Monday, 22 April 2013

Magpie-eyed: Poetry with nervous A2 students

To begin at the beginning, full credit to this post is owed to @deadshelley 's blog post 'Inside Out Poetry' which you really ought to read here;  this is a blatant steal, or as @danielharvey9 more eloquently names it 'magpied' in order for my slightly nervy Year 13 class to get to grips with poetry in the Language and literature context.  The exam requires them to analyse, compare and write an essay about a transcript of a conversation and an extract from a literature text that contain a conversation upon a linked theme.  Ergo, @deadshelley's 'Inside Out Poetry' technique, which is really all about getting to grips with semantic fields, is ideal.  

SO here is my go at it:  The learning outcome was only partially revealed like this:

To develop your powers of deduction
We can.well youll find out a bit later.

[Usually in the shape of a nice big arrow; a less than subtle hint at progression]

Not revealing the purpose was in keeping with @deadshelley's more Derren Brownesque take on the lesson regarding revealing pupil's psychic abilities. I didn't quite use that sales pitch, however, the poem I chose to base the lesson around was contained in an envelope which you can see here:

The pupils were utterly intrigued and frustrated by not being able to see the contents of the envelope until I told them they could open it, this kind of wonderment being a technique advocated by @HYWEL_ROBERTS in his book 'Oops: Getting Children to Learn Accidentally' - although I haven't read it yet, enough folk on Twitter have credited him with this particular technique for me to know I am at least referencing the right person. It is most definitely on my next to buy and read list Mr. Roberts!

The poem they were not allowed to see, yet... is here:


“I haven’t heard you laugh
in weeks,” he says. The fire crackles
a few feet away.

“Look—” she begins,
walking to stand beside the window.
Her interlaced fingers
point to her own chest. “I don’t think
we see the same colors. I don’t—”
Breathes in. Breathes out.
“I’m not the baptism you want me to be.”

She draws lines in the frost
on the windowpane. Looks at him.
She says, “I’m too young.”

“I don’t understand,” he says.

“Even the cliffs by the ocean
will erode into sand,” she tells him.
Storm clouds have been looming all day.
Her voice seems to come from
a place she’s never been. “It just takes time.”
Inhales. Exhales.

“You have shackles for arms,
do you know that? You love like chains.”
A gust of wind rattles the door.
He jumps. She doesn’t.

“What can I do?” he asks.

She says, “Forgive.”
Her fingertips paint patternless swirls
across the glass.

He asks, “Is there someone else?”

The fire is dwindling, the logs letting go
of their last ashes. She raises her hands
to her face and finds, miraculously,
that it is still there.
“There’s everyone I’ve never met,” she says.
Turns to look outside.
She says, “There are raindrops.”

AleaShurmantine · Dec 10, 2010

Found via Mr. Google and his ever searching eyes...

Now. I had not sat and annotated this to death before the lesson. In fact I tend not to with A level classes, which could be, in other peoples' eyes a questionable method. However, I did this last year teaching Hamlet to an A2 Language and Literature class. Why? Well, it falls in line with @JamesTheo's idea of classroom praxis: allowing for a very open ended outcome from the learning and where better to do this than in an A-Level class? Pupils are bright and often petrified of getting things wrong, well if there isn't a 'wrong' to begin with, how can they be? Whilst teaching Hamlet this led to MANY a lively debate, verging on the conspiracy theory, about THEIR interpretation of the text. I badgered them to justify their ideas, thus making them very much right, even if their were a few wrong turns along the way.  

Next the poem was presented to them in the form of a word cloud using Wordle which I can't seem to copy and paste from my Power Point slide, or find in the Wordle gallery because it doesn't seem to have a 'search' function either, well at least to my tired eyes. [If anyone can help me with this, do tell!]. Next time I'll save it as a JPEG, honest...

Anyway on with the lesson. So, as per the structure of @deadshelley's lesson they next sorted the word cloud into categories of their choosing.  This was when the lesson really started to sail, because the pupils started debating what types of categories there should be, how many type of groupings there are, could the words fit into more than one category and lo and behold they began to see a pattern in the words, or several patterns, or even better the semantic fields contained within. I had yet to use the term in the lesson. Sometimes, secret squirrel is the best modus operandi. 

I love teaching girls as they get all excited by big paper, felt pens and being creative. One of the girls put her groupings into clouds...which then changed into sheep (which somehow seems, metaphorically visually appropriate) flocking in a field.  I digress...

We then had a great discussion about their word groupings then focusing back on what might be contained with the contents of the envelope, what might the poem be about? They were still NOT allowed to open the envelope, instead, they had to use the word cloud to write a stanza of the poem with this set of criteria: 

  Your turn:

Write a stanza of the poem:

  • You must include use of dialogue  
  • You must not attempt to rhyme 
  • You do not need to use all of the words 

  • You can: 
  • Add additional words, alter the tense, other suffixes appropriately
  • You have 12 minutes with no stopping, no talking! 
[This bit also a blatant magpie from @deadshelley]

And so we (yes me included) sat and wrote; or at least tried to write some poetry.  When we finished, none of us were quite sure if we had produced poetry, but by crikey it was poetic. 

Now we finished and they were all protesting about sharing their work, girls being girls, insecure about if they had got it wrong. I soon put them straight by telling them I would share mine first, that I have the BA and an MA in English, and really, who will be the more embarrassed if it's rubbish? So, here *gulps* and *sweats a tad* is my 12 minutes of effort:

"Breathe. Everyone!"
We inhaled the patternless ozone.
"Forgive me." His laugh crackled
like an unchained fire.
Swirls baptised the pained faces.
"Forgive you?" she spat venomously.
Hope dwindled from the crowd, 
who exhaled hopelessness.

"There is an ocean of hate for you!" she continued
crowing, chained to her bitterness.
Clouds passed across the face 
Of the youngest child; the teenagers
laughed with misplaced sarcasm.
Before the frost consumed the 
gathering crowd; he spoke once more:

"Even you can forgive me." His compassion
Miraculously interlaced with calm authority.

G Nelson 2013

Off to break they went with their chocolate biscuit pocket money I give them every week to get some morale boosting munchies; whilst I went to make a cup tea and nibbled my nails a bit. I was a tad nervous to say the least. I had NO joy writing poetry while a pupil at school; being utterly convinced I just could not do it. 

The girls came back laden with chocolate biscuits, which we all had to consume some of before sharing our work. 

The girls were very kind in their response to my efforts, but more importantly they all were willing to share their work; especially once the exposure of doing so was very openly acknowledged. 

They all read out their work, each one, without question, was beautiful, creative, ambitious and in at least one case, astonishingly good.  (I'm going to have to sweet talk them into letting me photograph them for this post, more chocolate maybe required!).  

Now, due to being restricted to the poem's semantic field, what they wrote contained the similar themes of a lost love, some pained dialogue, and all contained some form of narrative. Here, we worked out what they'd been doing all lesson - finding, interpreting and applying a semantic field. 

At last they could open the envelope! 

The poem was read and the discussion that ensued in the lesson was all from the questions THEY asked, rather than mine.  The girls began by simply feature spotting, stating with poetic features by they quickly moved themselves onto linguistic and spoken language features.  This was very swift allowing them to move onto a more forensic analysis focusing on the exam question demands of: context, purpose, attitudes and values.  The differing attitudes and values between speakers in the chosen poem really enabled them to deconstruct the highly constructed conversation, with efficiency and confidence. 

The lesson was rounded off with this question:
This idea is another blatant steal from @LearningSpy and a very memorable post about hula-hoops and An Inspector Calls. 

What were the outcomes of the learning today?

Something that was really discussed through the course of the lesson, paying attention to the process of working through a text 'inside out', which, @deadshelley they absolutely loved! The loved the chance to be creative, the intrigue of what was in the envelope and finding their way through a text with confidence, rather than the preconceived anxieties about poetry being 'too difficult.'

From what I observed, the girls were no longer bunnies in very large poetry headlights and discovered, well, it's just words, init? 

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