Teaching poetry in secondary schools is going through a difficult time at the moment. As Barbara Bleiman explains on page 40, there are several reasons for this: teachers’ anxiety about assessment so that poetry-for-exams has come to dominate all poetry teaching; Senior Leaders requiring direct evidence of learning in every lesson; and the heavy focus on the teaching of knowledge by Ofsted, England’s school inspection service. Barbara writes; “This has led… to over-teaching poetry, to a reliance on formulae such as PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation). It’s led to a focus on teaching specific information and ideas about particular individual poems rather than about poems more generally and how they work”.

The result of this approach can be seen on page 19 in Molly Naylor’s experience of facilitating poetry writing: “I was tasked with helping thirty 14-year-olds write poems on the theme of the First World War. ‘So, what makes a good poem?’ I asked them as an opener. I was met with sighs, eye rolls and blank faces. Eventually a student stuck their hand up. ‘Fronted adverbials?’ they said.”

As editors of Magma 85, working in secondary schools for years in various roles, we believe that love of poetry risks being stifled in schools. In many schools, enjoyment of poems is squeezed out by learning facts about them rather than understanding that they express important feelings in memorable ways. This functional approach applies to teaching other English texts and its effect is already evident. Between 2017 and 2021 the number of students taking English A Level declined by 23 per cent and between 2012 and 2021 the number applying to take English degrees fell by over a third. We risk becoming a nation in which love of literature, especially poetry, is perhaps discovered by some adults later in life, if at all.

Molly Naylor and Barbara Bleiman describe other ways of teaching poetry that help it to be alive and enjoyable for students, as does the account of teaching an E E Cummings poem on page 80.

Beyond this, we believe poems taught in schools should be more varied and inclusive. The GCSE Boards are making their poetry anthologies significantly more diverse, but at a time when poets are experimenting much more than previously we feel poetry in Key Stages 3 to 5 should include a much wider range of forms – prose poems, specular poems, erasure and sound poems, etc, etc, as well as the traditional forms exemplified by the Romantic period and required by GCSE. As usual, Magma 85 includes a wide range of poetic forms.

In our view all the poems in Magma 85 would be good to teach in schools and we’ve included suggestions for teaching approaches for some of them on pages 88 to 90. The poems are grouped by the broad topics used in the GCSE anthologies.
We’ve focussed on secondary schools because of concerns arising from our own experience and because Magma publishes poems for adults. An issue on poems for primary schools would be lovely, but would be very different.

In the end we stand by Virginia Woolf’s great image, quoted by Barbara Bleiman, that reading poetry is, or should be, like being attacked by a horde of rebels. This may sound violent, but it’s infinitely better than the numbing deadness of focussing (and being required by Senior Leaders and Ofsted to focus) on teaching students primarily to identify technical features like fronted adverbials. Technical features are essential – one can’t discuss a text without them – but responding to the feelings expressed by a poem needs to come first. Without this, the poem is dead on the page.

From Magma 85, Poems for schools

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