When teaching poetry, I often come up against a multitude of defensive barriers that teenagers have erected to prevent them from having to engage with the poems in front of them. And the reason for these fortresses of resistance? They are scared of getting it wrong. This is the challenge of not knowing the right answer, ‘I don’t get it’. My solution to this problem is to give them the answer, but the trick is to give them more than one.
Here is what I did this week, with my year 10.
- We read Remember by Christina Rossetti. I simply read it to them, no frills.
- I provided them with two statements about the poem:
- She wants her lover to remember her after she dies;
- She is breaking up with her lover and wants him to remember her when she has left.
- The students, in pairs, decided who was A and who was B and each was given a different coloured highlighter.
- I then read the poem again, this time the students highlighted any evidence in the poem that supported their given statement.
- I read the poem, once more, and the students this time had to identify 5 techniques used in their highlighted sections, e.g. Metaphor, euphemism, rhyming couplets etc.
- I read the poem for a final time and the students made notes about how these techniques proved the statement.
- Every A student then worked with their B student partner. They dictated their written interpretation of the poem to B, who acted as scribe for them. I provided sentence starters, e.g.
- One possible interpretation of Remember is…
- For example, ‘…’
- This means…
- This suggests…
- Therefore, Rossetti could be…
- The students swapped.
- Finally, the students voted for their favoured interpretation.
What I found so successful about this was that it gave the students a starting point. No-one had to figure out what it was about and so no-one was stuck. However, it also forced them all to engage with the idea of multiple interpretations, and investigate the proof for these interpretations for themselves.
So, the next time one of your students puts up their ‘I don’t get it’ wall, break it down by giving them the answer.
Naomi Hursthouse has been teaching in West Sussex for ten years. She has worked as an Advanced Skills Teacher, a Gifted and Talented Coordinator, AQA examiner and is currently the Head of English at Ormiston Six Villages Academy.