In Year 9, the pupils at the Duchess High School in Alnwick, Northumberland do half a term of poetry, which culminates in them producing their own poetry anthologies. It’s a fantastic amount of time (3 lessons per week for six weeks) and means that they can really explore different aspects of poetry and different poems. They love it.
1 lesson per week is taken up with analysing and exploring all sorts of different poetry, from Blake to world slam champions, and the other 2 lessons per week are used to explore poetry forms and write their own responses to the poems they’ve analysed and the poetry they’ve explored.
The first lesson of the term, I give them my favourite poems to look at. I don’t explain anything, I just read them (or we watch a video of performance) and then they read and discuss them in pairs and groups and start to explain in their own terms which poem they like from my choice.
One of their favourites was Kim’s poem ‘In That Year’, so we followed up the first lesson by looking in more detail at the poem, its startling imagery and its message. The kids’ work here is photocopied directly from their books – it wasn’t done for display or re-drafted, it’s their first raw response. I asked them to pick their favourite image, or the one they found most difficult, or the one that had stayed with them from their first reading. Then I asked them to draw what they saw when they read it and write a very brief explanation of how it made them feel about the speaker.
It was a very solemn and serious lesson. No one complained about having to draw (they usually do) and heads were bent to work for a good half an hour. Some of the kids I teach have difficult lives. Some of them never speak about those difficulties. Most of them have never read a contemporary poem.This lesson was better than any PSHE lesson we could have done about relationships and abusive situations. And the boys were as active in the discussion as the girls. Every single teenager was alert to the poem. It was a special lesson for me and the thought of it has kept me going this year, through all the exhaustion of a demanding and sometimes difficult job. Here’s a selection of the drawings and explanations that really moved me.
I found the interpretations of my poem really moving and I thought the students were very perceptive. I also found it interesting how they managed to create different narratives to go alongside the poem – and I love the drawings!
This blog post featuring these drawings and thoughts from the students is way overdue, but I hope you enjoy looking at them, and thanks again to the brilliant Catherine for bringing contemporary poetry into the classroom, and for using my poem as part of that. Those students are very lucky to have you!
Here is the poem that Catherine shared with the students.
IN THAT YEAR
And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.
And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.
And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.
And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.
And in that year I waited for the horses
but they only shifted their feet in the darkness.
And in that year I imagined a vain thing;
I believed that the world would come for me.
And in that year I gave up on all the things
I was promised and left myself to sadness.
And then that year lay down like a path
and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.