A Poem a Day: Student Teachers and Poetry

Article excerpt

He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

'I can't wait to get into the classroom and capture that energy.' These are the words of a student teacher, at the end of her PGCE course, whilst reflecting on the impact of a pilot project entitled 'A Poem a Day' carried out by the English Education team at Roehampton University.

Inspired by the findings of the exciting project 'Teachers as Readers: building communities of readers' (by T. Cremin, F. Mottram, S. Collins, K. Powell and K. Safford--see Literacy, 43, 2009), which has highlighted the significance of teachers' own knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, children's literature, we wanted to raise the profile of poetry with our students. Work on children's literature has always been a rich seam running through our courses but, somehow, poetry has always lagged behind as the poor relation; this probably reflects a wider, national ambivalence about poetry. Over the years, students have reported on negative experiences of poetry in school (or no experience) and, although it featured strongly in the 1997 National Literacy Strategy, the excessive emphasis on form (over expression and purpose) led to an approach that was often formulaic. With the Primary National Strategy (2007), came the more enlightened Progression in Poetry (DfES, 2006) paper but how far this was given an airing (on the somewhat overwhelming Primary National Strategy website) is questionable. In 2006/7, Ofsted found that many primary school teachers were not knowledgeable about poetry and limited their pupils to a restricted diet of poetry drawn from a small pool of favourites (Kit Wright's The Magic Box and Spike Milligan's On the Ning, Nang, Nong for example). But this rather gloomy picture needs to be set against a potentially flourishing context: Michael Rosen's spirited take on the Children's Laureate has done a huge amount to bring poetry to life for many more children; Andrew Motion's Poetry Archive (www.poetryarchive.org) offers enduring access to the voices of the poets themselves and the new Poet Laureate appointment of Carol Ann Duffy--an esteemed writer for children as well as adults--bodes extremely well for the future of children's poetry.

What do we want for our student teachers? We want them to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable readers and writers of poetry. The importance of reading aloud to children in order to tune them into the rhythms and cadences of written language has long been established; what we want to ensure is that our students have similar opportunities to experience and relish poetic language for its own sake, rather than as a vehicle for labelling and identifying figurative language or other poetic features. Importantly, we also want them to be conversant with the many imaginative, active strategies that can be called upon to bring poems to life for children.

And so A Poem a Day was born. Every single English teaching session on our courses begins with a poem projected on a PowerPoint slide that we read and explore together. Not only do we want the students to read a poem a day, but we also want them to read a poem a day to their classes whilst on school practice. And there are poems everywhere: on the walls, doors and up the staircase to the teaching rooms. We were fortunate enough to be lent A3 posters of poems in different languages (Poems for ... one world--see www.poemsfor.org); we have anthologies of poetry and displays featuring children's and students' work. …