Where is the poetry in schools today?

I was not surprised when I read an article in the Daily Mail, with a headline that blared: More than half of primary teachers are unable to name three poets. And while this article represents a study done in the UK, I am sure that the results would be much the same, if anyone bothered to interview Australian primary school teachers. I am sure of this because I am a primary school teacher and each day I often scratch my head and ask, where is the poetry in schools today?

There are some passionate teachers out there, who continue to engage their students with poetry (both classic and contemporary). I know of them, but they are a rare breed. In most cases, when I mention poetry to teachers, the response I get is along the lines of, “I don’t understand it,” or “I am scared of teaching poetry.”

Ipswich is one city making a concerted effort to put poetry back into their local primary schools, through the annual Ipswich Poetry Feast. For the last seven years, the Ipswich City Council has allocated funding for poets to visit schools between May and July to run a series of workshops as well as funding for a series of online workshops. I have been fortunate to have been a workshop poet for the last four years and it is always a thrill to see young people’s faces light up with poetry. This sort of committment will most definitely raise the profile of poetry in schools and may even show many of the teachers that it’s not that hard to engage young people through poetry.

Sea Things is another project currently underway that aims to engage with local communities and schools to have people imagine our sea history through new works that can be shared locally, nationally and internationally through use of print, audio, film and other digital media.

These projects are brilliant, but poetry needs to be reinstalled on the ground floor of teaching… it needs to be part of the everyday, teaching and learning process. As former UK children’s laureate, Michael Rosen says, it needs to be “on the walls, in assemblies, in corners and in books.

I remember distinctly my year 3/4 primary school teachers reading Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson and on a more local front Judith Wright. I remember hearing poems read just for the pure enjoyment of it. For this I am forever thankful. These poems served me well…

I would also love to hear about your first school-aged poetry memories. The poems that served you well.

And if you are in the business of education or know someone that is, ask yourself or them, where is the poetry in schools today? If we don’t ask, it may never come back.

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19 Comments

Filed under poetry & publishing

19 responses to “Where is the poetry in schools today?

  1. My teachers rarely read poetry to the class from 1968 (or thereabouts) onwards – the emphasis was more on Biblical poetry, like psalms, in Catholic schools, and rock lyrics. My mother bought me a brilliant kids’ anthology when I was twelve though.

    And my children learned to write haiku at school, and went to poetry workshops. So I cannot agree with you that there was less then, and more now, somehow. Not in my narrow experience anyhow. Our kids’ English tuition seems to have been quite strong in learning how poetry works, which I would have loved a bit more instruction in myself. Go figure 🙂

    • gnunn

      Hi Geneveive,

      I don’t think there was less before and more now… I think that there is a real need now to try and address this issue though. I think all along, poetry has been taught by the passionate and to some degree has been part of the syllabus, but I don’t feel that it has been embedded in the everyday teaching/learning process.

      As a lover of haiku, I am always fascinated at how this form of writing is taught. I am often confronted with teachers using it as little more than a counting excercise, where children simply count out a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. There is so much more…

      Thanks for joining in the discussion,

  2. Thanks so much for this Graham – a topic close to my heart. My kids go to a tiny(61 kids in total) rural primary school and are lucky that there is a focus on poetry- though it could be increased. Last year the older kids wrote haiku and I wrote a story in the local newspaper publishing the 3 winners. The local papers always like poetry and they just want you to give it a go – doesn’t have to be top quality. I didn’t formally study poetry until high-school (but my memory is a bit strained). The Jabberwocky always stands out – and we had to learn it by heart – that might have been primary school.

    • gnunn

      Yeah, Jabberwocky was an early fave of mine too. The collaboration with the newspaper sounds great. Sometimes the small schools are the best… my greatest teaching memories are in my little 1 and two teacher schools. So much heart in those places!

  3. I can’t imagine how you could teach language or language skills and not use poetry. I remember ‘One Sunday Morning Early’ by Irene Gough so well and still have the copy I was given at 11 years old.

    • gnunn

      I agree Paul, it sort of defies gravity doesn’t it. Must have a look at Irene Gough. I love how books become so treasured and accompnay us through life.

  4. littlej

    i know i read poetry when i was in primary school (i thought being a poet would be the best job ever!). but i don’t remember the poems. i read a lot of victorian children’s poems (so i think i had a book of them) like Robert Louis Stevenson etc. I do remember the land of counterpane.

    • gnunn

      I got a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson as well littlej. And being a poet is most definitely the best job ever… you just need another job to let you do it!

  5. jules

    i remember roald dahl and the bell jar…

  6. littlej

    this is a hot topic…either people are really passionate about teaching the yoof about poetry or we just like reminiscing.

    • gnunn

      It is a topic that is not talked about enough I think. Teachers seem so stressed with assessment and reporting, the art of actually teaching is being lost.

  7. I teach it in high school – I try and use a wide range of poetic forms and expose em to a fair range of uses. Can be a little lonesome at times though – I think it’s worth doing it if only to expose students to something they may never see/see again!

    Have even used one of your haiku, Graham! Included it in a class that the Japanese teacher and I did on haiku – it was awesome, most of the kids loved the two-language approach

  8. Lee-Anne

    Thank you Graham for raising the issue of poetry and expression as part of today’s education. The “Sea Things” project is a wonderful medium for teachers and students to embrace modern expression. As a student I remember my secondary school English Literature days in Melbourne with the “World’s Contracted Thus” at the ready – poets including Chaucer, Wordsworth, Frost, Owen, Slessor, Heaney, Dickinson, Blake, Lowell and Plath livened the pages in their classical verse, beckoning us to expand our minds and peel the layers of each carefully constructed line to reveal so much more. The 21st century has certainly witnessed much change to contemporary language and modern verse. It is certainly our responsibility to embrace those changes and continue to encourage the poetic expression of our modern era……quickly, before text language takes over!!!!!

  9. As a child i rhymed little stories before i could read or write. or so my parents and grandparents told me. I went from a public school to a Army school back in 1964 i believe..and totally missed poetry. The army school was 2 years ahead of the public schools. Once the Army schools realized i could do the different poems- without being taught. I received a lot of extra credit in English..
    Later in life, my daughter from age 9 decided she wanted to write poetry. When she was in high school, she told her teacher that she would mess herself up if she learned the “book way” because i taught her to write..the teacher held up the poem and told this class how bad it was. how she was never going to be published. when she came home from school crying, Seventeen Magazine had sent her her early copies ( with a check) and the one featured poem was the same one the teacher had used as a example of not having a chance to get published. we had no idea they was publishing the poem..My daughter went on to become a published writer of books and receives a steady income from roylaty checks..
    I’m no one speical but I’d say my opinion is…. Poetry in schools should be in every English class from grades 1-12…And students should be incouraged to do it “their way” anyone can write a poem. It’s something we ALL can do (if we wanted to). But it takes a dedicated, creative, determined person to become a poet.

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