“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.

Developing Characters for Story Writing and Drama… NATE 2017

Reflections on NATE conference 2017 from Leanne Welsh.  This is reblogged from Leanne’s excellent blog,  https://nqtreflections.wordpress.com/.

At the NATE conference last weekend I attended a number of workshops that will help me to create interesting and engaging lessons for the pupils in my class.  I am  grateful that I had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring people that shared their ideas and practice that I can now adapt for my own pupils.

One of the workshops that blew me away was Kat Burr’s All work and no play? Introducing new views and creative ways into plays.  In this workshop we gained fascinating insight into ways that we can help pupils to develop characters in plays.  However,  these ideas are not limited to plays and could be a worthwhile starting point for creative writing  and folio work.

One of the first tasks that Kat introduced us to was ‘What’s in my Bag?’   Pupils choose two items from their bag and the rest of the group/class have to work out what the persons ‘holes’ (flaws) might be because of the items.  I would say it is important to tell the pupils to think about the person with the items as a character rather than as themselves so no feelings get hurt in the process!  For example if  I had a small mirror in my bag, my flaw, as a character, might be that I care too much about my appearance and what people think of me.  This immediately allows the pupils to start to develop a character in their own head and what the person might be like.   If you have some pupils in your school that don’t have a bag or you might not feel comfortable doing this task, you could use YouTube.  There are many videos out there with YouTubers promoting ‘What’s in my bag?’ You could pause it in-between items and ask the pupils to discuss or write down what their flaws might be because of their chosen items.  This is also a fantastic task for getting to know a class or letting them get to know you.

Another task ( and probably my favourite) was Killer Lines.   In this task pupils would be given a number of lines in their groups and they have to work out what kind of character would say these lines.   You could make these lines up or use famous quotes from characters and see if the pupils can work out who is the baddie (we all know they get the best lines.) You might want to provide images and see if the pupils can match up the line with the character and give a reason why they think they could say that.  For example if you use the line ‘Long Live the King!”  Some pupils might say Scar because he is desperate to become the King and get rid of his brother.  However, there may be another opportunity for an interesting discussion on ambiguity. Perhaps it depends on the way that a character says a line and the tone they use. Voice is so important in order to develop an accurate character; we have to hear them speak, right down to the laugh that they use.   This line might have been said by a bunch of servants that are loyal to their ruler, so the status of the character is vital.  Where is the character in terms of the food chain?  Are they a boss or are they a disgruntled ex employee looking for revenge?  Therefore an important lesson could come out of this task – delivery is often more important than what the line actually is.

As previously stated delivery is important when it comes to creating a character. Another task that I used from the workshop with my pupils was ‘Words that Annoy You.’  I asked the pupils to write down a word on a post-it that made their blood boil when someone said it (or, at least, caused them some discomfort.)  To say they loved it was an understatement. They were doing this as a group and looking at each others and saying ‘Ugh, I hate that too! Why do people do that?’   I then asked the pupils to start to think about the mannerisms people use or do that annoys them. Now, if you want a successful task you should say the things that teachers do (obviously telling them to keep it anonymous) that annoys them. Each group had loads of words and mannerisms and I then asked them to explore how they think each of these words would be said or what the mannerisms would look like.  I then asked them to think about what kind of character would suit this line.  What personality would the character have?  How would they interact with other people?   How would their voice sound as they said it? Then, and I think this is really important for character development, to think about the back story. What makes this person have this mannerism? Where did the use of a word come from?  Did they start to use it when their status changed in society?  Do they only use these words or mannerisms with certain people and do they change depending on who they are around?   This task really was fascinating and it was interesting to hear pupils saying ‘Well they only say that to us because we are a pupil, I bet they are different around the Heedie!’

 

The final task, and one that I think is brilliant, is getting the pupils to eavesdrop on a conversation. This could be at break, lunch or on their way home from school. The pupils should take an anonymous comment that they find unusual or funny and bring it back to class.  The pupils can then explore these comments as a group, perhaps putting them all together to create a short sketch. Pupils could also provide the lines that they think came before and the lines that they think would follow. Again, another interesting opportunity to explore voice if you get the pupils to exchange their comment with someone else.

This was a fantastic and beneficial workshop that I will most certainly use to help pupils develop their characters in creative writing. Pupils often only have an image of a character in their head but it is important to delve into the history of a character in order to explore what their strengths and flaws might be.

Leanne Welsh is an English teacher in a Falkirk Council secondary school. Any views expressed are her own.

Welcome to the new SATE blog!

Hello!  We are SATE, the Scottish Association for the Teaching of English.  We’re a growing organisation affiliated to the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE).  If you are interested in joining SATE, check out the benefits of joining NATE at https://www.nate.org.uk/ and drop us a line at connectSATE@gmail.com or use the contact form on this blog.  You can also follow us on and contact us through Twitter at @SATEfeed.

There is an existing SATE blog at https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/glowblogs/sateblog/; over the next few weeks, many of the posts you will find there will be migrated to this blog.  In the meantime, our first posts will be about the fantastic NATE 2017 conference, held in Nottingham this year.

We hold meetings and seminars as often as possible.  In August, we are hoping to hold a session on The Autism Friendly English classroom in Ayrshire with Charlene Tait, and a literacy event for English teachers featuring Professor Sue Ellis in Glasgow on the 20th of August.  Look out for details here and on Twitter and for booking on Eventbrite. We’re planning a range of other events, from chats over coffee or a beer to day conferences; keep in touch and let us know about anything you’d like to see us do!

We do hope you will feel SATE can offer you something in your work as a teacher of English, and, indeed, that you can join us and offer something to SATE.