1. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Poetry, teaching, and the benefits of teaching poetry.

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by Lemex, Jul 28, 2014.

    As part of my just-finished teacher training I was lucky enough to teach A-level literature, specifically drama and more recent poetry. Safe to say I jumped in with both hands and feet outstretched to wrap around the opportunity like a cat.

    My two last lessons with that class were on W.B. Yeats's love poetry and T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'. I have to say, frankly amazed me just how intelligent and receptive the class were to these poems!

    With W.B. Yeats I was able to build up to poems like 'Leda and the Swan' and 'No Second Troy' with two shorter poems giving praise to the poet's beloved (Maude Gaune, I'll wait while you google her). The subject, and mythological background to these poems was something I knew I might have to explain in detail, and was all ready for that. The two shorter poems I used were 'Drinking Song' and 'A Poet to his Beloved'. They just seemed like good, simple, introductory poems, I did not even think very hard about their selection.

    It came to talking about and deconstructing 'A Poet to his Beloved', and I was taken by complete surprise by the class.

    I was going line by line through the poem, and asking the class if anything might have came to mind, if there were any images or connections they could think of (this is how I teach poetry, asking what details and lines made them think of before building up to overall interpretations - it tends to work, and help me make sure the students are actually reading the poem, and just not bullshitting as so often happens). In a line from 'A Poet to his Beloved' came one response that really impressed me. The line I have highlighted below:

    A student spoke up said that it made them think of the devil, and maybe that the poet's intentions are suggested not as pure now as he seems to be trying to suggest with words like 'reverent', 'dreams', 'passion' and the image of a beach.

    Well shit, I hadn't even thought of that.

    It seems so obvious an interpretation now, but it just didn't seem to hit me beforehand.

    The same thing happened in the next lesson, only bettter, when I was teaching 'Prufrock' (same student too, I hope that kid is waiting to start an English degree right now!) with this line.

    I asked what the poet, Eliot, was doing with this line - in the context of the fact that it is a line separate from the previous stanza, repeated twice. This line is thought to be taking place at a tea party the narrator isn't in. The common opinion of this line is that Prufrock is being sarcastic about these women, that they are idiot socialites, and not worth spending time with. This student said that maybe Eliot was creating a contrast with a cultured past, and that Prufrock is saying he wants to go back to an earlier, more interesting time than the industrial isolation he has found himself in.

    Well god damn it, he has impressed me all the more.

    This seemed to really spark something in the class, as then another student pointed out that the poet's descriptions made them think of an industrial London. But this line:

    Suggested America, 'coffee spoons' is not really a phrase you hear a lot in England. I could only add to this point by telling them T.S. Eliot was an American expat living in London when he published this poem.

    Then the class really came alive, and in what felt like seconds the class was over. They really got into the poem and came out with some amazing readings of certain lines. To be honest, they did ask me to explain the reference to 'sawdust restaurants' but that was one of the few times I felt like I was a traditional teacher. The rest of the time I was just carrying the conversation about the poem along, and probing students occasionally for more in depth comments.

    If it isn't obvious by now, I loved that lesson. This is leading me into my reason for writing this. If you want to teach poetry, even to yourself, then you should aim to inspire two things: passion and confidence.

    These learners were between the ages of 17 and 18, they were just about to leave school and go off to their first year of university or get onto the job market. For a long time I did not have much of their interest outside what was expected of a class of admittedly bright but still very young adults - in some ways they were still children.

    One student said to me in one early lesson 'This might sound like a stupid question, but ...' and the question was not stupid at all. And I told him so. It was a confidence issue, and I had rather stumbled into this - without knowing it, each time I got them to work through the poem line by line and give their opinion, this made them feel like I valued their opinion. It made them feel like whatever idea they had about the line, it was worth hearing, and a lot of the time it really was. When it was something I did not even consider, as the above examples, I talked to them about it, and considered it, and the students always responded to this in increasingly optimistic ways.

    It became a class that the other teachers often said seemed to really respect me. I respected that class back, and I'm sure they learned something from me. I hope they did anyway. They taught me something too. They taught me that anyone can read poetry, and hard poetry for enjoyment, they just need to know how to read it properly. Poetry is interesting, it just has this cultural disparagement that most people find hard to shake off. Most of all it taught me that students like that A-level class are not there for you to dump knowledge into but they are minds that should be be respected, challenged, and to be made more confident and more passionate. As does anyone who has an interest in poetry but does not really understand it or even know where to start, confidence and passion. Trust yourself, and your own opinions, and read each line carefully, and consider it for a long time, the more you do this the better you will be - the more painless reading poetry will become.

    I don't think I'll find out how that class did when the A-level results come out next month, but I'm sure they all did amazingly well. To that class, since I can't say it to them directly, I want to say this here:

    Good luck guys, and thanks. Whatever dream you have, you can do it. Now go out there, and go get 'em!
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2014
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  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm glad you mentioned confidence. That's very important when talking about literature (or art in general) because students shouldn't feel like their opinions don't matter. They should be encouraged to share their thoughts. Like you said, the lack of confidence is especially evident when students say, "This might be a stupid question, but..."

    Anyway, good post. I enjoyed reading it.
     

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