“Small Shadows and Black Marks on a Page”: Taking the Panic out of Reading Poetry… NATE 2017

Kerri-Anne Campbell describes her experiences of NATE conference, 2017…

When I read a poem for the first time I am often left feeling perplexed and frustrated. Panic usually sets in if I read it over and over again yet still can’t uncover the underlying meaning. Attending the annual NATE conference in Nottingham made me realise that I’m not the only one. Some of the most experienced English teachers also feel this same sense of bewilderment when they read a poem for the first time, and they’re not afraid to say it.

The conference offered a wide range of innovative workshops and seminars which addressed many such concerns. One workshop which I learned much from was, Taking the Top of Our Heads off – Poetry for GCSE and A Level. The name of the workshop was derived from Emily Dickinson’s quote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”.

The workshop introduced different approaches to the teaching of poetry, to meet its aim of alleviating the anxieties often felt by teachers and students when studying and writing about poems for exams preparation. Different activities were outlined to bring fun and excitement to the kids’ experiences of reading poems. I left the workshop equipped with so many interesting ideas which I hope to use to motivate and engage my pupils in their own study of poetry.

For me though, the highlight of the conference was Simon Armitage’s keynote speech. Armitage brought to profile the difficulty of reading and understanding poetry and confessed that when he was a student, poems often appeared as “small shadows and black marks on a page”. He went on to make an impassioned plea for the reconceptualisation of the traditional approach to teaching poetry away from the model within which poems are mechanically deconstructed word by word, insisting that a poem is not a lock to be picked, or a code which needs to be cracked, nor is it a riddle to which teachers have the answer. This was music to my ears, and is something I anticipate sharing with my pupils with no small excitement.

Armitage told us that an appreciation of language is one of the greatest gifts you can give to young people, and he suggested that in order to avoid instilling a life-long abhorrence of poetry in their pupils, teachers should introduce them to poems to which they can personally respond: poems which fire up their imagination; poems which inspire their creativity; and, poems which encourage independent thinking. He urged schools to achieve this by continuing to teach contemporary poems, and importantly, by contextualising and relating poetry to issues important to pupils’ personal and social lives. He said that by so doing the gateway to more difficult and unfamiliar work would be opened wide.

Armitage reminisced about discovering his love for poetry in the ‘Worlds’ anthology whilst still a schoolboy, and called for getting back to using poetry books as opposed to photocopies in the English classroom. Until this address, I had not heard of this anthology, but now await the arrival of my own copy with eagerness.

As an NQT I realise how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to attend the NATE conference before I even begin my first year as a teacher. I met so many inspiring people and left brimming with ideas. One thing that really struck me is that reading and discussing a poem for the first time can be a terrifying experience for teachers and pupils alike and I will endeavour to ensure that this is not a secret kept from my pupils. I want them to realise that we will journey and discover the world of poetry together.

Kerri-Anne Campbell is a newly qualified English teacher in East Dunbartonshire.  Views expressed here are her own.

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