Andrew Motion calls for poetry teaching to be broadened

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The Independent Online

Schools should teach their pupils about more than just football poems and raps in poetry lessons, Sir Andrew Motion said today.

The former Poet Laureate instead wants a return to the days of children reciting verse by heart and a national poetry recital competition for schools along the lines of “spelling bee” competitions run in the United States to stretch their imaginations.

In addition, all pupils should have the right to hear writers and poets read their works through a national school visiting scheme.

In its guidance to schools to promote the government-inspired National Year of Reading in 2008, the National Literacy Trust suggested schools should run competitions for the best and worst football chants and raps.

Sir Andrew acknowledged at a conference in York yesterday that it was “very tempting” to coax pupils into understanding poetry “by choosing a poem about football for a football-loving boy, a rap for a fan of Eminem and so on”.

However, he added: “If we give our students only one kind of poetry to read, a kind the immediately recognise, it would be like taking someone to a palace, parking them at the door and telling them to go no further.”

He urged primary schools to offer a broader range of poetry than just children’s writers like Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl, suggesting they used some of Ted Hughes’ animal poems or Emily Dickinson’s “Snow”.

In secondary schools, they could tackle complex writers like Geoffrey Hill and Don Patterson. If they stuck to football chants like those unearthed by a competition by Barclay’s to find the best terrace chant or even his own limerick on England rugby fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, it would limit children’s horizons.

He added that children could often make more sense of poetry if it was read out loud. “The ear is the best reader,” he said, citing the poet Robert Frost.

“We need to accept (a poem’s) meaning has as much to do with the noise it makes as it does with the words as they appear on the page,” he added.

He criticised teacher training courses for adopting a “tick-box” approach to education and failing to inspire would-be teachers to develop children’s imagination.

“Unless the teachers themselves are confident and inspired in their handling of creative material, it (poetry) will never get the kind of attention, let alone the kind of liberation, that it merits,” he said.

“At the moment, with less than 50 per cent of English teachers in schools being English graduates, I do not believe those levels of confidence and inspiration are anything like as high as they should be.”

He added of the rigid approach to learning that too often it led teachers to “suppose that if they paid significant attention to the imagination, they were betraying their duties to their charges by straying off piste”.

“Because the curriculum , in too many particulars, requires students to tick boxes of information rather than provoking and recognising other kinds of attainment,” he said.

“It puts too low a value on individual response, on emotionally educated response on enquiry”.

As an example, he said that “requiring us to register our understanding of a poem by noticing alliteration or by counting similes and by talking about stanza structure” was all very well and worth-while discussing in class.

“But unless we combine our appreciation of technicalities with our enjoyment of what is fundamental to the poem, we will have missed what makes it a poem in the first place,” he added.

“We will have missed what makes it a poem in the first place.”

On reviving reciting poetry, he said: “I think learning by heart has got a bad reputation as dusty and turning people off poetry.”

However, it was a way of getting pupils to have a better understanding of poetry.

“Schools should make their own choices about which finalist to send to a central event,” he added. “If schools don’t want to get involved, they can sit back and watch people having a good time.”