Poetry in the Upper Primary Classroom
by Patrick Dower
‘Just as many PE teachers say “don’t use physical activity as punishment” to prevent students associating negative emotions with being active, I try my best to ensure students associate poetry with fun.’
The process of introducing in-depth poetry study to my class was gradual and – at least initially – incidental. As with any teaching approach, it was only once I recognised student interest that I began to consider the potential in a poetry focused Literacy unit. Prior to that, I had embedded the study of song lyrics and poems into Social & Emotional Learning lessons as a stimulus for discussion and personal reflection. These lessons helped create relevance in text from which the students had previously appeared detached. Discussing and comprehending the poems with a personal focus also assisted them in gaining the confidence required to study and compare a variety of poems in-depth and, most importantly, find enjoyment in reading and creating works of written art.
Poetry in Social & Emotional Learning
I regularly use songs as the stimulus for discussions in my Social & Emotional Learning lessons. I will generally read through the lyrics of the song prior to playing the music, particularly if it is a song they are unlikely to know. To ensure the primary focus is placed on the lyrics, I will often play the song on my guitar and sing, rather than use the recording.
Songs which I have used include, but are not limited to, The Road by George Harrison, focusing on the different paths students may take in their learning and progress, and Second Best by Hudson Taylor, which prompted a discussion on not accepting the putdowns of others and striving to achieve your best. Whilst these messages are not necessarily what was intended by the artist, they take on this form as the students relate them to their own lives.
The most powerful example, however, was the first time I used a song of my own. Addressing a specific social issue which had arisen in the class, I played a song I had written several years prior entitled Burgundy & Grey. The underlying theme of the song is that regardless of how well we think we know our acquaintances, we can never be entirely certain what is going on in their lives and how this may be affecting their behaviours. The class dissected it to within an inch of its life and were highly sympathetic towards the central character – a young girl named Keeley. It remained a regular topic of conversation throughout the year. The most powerful aspect of this class, however, was when they found out it was my own work.
After sharing my own writing, I noticed an increased willingness to experiment in their own and seek my feedback. They were more willing to share with the class and refer to their own experiences within their writing. It was an incredibly powerful moment in the context of our class and for me as a teacher.
From here, I was able to write poems specifically for use in the class – such as one entitled Sadness, which explored the difference between emotions and mental illness through the eyes of child whose Father had depression.
Poetry for Fun
Just as many PE teachers say “don’t use physical activity as punishment” to prevent students associating negative emotions with being active, I try my best to ensure students associate poetry with fun. We will regularly play rhyming games and re-write song lyrics as a class. One highlight was altering the words of Fight Song by Rachel Platten to be our ‘Year Five Song’ and performing it in assembly. Similarly, as part of a focus on the work of Shakespeare, the class enjoyed altering the lyrics of pop songs to fit into the format and style of a Shakespearean sonnet.
Poetry in English
My year level partner and I also implemented two English specific poetry units.
The first involved the performance of paired poems by Paul Fleischman. These are fantastic for getting students up in front of their peers reading poetry.
In the second, which lasted for most of Term 4, we used A Children’s Introduction to Poetry by Michael Driscoll to introduce the class to a variety of poetic styles, including villanelles, sonnets and limericks, as well as the work of specific poets, such as Poe, Blake and Shakespeare. After reading about the style of writer, the students would either respond with a poem of their own in that style or through other means, such as creating a film version of The Raven.
This year I am in the process of starting a lunch time poetry club for Year 5 and 6 students. I hope to only facilitate this group, as the students – many of whom were part of my class last year – use their own interests and experiences to direct their writing and study.