When I began teaching the Year 5 class of children whose work would form the basis of my doctoral study of teaching poetry writing I did not really know what I was doing. (This was in an ‘ordinary’ community primary school in a not particularly salubrious area, and with no strong tradition of poetry teaching). I had a strong hunch, nothing more, that engaging the children in reading, writing and performing poems would somehow be of benefit to them. I think I had the grand idea that I would somehow find a link between ‘improved literacy’ and writing poems. But I was confident that if I read them poems and asked them to talk about them we might have the basis of a conversation which could be transformational. This was not a research finding, it was a hunch; and I was so serious in my belief in it that I spent the next three years investigating it.
I was influenced in my first sessions with the class by something Wendy Cope once told me about her teaching. After reading a poem to a class she would deliberately restrict herself to one question about the poem, and then let discussion about the poem emerge from there. She also tried never to use the same question twice.
On my second visit to the class I decided to read them, among other poems, William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. I imagined that they would not understand all of it, that they might even find it a bit strange or difficult, but I was convinced they would respond to it. What happened that afternoon changed my whole view of teaching, and teaching literature in particular.
After reading ‘The Tyger’ to the class I chose to ask what pictures went through their minds as I was reading the poem. After a few slightly predictable answers about forests and tigers one boy put up his hand and said this: ‘I think it is about a big forest and a little forest. The little forest is trapped inside the big forest and is struggling to escape from it. It is a real struggle. Eventually the little forest breaks free and makes its way to edge of the big forest. It looks out. What it can see on the other side is the First World War.’ There was a silence. Nobody knew what to say next. I thanked the boy for his comment and said that I found it interesting. Then I did something I had not done consciously in my teaching before. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, which was to debate with the boy’s interpretation of the poem, or read another poem perhaps, I asked the class if the boy’s answer had made anyone else think about the poem differently. All of their hands went up. Then I did something else I had not done before: I allowed the children to take control of the discussion. Instead of their comments going through me ‘in the chair’ they began talking and responding to each other, not always in agreement, but with a new energy and purpose.
I thought about this story again at the third Poetry Matters Seminar Series in Leicester in September. During a discussion of a paper by Gary Snapper Michael Rosen encouraged us to reflect on the power relationships at work in the English teaching classroom. It was impossible, he said, to ignore them. Drawing on the work of Foucault, he invited us to consider the connection between the questions we ask in classrooms and the imperative of exams and ‘standards’ and thus policy. Placing poetry in this equation is by definition a disruptive act, he reminded us, because poetry is a democratic and subjective art-form. Sue Dymoke added that taking this kind of risk requires confidence, both in terms of subject and pedagogical knowledge.
Together we considered the paradox of ‘losing’ power in order to gain new kinds of knowledge and confidence by asking questions about poems we do not know the answers to. As Sue Horner remarked later at the Seminar, it is possible to move too speedily from curriculum specifications to decisions about classroom practices without taking the time to engender the trust and the fun and the risk which we know teaching poetry can bring. We can catch glimpses of the Tyger, but these will not be memorable or long-lasting if we go hunting for it using only pre-planned routes.