The Many Years of Telling: A Tradition of Failed Practice of Teaching Poetry in the Primary School

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  • The Many Years of Telling: A Tradition of Failed Practice of Teaching Poetry in the Primary School

    Colin Wa It er School of Education, University of London Goldsmiths College

    . . . I have heard many years of telling, And many years should see some change.

    The ball I threw when playing in the park Has not yet reached the ground.

    (from Should Lanterns Shine, Dylan Thomas.)

    When children go to school they meet poems in books, as listeners to their teacher reading aloud, or as readers themselves. They are likely to be asked to compose poems of their own. There are few primary school teachers who would deny that poetry has a value in school, or who would disclaim a responsibility for teaching it.

    The successful practice of teaching poetry, as of teaching anything, rests upon a coherent set of justifications and theory of what is entailed. In this case, the theory must justify the relevance of poetry to young children; it must offer a model of the nature of the imagination and of what constitutes children engaging in imaginative activity. It must support a pedagogy which relates all the years of schooling, and delineate specific teaching strategies.

    The absence of a tradition of successful practice

    An examination of the recent literature upon poetry in school, reveals how widespread is the view that things often go sadly wrong when children, poems, and teachers, meet in the classroom. This major channel of experience (Newson 1963) apparently becomes something

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    much less for many children. Paffard (1978), in noting this, says that we as teachers must share responsibility for this state of affairs. If Paffard is measured in his criticism, others have been more forthright; calamitous is the effect of the schooling system on childrens perceptions of poetry, says Edmonds (1cJG6); and Scannell(l966) notes the damaging misconceptions of much classroom practice.

    The Plowden Report (1967) is . . . doubtful whether poetry has ever been well treated in schools, which suggests a n absence of a tradition of successful practice. We find this suggestion a few years previously in 1954, when a former Ministry of Education document claims that the roots of poetry then were, in most places not more than ten years deep, and . . . hardly more than twenty-five or thirty years deep anywhere.

    Very recently, Fox and Benton (1985) remark upon the uncertainty and guilt felt by teachers about how to proceed. The use of such terms indicate how potent is the cocktail of an unwillingness to deny the value of teaching poetry and an absence of a tradition of succeeding in doing it. Surely there is a special story to tell about this?

    A hint of the nature of the confusion is offered by Benton (1978) when he refers to a double misfortune suffered by poetry, neglect where it needs attention and concern where it is best left alone.

    It seems, then, that poetry is both championed and diminished in schools, and it is very likely that this is not peculiar to our school system. Chukovsky (1963) notes what he perceives as the effects of the damaging good intentions of many teachers towards poetry. I shall refer to similar examples of these effects in writing from the United States later.

    The roots which poetry had struck in our schools, to which the 1954 pamphlet refers, were fixed in, and nourished for a while by, influences most clearly and stringently represented by the work of Marjorie Hourd (1949), and later by Cooper and Hourd (1959).

    In these two books was the beginning of a tradition which warned against a too narrow conception of child life and one which neglects the . . . wealth of emotional experience which a child of five has lived through. (Hourd 1949). It was a beginning which stressed, further, the ability of children to anticipate the life which is apprehended but not yet lived.

    Although both books considered the relationship between the compos- ing and the reading of children, and indeed the whole matter of the connection between poetic forms which children inherit, and poetic forms which they make, i t was only the later book which argued from a basis of children of under eleven actually composing in classrooms. As the concern of how form inherited influences form made, was fore- grounded ~ which of course involves the influence of hearing, and previous compositions achieved, as well as private reading, upon what the child writes - the conditions for this occurring were broached. Cooper and Hourd emphasised that as children work within form, the connection between what they learn about poetic form and the quality of their composing is defined by the gradualness of its achievement. They write for instance, that

    Far too little is done . . . to bring teachers opportunities to discuss the kinds of things which gradually come about in teaching as distinct from those things which somebody expects to bring about.

  • The many years of telling 33

    Both books stressed that when children write, the sources upon which they draw are the same as those that the poet draws upon in composing; that children can only master form in the way the artist achieves it, by working within their own experience. This means their emotional experience and their experience of regular reading, hearing and composing, within poetic form. Here was the beginning of a tradition, then, which addressed the central matter of how far the child writer determines the form of the poem and how far it, to a t least some extent, determines itself. In relating all the modes of response and making, it assumed that in composing, children make the form of the poem as they make their meaning in the poem.

    Although over-dependent upon Freudian psycho-analytic theory, Hourd (1949) is clearly influenced by Coleridges stricture in the Biographia Literaria,

    Remember that there is a difference between form proceeding and shape as super-indued ~ the latter is either the death or the imprisonment of the thing; the former is its self-witnessing and self effecting sphere of agency.

    The need for children to work within their own experience, implies the relevance of their pre-school and playground experience of rhyme and metre in play and song. Though Cooper and Hourd do not explicitly mention the relevance of this oral culture to children composing when writing, we can infer its value to helping children to work through traditional forms to their own idioms. (Cooper and Hourd 1959).

    The relation of this world of the primary imagination, of the sacred imagination (Auden 1963), of play in and outside the home, to the secondary imagination of poetic form made in writing and apprehended in books, is anticipated by Cooper and Hourd without being detailed.

    These, then, were the roots of poetry in school noted in the Ministry of Education publication of 1954. Though these roots did not die neither did the plant flourish: it is today still a poor thing. In its place a different tradition became established. It is one which has landed us where we are today ~ indeed it is lauded, and used almost universally in our schools.

    It is a tradition which fails children, and prevents them from gaining access to parts of their own experience. This is childrens misfortune, as well as the second misfortune suffered by poetry mentioned by Benton.

    The tradition of stimulus that fails: The tradition which has been the most powerful in recent years is an expression of the anxiety in the profession about the teaching of poetry which Fox and Benton refer to. It contains an emphasis upon supporting the teacher in classroom situations which hinders the development of an adequate theory of poetry teaching.

    Tucker (1973) unwittingly describes with accuracy the practice which results, when in discussing children writing in the classroom he discloses the assumptions behind this tradition. He writes,

    What children most need is something to write about. . . A good deal of poetry writing (by children) will arise from traditional stimulus followed by discussing and writing. The stimulus may be a picture, music, or poems.

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    The notion inherent here of the relation between composing, the childs experience, and what causes the child to want to write, is misconceived because it is naive and simplistic. A view of the teacher as a provider of off the peg, poetic experiences, as a stimulator of the childs imaginative activity, discounts the true nature of composing activity, the value of childrens experience, and the interactive processes by which the childs reading and listening influence the poem that is written.

    Similarly, from the context of the United States, Koch (1970) believes that one of the main problems children have as writers is not knowing what to write about (p 25). It is a view which Brownjohn (1980), in this country, tacitly accepts; her pre-occupation with helping the teacher in classroom situations, to the exclusion of much else, is clear when she writes that it is the finding of ideas that is usually the hardest part of teaching poetry.

    In presenting the need for a teacher to be stimulating as equivalent to a theory of poetry teaching, this traditional practice, of which Tucker speaks, obscures the real nature of the relation between form inherited and form made. Moreover, it constrains the strategies of the teacher to a series of classroom based assaults upon single poems (Stibbs 1981), both in reading and composing. Further it seems to deny the value of listening to, and enjoying, poetry read aloud as a non-instrumental activity.

    Koch (1974) offers a refinement of what Tucker mentions, when he describes his strategy as a visiting poet.

    We would read the adult poem in class, discuss it, and then they would write. Afterwards they, or I, would read the poem they had written.

    It could be argued that Koch is naturally, and justifiably, inclined to use this approach because he is, by definition, only visiting the school. His books are, however, as are Brownjohns, widely read by teachers, and they are offered as aids to teaching poetry in the classroom. They, therefore, almost by accident, reinforce a tradition of practice which is well established in schools. Importantly, the insistence by Koch (1970) that children should not be asked to write at home because, he claims, they resent being asked to do so, suggests that his approach, after all, is based upon a limited theory of poetry teaching.

    For Koch, poetry teaching to young children should occur exclusively in the classroom. The absence of any mention of childrens private reading of poetry is both a consequence of a pedagogy where the teacher makes all the choices, and is also an assurance that children will not make the necessary connections between private reading and compos- ing, which might cause them to wish to work outside the classroom.

    Brownjohn shares this analysis: games there are in her book, but the irony is that they are the teachers games. It is only by recognizing the implicit assumption of Sandy Brownjohns teaching strategies that it becomes possible to account for the puzzling disjunction between the stated intention of helping childrens understanding of poetic form, and the method of setting about achieving this. Thus she writes,

    I see the teaching of poetry to children as the teaching of skills and techniques as much as the use of original ideas (Brownjohn. p7)

  • The many years of telling 35

    Could they ever be alternatives? The process by which the teaching of poetry becomes much less than a

    major channel of experience for children is represented particularly, in the work of both Koch and Brownjohn, by their remedy of how to deal with the difficulty which children will inevitably have with rhyme, when asked to compose in conditions in which no poet could produce worthwhile work.

    The remedy they propose is simply to exclude rhyme. Koch (1974) writes that children need to be free from the demands of rhyme and metre which at this age (nine to ten years) are restrictions on the imagination. Brownjohn similarly makes no apology for deliberately banning the use of rhyme when teaching a group of children for the first time.

    The effect of banning rhyme, is to separate childrens experience in the worlds of the primary and secondary imaginations. It is to drive apart, rather than to keep together, the oral culture of home, street, and playground ~ where children have experienced and continue to experience, rhyme and metre in play - and the writing and reading of poetry in books. The insistence upon an exclusivity of classroom engagements of children with poems, which we may note in these much read sources about poetry teaching, characterizes the tradition which fails children; it ensures that many children, while being exhorted to apprehend the nature of poetic form, never will.

    Even the most bland expressions of this tradition treat poetry as if it were prose, and therefore make it almost certain that children will miss the point. We may trace it in the writing of commentators who seem to be speaking sweet reason, for example Langdon (1961), Huggler (1966), Lane and Kemp (1967), Roberts (1972). These sources, again much read by teachers, have been influential in maintaining the tradition of failure, not because they have not valuable things to say about the practice of classroom teaching, but because they deny that poetry is not prose. Their teaching strategies do not support childrens understanding that poetry is a non-instrumental use of language. Similarly, when Haggitt (1967) declares that poetry cannot be taught, the truth is simply that it cannot be taught as if it were prose. Unfortunately that is not what he means. Roberts opinion that there seems little justification for pressing children to write poetry as a matter of routine is the opposite of the truth, but sadly becomes true if we insist on adopting teaching strategies which deny the nature of poetry.

    Protecting the source of classroom success. An alternative approach In introducing what has to be done to find an approach which works, and which develops the insights of the earlier writing of Hourd and Cooper.

    I want to refer now to a poem by Paul aged nine. This is not his real name, but I shall use it in order to preserve a confidence.

    Up the Stairs My mum comes up the stairs plod, plod, plodding Slowly, unmistakeably.

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    My dad comes up fast Often two at a time, Heavily.

    My brother tries to get up as quickly as possible. What a noise he makes! More haste, less speed!

    Hes the same coming down, Rush, Rush, Rush!

    I always jump the last step.

    There are things to say about this poem which will serve to introduce the elements of what is entailed in teaching poetry which the tradition of depending solely upon classroom stimulus omits.

    It was written at home, and was one of sixty or so, which Paul composed during a year. He wrote it as he lay in bed, and it is important to note that his mother,...

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