry of the First World War you bring together ‘Lost voices’ from the period. Why do you think it’s so important to capture these lost voices – and how does this anthology expand our understanding of responses to the conflict and its creative legacies?

As the poems in my anthology demonstrate, there was no single representative experience of the Great War, nor was there a typical response to the conflict. And that is important, because poetry anthologies have long served as a crucial means of preserving and shaping literary, cultural, and social histories. Toni Morrison has written, “Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate … is the clash of cultures.” The canon of First World War poetry started to be established around 1930, with a new impetus in schools from the 50th anniversary in 1964, and since that time, it has focused almost exclusively on a select number of British soldier poets who fought on the Western Front and wrote in protest of the war. In recent years, there have been increasingly numerous calls to expand the range of voices and perspectives of First World War poetry, but few modern anthologies have included a representative sample of poems written by women and noncombatants, and fewer still have included poems not originally written in English.

International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices is intended neither to supplant nor to challenge the value of previous anthologies, the poets, or their work, but rather to supplement the canonical poetry of the war and to be read alongside it.  Recovering the diverse body of war poems that were originally published and reading them with a deeper appreciation of their social, cultural, linguistic, and historic contexts can provide a richer understanding not only of war poetry, but of the war itself.

You have described the process of discovering these poems as “happy mudlarking”. Could you say a little more about how you approached this daunting task of assembling this collection?

Mudlarking is the activity of searching the muddy foreshore and banks of rivers for anything of value. I moved my search for lost literary treasure on to dry ground, discovering lost poems and voices in second-hand bookshops, historic society collections, libraries, and museum archives. Digital collections were also invaluable. Numerous poems included in the anthology were written by people who did not identify primarily as poets, but who felt the need to respond to the war and to shape meaning out of their experiences of patriotism, fear, trauma, and grief.

It was particularly rewarding to discover and recover women’s war writing from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, India, America, Australia, and Russia. Both patriarchal societies and the military establishment have frequently attempted to distance women from war. Cynthia Enloe discusses ways in which combat has been viewed as “society’s bastion of male identity,” arguing, “Women as women must be denied access to ‘the front’…. And yet, because women are in practice often exposed to frontline combat, the military has to constantly redefine ‘the front’ and ‘combat’ as wherever ‘women’ are not.”[i]  It is a myth that women did not experience the physical horror of the First World War:  French and Belgium women’s homes were overrun by invading armies, British women were killed in bombing raids, and Armenian women were massacred along with men and children. The first industrial world war challenged the concept of the home front as a safe zone that was separate from the war. British suffragist and pacifist Helena Swanwick wrote in 1915, “War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women and children as well as upon men.”[ii] And though most women lacked first-hand experience of the battlefront, it is impossible to deny that women had first-hand experience of the war. In many women’s war poems, war has escaped its boundaries; women writers reach across border lines as they challenge conventional ideas about women’s distance from the war and seek to bridge the gap between themselves and other women’s experiences. American writer Amy Lowell in her poem “September, 1918” describes the effort that many must have felt as she describes her “endeavour to balance myself / Upon a broken world.”

From your extensive anthology, are there any poems that are especially meaningful to you, or that you find yourself regularly returning to?

Many poems haunt me, particularly those that mourn the loss of youth and innocence, such as Scottish officer E.A. Mackintosh’s poem “In Memoriam,” written for a private he was unable to save;  G.B. Smith’s poem “Let Us Tell Quiet Stories of Kind Eyes,” which remembers Robert Gilson, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s friends and a member of Tolkien’s first fellowship; or Lucie Delarue-Mardrus’s “Regiments” and Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s “He Went for a Soldier,” both of which describe young recruits marching to their death, accompanied by celebration and cheers.

Other special poems are those that evoke memories of Poetry by Heart tours of the Western Front, poems that were powerfully read and shared by teachers and students: Hedd Wyn’s “War” read in both English and Welsh at Artillery Wood Cemetery (“Ballads of boys blow on the wind, / Their blood is mingled with the rain”), Anton Schnack’s “Standing To” read in both English and German at Langemark Cemetery (“I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness”), and René Arcos’ “The Dead” read in both English and French at the Ring of Remembrance (“The widows’ veils / In the wind / All blow the one way”).

Poetry by Heart tour Oct 2018

But perhaps my favorite poems are those with compelling back stories such as Tom Kettle’s “To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God” (written shortly before his death), Clifford Dyment’s “The Son” (written for the father who was killed when Clifford Dyment was a young boy), or Gladys Cromwell’s “The Extra” (written by an American nurse volunteer who was overwhelmed by the trauma she witnessed in France and who took her own life).

This project’s work has been a rich adventure, and it is my hope that readers will encounter the same pleasures of serendipitous discovery, finding new and meaningful voices, histories, and poems in this collection. (When ordered directly from Bloomsbury’s website, the code GLR TW5 can be used for a 35% discount.)

IPofFWW - Ruzich Portrait.png

Connie Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. She is the editor of International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury, 2020), and she runs the popular blog Behind Their Lines, which discusses poetry of the Great War. Her essay “Distanced, disembodied, and detached: Women’s poetry of the First World War” appears in An International Rediscovery of World War One: Distant Fronts (Routledge, 2020), and an essay on wartime language and identity will appear in Multilingual Environments in the Great War (Bloomsbury, 2020). She is a professor of English at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, and you can follow her on Twitter @wherrypilgrim.

 

 

[i] Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 15.

[ii] Helena M. Swanwick, “Women and War” (London: Union of Democratic Control pamphlet, 1915), 1.

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Poetry By Heart France

21st August 2020

Poetry By Heart is part of an international family of related poetry reciting competitions: Poetry Out Loud in the USA, Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, Talk the Poem in Jamaica, Poetry Aloud in Ireland, Poetry for Life in South Africa, and, as teacher and competition organiser Antony McDermott reports here, Poetry By Heart France.

We love all these international connections and this year we’re taking a first step, with Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, towards a future international competition too. That will take time to develop but for now we’re hugely excited that one state school finalist from key stage 4 or 5 in the 2020-21 competition will be invited to Toronto in 2021 to perform alongside the Canadian Poetry In Voice competition winner at the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony.

More news about that soon, but here’s Antony on what these international connections mean for Poetry By Heart France.

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Our Poetry by Heart adventure began back in 2015. As an English teacher and poetry-lover, I was looking for ways to bring poetry to life in the classroom and to move students away from thinking that poetry was just about studying a small number of poems for a final exam. One question kept coming back to me: how could I encourage my students to develop a true love of poetry – a feeling they would hopefully carry with them after they had left school? When I came across the UK Poetry by Heart project, I knew straight away that this was a project that had so much to offer: it allowed students to discover a vast range of poetry; it emphasised student choice; and it encouraged students to develop a personal relationship with a poem and to express that through the power of voice, tone and intonation. The competition was also a reminder to all of us of the simple joy of hearing a poem being recited and how wonderful that can be.

And so it was, that with the support of ELSA (English Language Schools Association) and the kind encouragement of Tim Shortis and Julie Blake, we managed to set up our first competition in March 2015. Ten schools, mainly from the Paris area, took part and from the off the response to the competition was overwhelmingly positive. Of course, competition day was a wonderful event – a moment when students stepped onto the stage and were able to share their love and appreciation of poetry with a rapt audience. The wide impact that the competition had was also expressed by all of the teachers there – many referred to the way it had helped to raise the profile of poetry in their schools; the way it had encouraged their students to begin to think about what sort of poetry they liked and why; and the way that it had also allowed different students to shine, with many discovering a talent that they had not known they had, a talent to move people and transmit a feeling just through recital.

The success of the 2015 competition and the positive feedback on the day made it clear to us all that we had to do everything possible to continue the competition each year, and make it a permanent fixture of the school calendar. With some pride we can say that it is mission accomplished as the competition has continued each year since 2015 and the number of schools participating has increased from 11 to 17. The competition is also interesting for us here in France as it attracts students with differing relationships to English: some have an Anglophone parent and so speak English at home; others are bilingual and juggle two languages both at home or at school; some are French students who have developed a strong bond with the English language and English literature through their studies; and others are students for whom French and English are not their first languages. What all of these students do share is a love of poetry and a desire to share that love of poetry through the power of voice – the Poetry by Heart competition in France gives them the opportunity to do that.

Since 2015 the Poetry by Heart UK organisers have always been extremely encouraging, giving us support and advice from across the Channel. It was therefore with much excitement (and some nerves) that we were lucky enough to welcome Tim Shortis and Julie Blake to our 2017 finals here in France. It was a truly magic moment for everyone (teachers and students) to hear Julie tell us about the UK competition, how it had started and its evolution, and to receive encouragement from her and praise for our students’ recitals. Not only did the visit give validation to Poetry by Heart France, but it also felt, in a small way, as if we were building bridges and making connections (through the power of poetry) at a time when links between the UK and Europe seemed to be particularly fraught.

The excitement continued as our 2017 winner was invited by Tim and Julie to attend the British finals in the magical setting of The British Library in April that year. What an honour it was for our winner, Eléonore, (a student at the Institut Notre Dame school in Paris), to find herself reciting The Galloping Cat, in front of a packed room of UK finalists. As well as reciting her poem, she was treated like a true celebrity, being interviewed by the UK team about her experience as a Poetry by Heart competitor, and she also got to meet the actor, Freddie Fox.

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Eléonore meets the British actor, Freddie Fox, one of the guest speakers at the event

 

PBH France Blog 2

 

 

 

 

 

Eléonore being interviewed by the UK organisers about her love of poetry

 

The Poetry by Heart France competition continued smoothly and successfully in 2018 and in 2019, and so by 2020 setting up the competition all seemed very simple. Everything was in place and we were all raring to go: the date of Saturday March 14th had been confirmed; the 16 participating schools had chosen their students; the venue was ready; the judges had been found and most importantly, the refreshments had been ordered – what could possibly go wrong? Of course, this was without taking into account the arrival of the Coronavirus. Just a week before the competition, we were told that for safety reasons it was no longer possible to organise large gatherings of people – Poetry by Heart France had to be cancelled. For the many students who had prepared their poems and who were ready to recite them, it seemed like a terrible shame but not much could be done.

A few weeks into lockdown though and once online teaching and learning had become the norm, it seemed more and more obvious that something could and should indeed be done to revive the 2020 competition. A message was sent out asking if students would be willing to film their recitals and the response was positive – yes, students were indeed keen to still take part. At a time when everyone was adapting to a difficult situation, poetry offered us all the chance to escape into other worlds and be transported by the beauty of other voices. The students taking part all managed to do just that through their delightful recitals. In the end, 29 enthusiastic students took part from 14 different schools in France – and the 2020 competition (version française) had been saved.

So what lies in the future for Poetry by Heart France? We will definitely continue with the English version here in France in 2021 and aim to encourage even more schools to get involved. We will continue to develop our middle school Poetry by Heart competition, which has been running now for a few years (and which has been a big success helping to enthuse younger students with the excitement of poetry recital), and we are looking into the possibility of creating a primary school competition as well. Our next big project though is to set up a bilingual version with the possibility of allowing students to recite poems in both French and English – this really would be a lovely way to celebrate poetry from different cultures. We’ve come a long way since everything started in 2015, but what has become evident along the way is the positive impact that the adventure has had on us all: it has allowed us to create a stronger sense of community amongst the participating schools; it has allowed us to promote the love of poetry in the classroom in a profound way; and most importantly, as listeners it has also given us so many magical moments hearing the emotion and passion of young voices reciting their favourite poem.


2020 Poetry BY Heart France Winners

Alexander Gliott (Josephine Baker Finds Herself) – First Prize – LISG American Section

Morgan Distler (God, A Poem) – Second Prize – Collège Sévigné

Matteo Joyce (Porphyria’s Lover) Lycée Camille Sée and Emma Georges (The Cleaner) Institut Notre Dame – joint Third Prize

Honorable Mentions to Emma Cowen (Dusting the Phone) LISG British Section and Joseph Hanlon (The Journey of the Magi) SIS Sèvres

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Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm

18th June 2020

Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm

During the first phase of the global Covid-19 pandemic, in April and May 2020, Nina Alonso wanted to explore the much-repeated idea that poetry would help us through the crisis. She invited women friends around the world to learn one poem by heart during the lockdown and to video themselves performing it. Nina is exploring the videos and the testimonies of the women involved as part of her research, but she also edited clips from each recitation to create a new video-poem that is a response to the crisis too. In this week’s blogpost, we share Nina’s video (which includes our Director, Julie Blake, reciting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ rather bleakly) and her thoughts on this activity. 

The women I invited to learn one poem by heart during the confinement are friends or family from different generations (from age 18 to 75) and they come from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, living in different countries in different continents. From Hong Kong, the UK, Brazil, Mauritius, Spain, Uruguay, Palestine, Australia, Luxembourg, France, Colombia, Moldavia, Italy, Luxembourg, Malawi, Chile, USA and Greece, each of us chose poems that felt close to our hearts, meaningful or comforting in different ways during the crisis.

Some of us made video-recordings together, recording our recitations as they were displayed on the screen in online video chat applications. Others just video recorded themselves when they felt the poem was well learnt and well internalised (hopefully for ever). These video recitations are part of a short film that integrates these memories of poetry learning and recitations. And a new poetry composition emerged as lines from the different recitations were put together. The composition is made of poems recited in English, Portuguese, French, Euskera, Spanish, Sign language, Arabic, Italian and Greek.

The outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic made us deal with uncertainty, grief and loneliness, and it made us feel anxious, fearful and sad. We all had the need to stay connected with our loved ones. Like most people in the severe stage of the lockdown, I could not be with my friends and family. Many of my friends were far away and finding new meaningful ways of being connected with them warmed my heart. Being aware of the power of poetry learned by heart and its recitation, the idea of sharing this kind of experience during the crisis made sense.

At the beginning I started to learn a poem by heart with a few friends – one in Brazil, another in Hong Kong, Chile and one in Moldavia. The process of choosing the poems and learning them connected us deeply while also giving us a sense of joy and satisfaction. As I shared what I was doing with other friends, many wanted to do the same, and I encouraged them to learn a poem either by themselves or, as some of them suggested, with their mothers or daughters. I thought we could then link all these experiences together, so I asked these women friends to record themselves reciting their learned poems so I could weave us together in a collaborative poetry video composition.

They all responded enthusiastically. At a time when the search for accomplishment, obtaining material outcomes, recognition and productivity seems to be the drive of contemporary societies, it surprised me that none of the 24 women who sent me their recordings ever asked a single question about the purpose or utility of the initiative. These women clearly understood, without the need of discussion or questioning, Nuccio Ordino’s idea of the usefulness of the useless.

We don’t know what these poems will mean in the future for the women who participated in this project. Maybe some of these women will treasure the poems (or parts of them) in their hearts for ever, and maybe the emotions inspired by the poems or some meanings will develop over time. It would be interesting if we could trace the emergence and development of poetic meaning in what Peter Middleton calls “the long biography of the poem(s)” that these women learned during the Covid 19 pandemic. What we know now from the feedback they shared with me is that they experienced joy and satisfaction while learning the poems, and that being part of a collaborative project that gathered women from different parts of the world and linguistic backgrounds, warmed their hearts, made them feel mutually enriched and proud of their capacities to weave sensitive, peaceful, borderless and non-utilitarian connections.

The experience of learning a poem during confinement, sharing this experience with friends, and then in this great network of women around the world, brought a sense of beauty and union in these difficult times. The challenge of remembering each word gave me new ways to experience poetry. Suddenly each verse started to gain fresh life in everyday activities, popping up in my head when I was cooking, doing household chores or in interactions, and poetry felt engrained in objects and actions that once were felt to be meaningless.

– Aline Federico, Brazil

During these times of social isolation and unrest, it meant a great deal to join a chorus of women, across the globe, in a form of poetic solidarity. I chose the poem ‘My words to you’ by Jean Valentine because it speaks to the language of longing: capturing the distance between us while simultaneously acting as a reminder of how intimate and universal is our shared sense of longing and separation. To learn a poem by heart is to also close the distance between the poet and the reader – to relive the poem and inhabit it – to walk a “poem” in Jean Valentine’s shoes. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity, for the reminder that I’m not alone.

– Chloe Firetto-Toomey, USA

 

Poetry heals and this reminded me of its power. I was very focused when learning the poem by heart and I even copied some lines a few times to help me memorize the lines. I was able to stay away from my phone while learning the poem. At first, I was a bit intimidated by the invitation because I hadn’t recited a poem for a long time but I felt that ‘Wild Geese’ resonated with our experience and I should memorize it. It makes a huge difference when you know you’re reciting to a friend. You want to do it well and not let your friend down. This was a very meaningful experience and I am so glad that I was part of it.

 

Akina Lam, Hong Kong

 

Nina (Dr M.L. Alonso) manages a school library in Spain and trains teachers in developing young people’s engagement with poetry. She has extensive experience in international organizations promoting young people’s engagement with multilingual literature.

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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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