The joy of teaching poetry

Vandana Srivastava

Teaching poetry is always a challenge. It is not straightforward like prose and can be interpreted differently by different people. But if you enjoy poetry and your own experiences when learning it have been good, you will certainly enjoy teaching it and you may even be able to pass on your enthusiasm for poetry to your students. While every teacher has a different style of teaching the subject, there are still a few basic steps that can be followed when teaching poetry. What are these steps?

  •  Reading the poem aloud to the students. When you (the teacher) are reading, ensure that your students are listening to you and not reading along from their textbooks.
  • Identifying and defining words the students do not know.
  • Reading the poem aloud again.
  • Discussing the theme or central idea of the poem.
  • Analyzing the poem stanza-wise. Asking the students to share their own experiences and interpretations.
  • Looking at the literary devices used by the poet, the rhyme scheme if any.
  • Summarizing the poem and asking the students to recite it.

Additional ideas from my experience of teaching poetry

1. I first look at the theme of the poem and if possible try and create a suitable atmosphere by asking leading questions. For example, if the poem is about nature, I start by talking about the surrounding natural environment, ask my students if they have visited places where nature is abundant. The class is likely to get into the mood as they reminisce that vacation to a hill station, or waking up to chirping birds in the morning or thinking about the rain that soaked them. If your school has a garden or is surrounded by trees, what better place to read a poem on nature than the outdoors? Once my class has settled down on the fresh green grass, I am ready to read out the poem and my students, to listen.

2. I next have a discusson on what the poem is about. I don’t rush to tell my students what the poet is saying, I  let them interpret the poem on their own. I intervene only when I feel they are completely off track. When they try and make meaning of the poem on their own, your students will learn faster and remember their lessons too.

3. Once the meaning of the poem becomes clear to them, I draw my students’ attention to any poetic devices that the poet may have used. Blank verse, allegory, alliteration, rhythm, etc.

4. To complete the poetry lesson, I ask my students to attempt writing a poem on a similar theme keeping in mind what they have learnt. Not all students, despite being confident learners, will be thrilled at the idea of writing their own poems. In such situations you can make their task a little easy by asking them to first try the following exercise. Let them choose a piece of text that means something to them and try and convert this text into a poem.

Here is an example (excerpt from Khushwant Singh’s ‘The portrait of a lady’)

She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful. She hobbled about the house in spotless white with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other telling the beads of her rosary. Her silver locks were scattered untidily over her pale, puckered face, and her lips constantly moved in inaudible prayers. She was like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment.

Now how will you convert the above text into a poem? Here’s a try

She could never have been pretty

But always beautiful

Hobbled about the house in spotless white

Resting on waist to balance stoop

Telling the beads of rosary

Silver locks scattered over pale, puckered face

Lips moved in inaudible prayers

Like the winter landscape in the mountains

An expanse of pure white serenity

Breathing peace and contentment

She looked beautiful

This kind of free verse is easy to write. Such simple exercises will give all your students, even the reluctant ones, the confidence to write their own poems. Here is another example. A class V student attempted the poem after he came back from a field trip. I had asked my students to walk around the farm, observe, collect items and then write poems about the treasures they had found. This boy was fascinated with dried corn husks. 

Corn husks

They crumple like

dried onion peels.

The lines on the skin

look like Spaghetti noodles.

Corn husks are the colour

of the desert sand.

They are as light

as a feather in your hand.

Field trips are a good way to help students express their emotions as well. We had once visited an oldage home and one of my students came back from the trip to write a poem filled with pathos.

Another fun way to get your students to write poems is to ask them to do calligrams. My students certainly had a field day writing a poem on the kite by drawing the shape of a Kite, they wrote poems about clouds within the shape of a cloud. Once we had done snakes too.

Teaching poetry is a divine experience as it raises one’s artistic and creative levels and broadens our horizon as well. It awakens the emotional self that is dying in today’s materialistic world.

The author has been working as an English teacher for more than 20 years and has presented papers at national conferences in the field of English Literature. She has conducted workshops for English language teachers and in-service training programmes for school teachers. She has contributed towards ELT under the DIET (District Institute for Educational and Training) program and believes in innovative practices pertaining to language teaching. She has authored a book for Gujarati speakers, ‘Speaking English Made Easier’. She can be reached at [email protected]

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