Education: Why does a walrus walk like a drunk?: Candida Wingate joins a class where poetry is the key to language

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The Independent Online
The teacher sits perched on the very edge of her desk, as if at any moment she might launch herself into the air, as she discusses poetry with her class of mixed-ability 12-year-olds.

The children rise to her enthusiasm and intelligently question one another's work: 'What made you describe a walrus walking like a drunk?' - 'My dad runs a pub and I've seen the men walking home.'

'Why did you say the whale had a face like a depressed chess champion?' - 'He reminded me of a character in a book we were reading.'

'What made you call a dolphin a knight in armour?' - 'It's the same shiny greyness.'

Their teacher, Jill Pirrie, has taught English at Halesworth Middle School, deep in the Suffolk countryside, for 20 years. Children know about her long before they reach her class. Poetry underpins all English teaching at Halesworth and Miss Pirrie's pupils regularly win major national awards for their writing and poetry. The poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, as chair of one panel of judges, once said she equipped her pupils with 'a superior kit of language techniques'.

'Poetry has the capacity to empower children to achieve mastery of all literary genres,' Miss Pirrie says. 'It encourages reflection and the powers of criticism, for the child has to be both intensely involved at the moment of writing the poem and then objectively detached, equipped with all the criteria for assessing the poem.

'I think poetry should pervade the entire English syllabus. Of course, this view puts me at odds with the system, which stresses balance, but for me balance means identifying the priority, not allotting each genre its own little slot.'

Her class is full of intense busy-ness, with constant referral and cross-referral to other poems and writers. Images are discussed and explored, alternatives suggested, criticised and developed. Throughout the process the children are constantly encouraged to dig deeper and deeper into their memories and experiences. Miss Pirrie, too, makes considerable reference to her own childhood; the phrase 'Now, that reminds me' is never far from her lips.

Children love her classes. Clare, whose poem has just been discussed in class, is excited by the power of controlling poetry. 'Nobody in my family reads poetry, but I really like it now. A story takes too long to write. I get bored with it. But a poem can be short enough to work at until you get it perfect.'

Perfection requires complete concentration and the class is often required to spend long sessions in silence, while they work on their poems. A strict code of consideration for one another is imposed.

'We're always told that if we talk we might interrupt someone's thoughts and prevent them writing a masterpiece, so everyone is very respectful of everyone else,' a pupil explains. 'Anyway, you're so busy and relaxed and happy to have that time to think about nothing but a flower or an animal - it's nice to be quiet.'

Another pupil confesses that he was not doing too well in English until he got into Miss Pirrie's class. 'Poetry's different. It's all yours, it comes from your own imagination, so it's unique. It's hard work, but it's very exciting.'

(Photograph omitted)

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