Monday 22 May 2017

Poetry and stories for primary and lower secondary schools 3

How to look at poems closely.

I'm imagining  SATs-free sessions in primary schools, where you can read, talk about and discover poetry without worrying too much about the exact questions that SATs ask. 

There are ways of doing close reading of poems which don't impose on the reading precise formulas. As you know these often go along the lines of proving that this or that poetic device ('alliteration' and the like)  is 'effective' before anyone's had a chance of deciding that it is! Another formula is the one where the child has to guess what was in the poet's head and state that as a reason why this or that poetic device is there: 'the poet introduced alliteration because it gives a sense of murmuring secrets' or some such. Again, no one knows this to be the case and anyway for another reader the alliteration in question may give another 'sense' altogether. 

Leaving that to one side, are there ways in which primary age children can do some close reading of poems, which really explore how poems work without some of these more daft ways of closing down interpretation? I think there are. A more theoretical framework for this is in the blog I did of a 'matrix of responses'. I'll make that blog: Poetry in Primary Schools 4. 

1. You vary the class teaching from working in pairs, on their own and in whole class situations. For the close reading to work, groups larger than two will probably not work so well.

2. The first question you ask the children in pairs to talk about is whether there is anything in the poem, or the poem as a whole 'reminds them of anything that has happened to them, or anything that has happened to someone they know'. You can model an answer for this question as a way of kicking things off, of course. Get them to talk in pairs for a couple of minutes and share some of these in the whole class. Then ask them to explain to each other 'why' and 'how' they are reminded.  Model this too. Then share some of these in a whole class. 

This enables the children to see that poems are not only about what they appear to be about (!) but that we as readers are 'in' poems too. Our experiences are part of the way in which we are able to interpret the poem. 

3. Second question is to follow the same pattern but invite the children to think about other poems, stories, plays, TV programmes, computer games - ie any other 'text' - and see if there is anything in the poem or the poem as a whole that reminds them of a 'text' they know. Model this. Get them to talk in pairs. Share some of the responses. Then ask 'why' and 'how'. Model this, then share some of them. 

4. The third area to get into is the children's own questions. Ask them in pairs to come up with questions about the poem as a whole: any part of the poem; questions for the poet; questions for anyone or any thing in the poem. 

Break these down one by one, modelling some questions yourself, getting them to talk in pairs and sharing in the class. When you hear the questions, write them up where they can see them. 

By the end of a few minutes you should have a good few questions. 

Talk with the whole class about which questions look interesting and puzzling enough to try and answer. Get them to talk in pairs to try to answer these questions, then share with the whole class. Get them also to discuss how to find out answers to questions that  you can't solve. Internet? Books? Someone they know? Someone you know? You could talk about going to college and how you found out answers to questions about poems, books and stories. 

5. Take stock of where you've got to with the poem. What do we know, what don't we know, what would we like to know? At this point you could introduce terminology where you thought it was relevant and helpful. Or you could hold that back for the next part of the 'looking closely'.

6. I've called this 'secret strings'. All poems hang together and express what they want to express by unstated or 'secret' means. So a poem that rhymes doesn't say 'I'm rhyming'! It just does it. Same goes for its beat, metre, or any of the sounds it uses like alliteration, assonance, repetition, 'framing', patterning into verses, rhyme schemes etc. None of it is 'announced'. Same again for the patterns of images a poem uses e.g. around a theme like 'light' or a specific colour, or a words about sadness. Same yet again for contrasts and opposites. Poems often move forwards by contrasting images or moods or scenes. These too are patterns which come 'unannounced'. But these secret strings are part of how a poem has a meaning. So, if I write:  'rain raining, rain raining, rain raining', I'm not only saying 'It's raining'. I'm also saying, 'it's raining a lot and it's going on and on.' I do that without telling it! When we look at 'secret strings' we discover how some of these poetic ways of affecting us are done

So you say to the children that they are 'poem detectives' and it's their job to find the 'secret strings'. You can model some of these: ones that are to do with sound (like rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and assonance); some to do with imagery that are 'same' and some that are to do with opposite or contrast. Then put them in pairs, with a copy of the poem in front of them, and they can draw the string in a colour on the poem. 

The rule is: if you can justify why a string is a string, it is a string. You can say that quite often the poets don't know their own strings. If they don't believe you, you can tell them that I've said it! 

So, now in pairs they hunt for strings, and then you can invite them to share these. 

You can take this one step further and invite them to come up with possible reasons why the poet made these strings, whether they poet knew it or not. 

7. After you have done these 6 stages of looking at a poem, I promise you, you will have explored many, many aspects of the poem. Some will be the same as the kinds of things that you think are important about the poem and some not. It may well change the way you think about aspects of the poem. If you are concerned that the class haven't got hold of what you think is the most important aspect of the poem, you are now in a good position to offer that to them as your view. They, meanwhile, are in a good position to examine what you say and offer their thoughts on the matter.