Poetry, Creativity, Multimodality

Julie Blake:

The Poetry Archive is the world's premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their own work. It's a growing collection of over 170 poets spanning 120 years, from the dawn of the age of recording right up to the present day. And best of all for teachers, it's completely free of charge.

In this film, four teachers talk about their experience of working with the Poetry Archive in a teachers' workshop. Carol, Wayne, Rebecca and Damian teach in four very different contexts. They each found recordings that inspired them to create engaging and imaginative lessons about poetry.

Damian McDonnell's goal was to develop a unit for younger pupils, giving them a rich and enjoyable shared experience of poetry. Part of the unit focused on lively, funny poems in the Archive by Roald Dahl, Wes Magee, Allan Ahlberg and Michael Rosen. Damian teaches at Oakgrove Integrated College in Derry.

Damian McDonnell:

I started with one poem and everything has expanded from that, and the poem that I chose on the Archive was Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. I wanted a funny poem that people could relate to, that would complement what I'm doing already in school and would dovetail on nicely from my wee bit of work that I'm doing on narrative, in which we use fairytales, and the only thing I would seek to do with the poem is to maybe engage in a bit of choral verse or shared readings of the poem so that people can look at how the tone of somebody's voice can impact upon the meaning of the poem and how tone is implicit. And then I started looking around the Archive, and I found The Boneyard Rap by Wes Magee, which I think is brilliant, and the reading on the Archive is fantastic. It gives students opportunities to have a look at their own raps, maybe, coming up with some work of their own and delivering it, in the way of a rap. I found Scissors by Allan Ahlberg which I think any class would like, because the image of a teacher cracking up on a Friday afternoon is probably there to be seen in a lot of schools, certainly in my own classroom that would be the case on a Friday afternoon. But that allows me to work with rhyme, and then if I wanted the pupils to work with rhyme and rhythm together then the next obvious step for me is limericks. There are a series of limericks on the Archive by Michael Rosen, so we'd play them to them and let them model their work on that.

Julie Blake:

Carol Atherton teaches at Bourne Grammar School in Lincoln. She developed a GCSE lesson about imagery.

Carol Atherton:

I developed a sequence of activities for a Year 10 group based upon my current Year 10 students, who are very active, they like approaches to poetry that will get them on their feet and get them playing around with words and being creative. What I did was to take as a starting point a poem by Simon Armitage called You're Beautiful. And I would approach this by getting students, first of all, to think about short sections of the poem, to relate it to their own experience and to think about the way the poet uses images and ideas that are drawn very much from everyday life, quite humorous images, often that you might not expect to find in a love poem. They would spend some time working on the poem in pairs, writing their own versions of it, and also doing some multimodal work using images and sounds to bring the poem to life. One couplet that I would get students to focus on goes as follows:

You're beautiful because you stop to read the cards in newsagents' windowsabout lost cats and missing dogs.
I'm ugly because of what I did to that jelly fish with a lolly-stick and a big stone.

I think that will give students a really good opportunity to think about what exactly it is that the speaker did to the jellyfish with a lolly-stick and a big stone, but also to think about conventional ideas of beauty and ugliness, and what kinds of things we look for in other people, and sometimes what kind of things make us uncomfortable about ourselves, which is obviously something that Year 10 students in particular could talk quite strongly about.

I think it also gives students the opportunity to think about ways in which they can use voices to bring poems to life, the ways in which they can play around with vocal expression, with using different voices, maybe different voices in different parts of a room to create quite unexpected effects.

Julie Blake:

Next is Rebecca White, who teaches at Littlehampton Community School. She devised a lesson developing creative written representations of a poem, to illustrate aural interpretations.

Rebecca White:

The key activities in the scheme of work that I've come up with to date, the main one that I was really excited by is the opportunity to do a visual representation of the spoken poem. And that's really significant I think, because we're so used to seeing a poem in a size ten font on a white page, and then they read it in a monotone voice because they're nervous about reading poetry, and The Poetry Archive really allows them to hear where a poet's emphasis is meant to be. The poem that I've looked at is What Horses See at Night, and the line that I've picked is

In the slink of river-light
the mink's face is already
slippery with yolk

Just on the page, that's a fairly sort of calm observation of something that's going on, but when you hear Robertson read it, the passion he puts into the 'slink' of moonlight so that you can hear this movement, and then the word 'mink' is almost spat out as if it's an enemy, and the slippery face with the yolk on it is sneered out with hatred of this animal's source of food, that they've robbed nests in order to feed. And so the way that I've done that as a model for my students is that I've written 'slink' with lots of 'I's so that you've got that long vowel sound coming through. I've written 'mink' in an impact font, in bold that's very tight so you've got that spat out, and then with 'yolk' I've written it in Chiller font because that has connotations of it being frightening and sinister.

[Archive Clip: What Horses See At Night by Robin Robertson]

And then they would write their own poems that they would read out personally with certain emphasis, and make a visual representation of their own poems, so that if they handed it to someone else that person would read it the way they wanted it to be heard, not just it flat on the page.

Julie Blake:

Wayne Spence teaches at Belfast Royal Academy. Inspired by Yeats' singular reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree, he worked on a lesson to develop multiple readings of the poem and a richly-felt understanding of the aural impact of poetry.

Wayne Spence:

I chose one poem: The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats, and I started off with myself as a teacher, and before I played the poem to myself I read through it and listened to my reading of the poem, so that I could see and hear what sounds and phrases were repeated and stood out for me. That was in preparation for individual work by students. In the classroom I would give the student the poem and a highlighter, and I would ask them to read the poem to themselves and listen to their own reading. As they read the poem I would ask them to highlight any sounds or phrases that stood out for them. Then I would ask the students to come together and come to an agreed, shared reading of the poem which they then could perform in front of the class. Now, they could emphasise the highlighted words in a certain way by - if there are three people within the group - a single voice reading a single word, or perhaps two or three voices reading a certain phrase. We could then go to the Poetry Archive and listen to WB Yeats reading the poem. Now, this wouldn't be presented as the right, the correct reading of the poem, it would be presented as another reading of the poem.

[Archive clip: The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats.]

So when the pupils hear Yeats reading it, hopefully you're nudging them, pushing them towards this idea that the sound of the poem is as much about the meaning as the black and white squiggles, on the screen in this case, instead of actually on the page itself.

Julie Blake:

Having spent a day exploring the Poetry Archive, we asked Carol, Wayne, Rebecca and Damian what they most liked about it.

Carol Atherton:

I like the range and the richness of the poems that it gives students access to. There are some fantastically unexpected voices on there, there are some wonderful recordings of Tennyson and Browning, very scratchy recordings, that really bring us these voices from the past.

[Archive clip: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson]

Wayne Spence:

What I like about the Poetry Archive first and foremost is the fact that you can hear poets reading their own poetry. Then, of course you've so many features in the Poetry Archive that are useful. The fact that it's very accessible, they can look for a specific poet, they can look for a specific poem, they can look for a specific theme, and they can look for specific forms.

Carol Atherton:

Also, voices that we might not expect, or people who sound like, people that don't sound the way that we might expect them to. Sylvia Plath, for instance, and Philip Larkin, have voices that we might not have anticipated from the way that we read their work on the page. And often they can hit us in quite unexpected ways.

[Archive clip: The Applicant by Sylvia Plath]

Damian McDonnell:

I would probably be as guilty as the next teacher of falling into the comfort zone with following the same assignments, year on year, on year, at GCSE level, and this I think will inspire me or at least give me more confidence to go out there and find new poetry, poetry that I wouldn't ordinarily have taught before, but poetry that I certainly would be excited about teaching in the future.

Wayne Spence:

The site is well-designed because you allow people (the public, as well as children and teachers) to follow areas of interest and also follow the areas of interest of public figures such as Stephen Fry; you can see what they're interested in, if you like him as public figure. I happen to like him, want to know how his brain ticks, so to actually go in and see how Stephen Fry's mind actually works by reading the poems that really flick a switch for him is an added bonus, it's like a little luxury in itself.

Rebecca White:

We were listening to Billy Collins reading one of his poems and you can hear the laughter of the audience and suddenly it brings it alive to students that people will go and watch poetry being read, that this is something valid...

[Archive clip: You, Reader by Billy Collins]

...that it's not songs without any music and it's flat on the page and dull, it's actually something people enjoy.

Julie Blake:

In addition to the recordings and a wealth of other material about poems and poets, there's a dedicated teachers' area in the Poetry Archive. Here you'll find ideas for individual lessons, longer units of work, guidance on listening in the classroom and advice about how to host a visiting poet. We hope you'll find something to inspire you and your students.