“Teaching” Poetry in Primary Schools


Many years ago, I was bouncing along quite happily in the middle of a poetry presentation at a primary school, when I noticed with some consternation that the teacher who had booked me, and who was sitting in the audience, was not smiling

My consternation turned to dread when she stood up with stern countenance and left the room, returning a short time later with a man I (correctly) assumed to be the principal. A black cloud hovered above them both as they sat stolidly together through the remainder of my show.

In spite of all this, I felt I did a good job. I could see the kids were happy, too. Nevertheless, I could see these two were clearly not.

I decided to be proactive, and approached them both shortly after the show. “Is there anything wrong?” I asked, with trepidation.

“But you didn’t teach them anything!” came the angry reply.

I was speechless.

I was confident I had entertained – perhaps even inspired – for a good half hour, probably longer. I had very possibly also introduced many to a new art form, and demonstrated the power of performance poetry and rhyming verse. Isn’t that lesson enough? What did they want from me? A technical dissertation on the various forms that rhyming verse can take – iambic pentameter, etc.? A discussion on rhyming patterns? The place of rhyming verse in Australia’s cultural history and geography? Some thoughts on the bush poetry revival? An attempt to unearth the international antecedents of the writing of Paterson, Lawson, et al? All of this I could have attempted, and more…if I had felt it was appropriate, but I didn’t. Indeed, I have always taken the view that primary school is not the time to ‘teach’ poetry to children. I was ‘taught’ poetry at that age, and it is a miracle that my love of poetry survived the process.

So far as the actual ‘writing’ of rhyming verse is concerned, it is really beyond primary school children. I know that from experience, and from discussion with other poets. Sure, children can find rhyming words, but the whole process of metre (the really hard part), of making lines scan, is – with perhaps the occasional brilliant exception – quite beyond them.

These days, if I am asked to perform poetry in a primary school, or conduct a workshop, I spend a fair bit of time trying to talk myself out of the gig by explaining all the things I do NOT do. Even then, trouble can ensue.

“Oh, but I thought you would still do such and such.” (Somebody wasn’t listening…)

So, what does it mean, exactly, to teach poetry? I have always felt my shows are highly educational. I should add that I also always begin them with some discussion of poets and poetry.

To my mind, there is plenty of time in secondary school for a more formal, analytical approach to poetry – if, indeed, it must happen at all.

Sadly, though, not everybody agrees.

What do you think?


© Stephen Whiteside   12.08.2014


6 thoughts on ““Teaching” Poetry in Primary Schools

  1. I do think it’s possible to ‘teach’ poetry writing insofar as there are any number of poetry forms from limericks to acrostic poems, which is what I suspect the teacher was talking about. Teaching children any kind of literature is about exposing them to language as well as modelling it for them, pointing out literary devises that writers employ and so on. The problem these days is, I suspect, that teachers don’t expose children to poetry, don’t read it to them, or have them read and/or recite it. Showing children how to create a poem by getting them to explore poetic forms, or by reciting poetry to them are both equally valid methods of ‘teaching’ poetry.

  2. I have developed a poetry-writing workshop that works well with almost any literate person from six up. It can also work, in a limited sense, with younger children if they have wiling adult scribes. It isn’t rhyming poetry, but it’s one of the most popular of my workshops. I always enjoy presenting it because it covers just about all tastes and levels of ability. The only thing it doesn’t cover is a child (or anyone for that matter) who is not willing to participate. I even did it once with a class of visually-challenged teenagers. That was an education (for me!)

  3. In my experience some teachers and indeed some schools believe children don’t ‘learn’ unless they’re being specifically instructed in how to do something. Learning from an enjoyable experience is not always considered to be ‘learning’. In my experience, these are not the best teachers or the best schools! I’ve experienced this attitude many times myself whilst at school and when my children attended school. However, some of the better classes where students learned an enormous amount occurred as a result of watching an engaging demonstration. Also, the school that I’d have loved my children to attend which is considered to be one of the best for overall academics and getting ready for adulthood overall, undertakes fewer ‘lessons’ and many more engaging interactive situations, after which the children mimic the experience during class time. In the above poet’s situation, if the teacher and principal had thought intelligently about it, they could have discussed some iambic pentameter to the old children in class if they wanted to afterwards, but in general, children can work it out without the technical information that’s really not suitable for young children anyway. Asking children to write and perform fantastic poems after a visiting poet would have demonstrated they’d learned far more than they had anticipated. Unfortunately, to my mind, those teachers displayed a lack of understanding of effective learning and teaching skill.s

  4. I think inspiring the children by immersing them in a poetry performance is highly educational. I felt for you when I read your recount of seeing the disapproval on the teachers’ faces.

  5. As a writer who occasionally performs poems at schools I’ve had a similar experience. I’ve also had the opposite.

    Recently I went for a blood test and the young man who came to collect my blood said, “Mr Carr! I remember you, you came to my class when I was eight years old and performed some of your poems. I thought poetry was lame until you came along.”

    Then he performed a short poem he had remembered by heart from that performance:

    “The TV set was on the blink,
    The video was dead,
    So we put Barbie Doll in the microwave
    And just watched that instead.”

    He went on to say that the poem had inspired him. “To write?” I enquired hopefully.
    “No,” he said, “To put my sister’s Barbie in the microwave.”

    John Carr

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