The NETs interviewed for this publication use poetry as an
integral part of their teaching programmes. Though the NETs
teach in very different contexts, they all believe that poetry is
beneficial for their students.
The NET: Mary Roberts
Mary has taught in Hong Kong since February, 1999 and enjoys teaching Hong Kong students.
She believes that the students here are very different from, but also very similar to, those she taught in Australia and England. Mary believes that all students have their own hopes and dreams, fears, likes and dislikes. Mary says that when you get to know local students they seem to be saying the same types of things as students elsewhere: they like to be listened to, they like to be valued, they like to have friends and they like to have the support of their
The NET on Poetry:
Why do you use poetry in your classroom?
There are a quite a few reasons. The two that seem to be the most important now are: poetry is in the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) and poetry is included in the Elective Part of the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum. For me though, one of the most important reasons to use poetry in the classroom is to make the students aware of the types of writing that are not rigidly bound by the rules of grammar. I want to show the students that there are beautiful ways of expressing ideas and interesting ways of making comparisons over and above the strict grammatical ways of doing these things. Poetry opens up the students’ minds to different ways of using language. If they can understand poetry it means that they can better understand other people’s ideas. The students learn how to express their own ideas in more creative ways as they are exposed to a whole new creative aspect of the English language.
You mentioned that some forms of poetry have a flexible approach to the use of grammar. Do you see this as positive or negative?
I think that one of the problems with the general way that English is taught in Hong Kong is that textbooks give the idea that there is only one way to answer a question.
Showing the students the ways some poets bend the rules of English to achieve a special effect shows the students that often there are vast differences between textbook models of language and ‘real’ literature. This shows that language has so many rich ways to express ideas and feelings. After the students become familiar with various poetry techniques an interesting exercise is to ask them: ‘Why is the word order different?’ ‘Why do you think the writer said it in that way?’ Asking questions like these can lead the students to understand all sorts of things like why they need to stress particular words to give a particular feeling or meaning. This can lead them to different ways of looking at things. It can also provide a great stimulus for writing, thinking and discussion.
Is it difficult to get Hong Kong students interested in poetry?
When I came to this school and realised that I had the flexibility to use poetry with the students - even though poems weren’t part of the syllabus or in the textbooks - I started buying poetry textbooks for myself. After using a poem in class, I would then show the students the book where the poem came from. I would tell the students that there were many other good poems in the book and that if anyone would like to borrow the book, they would be most welcome. When I did this I very seldom walked out of the classroom carrying that book. The students were very keen to read more poems like the one that we had studied. What was great about this was that the students who borrowed the book then read more poems and recommended their favourite poems to other students. You could see that this process really helped those students develop a better vocabulary. These students also became more able to generate ideas and participate in group discussions.
How important is it to have the support of the English Panel Chair when you wish to use poetry in the classroom?
As with anything new in the classroom, it is important to be able to show tangible results. You need to show how the students use the poems and how the poems can be used as stimulus for something else. Of course you need to show how the poetry is related to the rest of the work you are doing. For example, I have found this year with my S1 students, that using poetry relates perfectly to their phonics programme.
As the phonics programme we are using depends upon the students having an understanding of rhyme, we gave each class a few lessons involving simple rhyming poetry. This helped with phonics and it also helped the students develop a knowledge of why and how poets used rhyme in their poems. Through this process everyone could see the benefits of using poetry, so the support of the Panel Chair was assured.
It must also be remembered that poetry is now a necessary component of the curriculum, so it can no longer be considered as ‘icing on the cake’. Poetry must be integrated into the learning programme. No matter what kind of unit you are doing, you can find poems on the same topic and at the students’ level. Poetry books and poetry websites are fantastic for finding the ‘right’ poems.
Poetry must be integrated into the English language learning programme.
Poetry is a necessary component of the
Are there are any barriers for local teachers who want to use poems in their classes?
It’s not just some local teachers who are worried about using poetry in the classroom. I’ve always loved teaching poetry and, even when I was teaching in Australia and England, many of my colleagues didn’t like teaching poetry. I think many teachers are scared of not having definite answers. They are scared of the times when students ask questions about a poem and it is very difficult to give a definite answer. But for me this is a great opportunity to help develop the students’
critical awareness by turning the question back on them and asking them ‘Well, what do you think?’ We need to get across the notion that poems can have more than one meaning. This is a great way of getting the students to really use the English language and engage in some problem solving.
How do you introduce poetry to a class?
One of the easiest units to find poems about is Animals. This is a very common unit in the junior school. It is easy to find a lot of funny poems about animals and pets. If the students can get a laugh out of English and if they can understand a joke written in the poetic form, this gives them a great feeling of achievement. These processes show that the students are using English at a higher level than just completing exercises in a textbook.
When I teach Form 3, I have at least one poem that fits in with every unit of work.
The poem adds something extra to each unit of work. It may introduce a funny idea or lead the students to explore the feelings of the characters involved. Each poem has something different to say or views a topic from a new perspective. There is a specific purpose behind each poem introduced.
In the literature section of the Form 5 course, I’ve been able to include a couple of poems with the purpose of reinforcing the ideas and concepts that the students encounter in the short stories they read or in the films they view. The students were able to discuss the concepts developed through these different genres as a pre- school-based assessment (SBA) exercise.
We need to get across the notion that poems can have more than one meaning.
I choose poems that are easy to understand
and with a minimum of new vocabulary.
You are working in a school where the students’ level of English is not very high. How do you go about selecting poems for your lessons?
Well, I keep it simple. I choose poems that are easy to understand and with a minimum of new vocabulary. I try to choose poems with lots of rhyme and rhythm as the students really enjoy those poetic aspects to do with sound. I also try to choose poems with something striking about them – like a funny idea. An example is the lovely poem where a child really wants a keep a pet but his mother has a reason for not keeping a whole selection of traditional pets like a dog or a cat. In the last verse, the child wonders what objection his mother will have to the pet he has decided to bring home – a snake.
What are the problems associated with using poetry in the classroom?
The only one I can think of is the fact that it is new - different. But, of course, we hope that this will change in the future. It is great now that in primary school students are encountering poems and Big Books. These students will then come into secondary school with positive experiences of learning English.
Big Book sharing gives children the experience of interpreting text and having those individual opinions valued. This hasn’t really happened that much with our current secondary school students. Discussing and interpreting poems will get easier for both the teacher and the students the more they are exposed to it. Because of our crowded curriculum there isn’t a great deal of time allowed for discussion and opinion sharing. Using poetry helps to reinforce the notion that your opinion is your own and, as long as you can support it, it is a valid response. This of course leads to the idea of valuing multiple interpretations of the same poem. We also need to be aware that not everyone will like the same poem. It is acceptable for a student to say that a particular poem really means nothing to them.
I try to choose poems with lots of rhyme and rhythm as students enjoy those poetic aspects to do with sound.
Discussing and interpreting poems will get
easier for both the teacher and the students
the more that they are exposed to it.
How important is it for students to write their own poetry?
Writing poetry is a wonderful learning activity. It helps the students refine their ideas and realise that there are all sorts of ways to use English. The students also become aware of different ways of expressing their feelings and attitudes. Writing poetry also makes students more aware of different grammatical constructions.
The process I usually go through when I want students to write poems is to model the process in front of the class. I start with a fairly easy topic like an animal poem.
A useful way to begin is using stimulus like a picture. If I have a picture of an elephant then I would write up the beginning of an elephant poem on the board:
Then I ask the students to help me fill in the blanks. The students are very happy to participate in this sort of process. So, very soon, we have a large number of words and creative ideas flying around the classroom. Sight comparisons seem to be the easiest for most of our students but, in follow-up lessons, you can extend that to other senses such as touch and sound. I believe that it’s important that students believe that what they see, feel and touch can be expressed in their poetry writing. It is the things that individual students experience when voiced that makes their writing unique.
An elephant has a trunk as long as a fire hose.
It has skin like ______________________________.
It has legs like _______________________________.
Its tail is like a ______________________________.
Writing poetry is a wonderful learning
activity. It helps students refine their ideas
and realise that there are all sorts of ways to
use English. It also helps the students become
aware of different grammatical constructions.
The NET: Tina Engelbogen
After more than 20 years teaching secondary boys in Melbourne, Tina Engelbogen came in 2004 to Yu Chun Keung Memorial College No.2 (YCK2), a secondary boys’ school, in Chi Fu, Hong Kong.
The NET on Poetry:
At YCK2, I was very fortunate to find colleagues who were willing to collaborate, experiment and share resources. We have spent three years building up Language Arts awareness and practice. It has been a gradual evolution. Despite the low English levels of many of our students; film studies, drama, English songs, short stories and poetry have become part of the culture of ‘what we do in our school’. When I first arrived, only hand-picked individual competitors took part in the
Hong Kong Schools Speech Festival poetry recital. In both 2005 and 2006, my colleagues confidently trained and entered class groups in the competition. The Pied Piper of Hamelin has piped his way through many an assembly and school show.
Our boys love the musical quality of poetry.
Traditionally, during our English Week, all Form 1 to 3 classes had always been drilled to compete by reciting an identical poem. It was a dull experience for audiences, and the results were always predictable – the top stream always won, and the lowest stream was humiliated. The English Panel’s other nod towards the poetic was in junior students memorising tongue twisters (good for learning alliteration and assonance) and writing such English slogans as I Love English/English is the Best. I initially used this as a way of teaching simple metaphors, combined with artwork, such as English is a Key to Learning and English has many Roots and Branches.
In 2004, we introduced drama as a way of helping junior students enjoy speaking English and opening up their appreciation of English reading, ‘from the inside’. We emphasised making meaning through stress, pausing and intonation, to express emotion and conflict. Concurrently, we introduced phonics, which raised students’
awareness of decoding letters into sounds and the enjoyment of rhyme. Drama and phonics survived.
Despite the low English levels of many of our students, film studies, drama, English songs, short stories and poetry have become part of the culture of ‘what we do in our school’.
In our 2006/7 we changed our Junior Form Reading Programme to a combination of theme-based readers for Forms 1 and 2 and selected SBA texts for Form 3. This ensured that students encountered many text types: fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry. They completed a guided study of a single text every lesson, which sustained their interest. Related films and other texts were also introduced, where appropriate. For this year’s English Week, each class learned and performed its own individual poem. Boys always appreciate humour, a mainstay of much of the poetry written for teenagers.
One of our classes gave an hilarious performance of Spaghetti by Frank Flynn while another class amused us all with Crocodile Alphabet. The lowest Form 3 stream entertained us with the rhyme and repetition of Paul Cookson’s Trick or Treat. Another winner was the Form 3 rendition of TV Rap by Bernard Young. I selected and even wrote poetry (Dogs and Fireworks), appropriate to the lower streams. The students felt proud to present a polished, interesting performance and to surprise the audience. Each class received a prize. For a NET, it is not difficult to write one’s own simple poems to suit any language level.
But what is Poetry? We know it often includes sound and special shaping; it involves experiences, thoughts and feelings; it often has a special meaning. The English Romantic poet Wordsworth spoke of a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ and ‘recollection in tranquility’. Keats and the great German poet Goethe believed that Poetry was ‘Truth’. Hong Kong poet Martin Alexander, compares reading poems to hunting wild animals! While Shakespeare in his Sonnet 18, hoped that his ‘lines to time’ could grant eternal life to someone he loved.
British educationist Professor James Britton studied the link between language and child cognitive and social development from the 1970s to the 1990s. In Language and Learning, he published an influential theory on the purposes of language use, and identified crucial links between the Expressive (closest to speech), through the Transactional (with a focus on connecting to the reader), to the Poetic (where the writer shapes his own thoughts and feelings for himself). We generally help our students to achieve the first two, but how do we provide opportunities for the third vital purpose?
A good way to lead students into reading poetry is to teach them how to write their own poems.
The boys love the musical quality of poetry.
A good way to lead students into reading poetry is to teach them how to write their own poems. This year the Government initiative Action Blue Sky gave rise to a poetry competition on anti-pollution and conservation, which are familiar topics for Hong Kong students. Our Form 1 and 2 classes all wrote simple, rhyming poems, based on such rhyming pairs as ‘pollution/solution’, ‘skies/realise’.
The first thing that our students always say when the teacher reads or recites English poetry is that “it sounds like music”. In 2004/5, I taught some Halloween raps from the Jazz Chants series. There was enthusiastic tapping, clapping, finger clicking and foot stamping - the louder, the better! The students enjoyed the novelty and quickly memorised the chorus. Every Tuesday at YCK2, we have an English Assembly followed by an English song broadcast with a printed page of lyrics and questions. Old folk songs like Puff the Magic Dragon work well, and the students remember snatches of them. Another sound element that our students enjoy is onomatopoeia. Some nice examples that we have learned are in Windy Nights by Rodney Bennett, The Monster by Jean Kenward, Until I Saw the Sea by Lilian Moore, Sampan by Tao Lang Pee and The Shooting Stars by James Carter.
More recently, knowing that many boys are into Hip Hop and Rap, I wrote a couple of Rap poems. As my classes always expect, I teach them to tap or clap out the rhythm. In Street Beat, I embedded a little storyline about community, which the students only picked up in later discussion. My husband composed a simple ‘rap’
MP3 sound loop. The class then performed their tailor-made rap to their own musical accompaniment. Because we now have a few girls in one class, I wrote A Girl’s Best Friend, with its hidden message. Also in simple duple time, it could be performed to the same sound track.
* All the poems referred to in this article can be found using the search engine/website:
The first thing that our students always say when the teacher reads or recites English poetry is that ‘it sounds like music’.
There’s no need to be afraid of teaching
metaphor as it is rooted in everyday
There’s no need to be afraid of teaching metaphor, as it is firmly rooted in everyday experience. In The Dark, James Carter very simply likens our fear of the dark to that of a dangerous dog, ‘It doesn’t bite and it doesn’t bark, Or chase old ladies in the park …’. At the other end of the spectrum, the sophisticated moral metaphor ‘Let mercy come and wash away all that I’ve done’ in the popular Linkin Park song What I’ve Done can be accessed by matching the words to the images in the video clip.
This song is also very instructive for a more subtle understanding of stance, where ‘I’
represents all humanity, as my Form 3 students recently observed.
If your school is lucky enough to host a poet, be sure to select the right audience.
Recently, the British Council sponsored a visit to HK schools, by the dub poet*, Levi Tafari. All of our S3 students attended the performance, but fewer than half could successfully follow the lively performance. Many said he spoke too fast for them to follow. They were impressed by his cool appearance and macho demeanour, so at least they now know what a poet looks and sounds like! Next time we’ll do better. Our top F3 English group enjoyed the visit and gained from the follow-up group writing exercise.
We must be aware of the danger of ‘institutionalising’ Poetry and Language Arts, and holding them captive within the new syllabus. By its very nature, exposure to Poetry should be a liberating experience. Remember the battle for the hearts and minds of the boys in Dead Poets’ Society? Let’s try to constantly nourish and refresh our own and our colleagues’ appreciation. Read, write and listen to poetry of every sort, and share your experiences at English Panel meetings!
Can we find meaningful connections to Chinese poetry? This year, our lowest Form 2 English stream learned the very accessible translation of Only the Moon by Wong May. Chinese poetry is rich with the sounds of language, rhyme and rhythm and thousands of years of inherited imagery from nature and history. It is possible for senior students to find connections between English and Chinese poetic sensibilities.
For last year’s Hong Kong Schools Speech Festival, I trained an S6 boy to recite the prescribed English translation of a T’ang Dynasty Chinese poem. It was filled with the poet’s pathos and yearning for his distant homeland, his glorious past, and his long- dead friends. I helped the student to research the poet and his life and to read the poem in Chinese. He derived more from the investigation than the actual recital.
Already a sensitive writer of highly personal poetry, he connected with the nostalgic pain of the ancient poet, as if with a friend. This is the ultimate value that we hope our students will gain in their experience of poetry.
* a dub poet writes poems which are spoken over a reggae beat. This type of poetry originated in Jamaica.
We must be aware of the danger of
‘institutionalising’ Poetry and Language Arts
and holding them captive within the new
syllabus. By its very nature, exposure to Poetry
should be a liberating experience.
The NET: Sue Diskin
Sue has taught in Hong Kong for seven years. She taught for five years at St Paul’s Convent School. Sue is currently teaching at Tsang Pik Shan Secondary School. Even though these schools are different, with students of very different abilities, Sue has found teaching poetry a rewarding experience in both schools.
The NET on Poetry:
Has poetry been part of your lessons at both of your schools?
Yes. I started doing poetry at my first school as the students were very good at English and many of them needed extending in all sorts of ways. Poetry became part of this extension programme.
I first started using poetry after reading one of Mike Murphy’s poems, Bird Street, with a class. The students responded well to the poem and went on to write their own poems about special Hong Kong places. I was impressed by both the quality of these poems and the students’ positive responses towards writing them.
At Tsang Pik Shan Secondary School the students are not as strong in English.
However, I see no reason why they too cannot read and write poetry. I use poetry here for two reasons. The first is preparation for the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) and the coming New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum. Both of these mean that our students need to be exposed to poetry. The second reason is that poems are often quite short and lower ability students are more willing to engage with a text when there aren’t so many words on the page. The students also react well when they are told that in some forms of poetry, grammatical rules are more flexible than in other forms of writing.
How do you go about introducing poetry?
I start off by introducing short poems, such as haiku and acrostics, and then move on to teach students how to write poems of their own. Even the very weak students can be successful in writing these types of poems and this really improves their self- esteem.
Acrostics are a great place to start - they can
be short but are still very expressive and
Acrostics are a great place to start as they can be short but are still very expressive and personal. You can start with the students’ names or the names of their friends. I have found that even students in the lowest English ability groups enjoy doing acrostics.
Next I usually introduce haiku. In addition to being very short, haiku are popular as students tend to consider anything Japanese as trendy. The fact that haiku are very structured, with a fixed number of lines and syllables per line, can actually help the students by limiting their selection of vocabulary. As long as you go through the process of writing a haiku step by step – counting out syllables – then the students get a great deal of satisfaction writing their own haiku. After acrostics and haiku I usually move on to shape poems which are also popular with students.
How do the students react when you tell them that the lesson will be on poetry?
I don’t usually introduce poems that way. Initially, I might show them a poem to arouse their interest. The theme of the poem might be connected with what they are studying in their textbook, or it might be something that I think would appeal to their age group, for example, food, pets or colours. Then we read the poem and discuss certain elements of it before the students move on to write their own poems.
When I’m doing rap poetry I introduce a topic and then we brainstorm ideas around this topic. These ideas are then used to write a class poem. At this stage, the teacher can introduce concepts such as alliteration and rhyme.
Using rap in the classroom is very useful as I have found that students really like it.
They enjoy the repetition and the rhythm. One thing to remember is that the rap being studied needs to be slow enough for the students to keep up, especially if they are going to sing along. In addition, using rap allows some very shy, quiet students to become performers.
Using rap in the classroom is very useful as I have found that the students really like it.
They enjoy the repetition and the rhythm.
Publishing students’ poems not only has a
positive effect on the student writer, it also has
a positive spin-off effect on the writer’s peers.
Is publishing student poems important?
Yes, very. In the past, I’ve published student anthologies and they were very well received. Here, we publish the students’ poems in the English Corner or on school notice boards. We also join external competitions and have sent samples of student work for inclusion in rap and other poetry collections. It is important for the students to see that their work is valued. They feel very proud when they see their work published.
Publishing students’ poems not only has a positive effect on the student writer, it also has a positive spin-off effect on the writer’s peers. Students often find it easier to relate to the thoughts and ideas of their peers than those of published adult poets. The published model writing can motivate other students to express their thoughts and feelings through poems.
Do your colleagues express any reservations about teaching poetry?
The biggest single problem seems to be that they have done very little teaching of poetry in the past. This year I have been co-teaching with some of my colleagues and this has helped them become more confident about teaching poetry. There is also the backwash effect of the TSA. Teachers now need to be able to teach students to recognise the meta-language of poems. For example, words such as
‘onomatopoeia’ and ‘alliteration’ may appear in the exam paper so our students need to know what these terms mean.
How do you select poems for students of low English ability?
Sometimes with great difficulty! It can be hard to find a poem that is simple enough to be understood, that will still appeal to students of lower secondary age and that also includes some of the poetic devices that they are expected to learn for the TSA. You also need to be careful to choose poems which are within the experience of the students, which is why I use some of the poems written by Mike Murphy. He is a local poet and many of his poems have Hong Kong references. I have also used poems based on themes which the students are familiar with, such as food, animals and colours or special events like Christmas, Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinese
Teachers need to be able to teach students to recognise the meta-language of poems.
Students often find it easier to relate to the
thoughts and ideas of their peers than those of
published adult poets.
Is there a place for collaborative writing in poetry lessons?
Yes, definitely. I really don’t think you could ask our students just to go away and write a poem. There needs to be some sort of scaffolding, some stepping stones leading to independent writing. First I would introduce a poem, topic or a theme to the students. Then we would brainstorm vocabulary related to that poem, topic or theme. Next we would use these words and our ideas to write a class poem. I feel that it is very useful for the students to get the sense of achievement from writing a poem in the first lesson. Once they have had some success, it becomes something that we can build upon and makes it easier for them to write independently and to create other poems on their own. Another way for students to collaborate is by doing peer reviews of each other’s work. This, together with the teacher’s feedback, can be used to create the final product - a published poem!
Are there any other important reasons to use poetry in the classrooms?
We’ve found that it links in very well with phonics. One aspect of poetry we emphasise is rhyme which is something many of our students find very difficult to hear. So poetry and phonics can work together to help them have better pronunciation and spelling. The students really respond well when they are able to hear the rhyme and ‘music’ in a poem.
Finally, I’d like to stress that the enjoyment factor is very important. I’ve found that when the students are happy and taking pleasure in their writing, they were learning much more efficiently and effectively. The students enjoy their poetry lessons and therefore, their work improves.
Collaborative poetry writing Introduce a topic that interests the students
Brainstorm vocabulary associated with the topic
Use the vocabulary and other ideas to write a class poem
Students write an individual poem or a small group poem
Peer review and publication of poems
There needs to be some scaffolding, some
stepping stones leading to independent writing.
The NET: Matthew Lye
Matthew has been teaching at SKH Bishop Baker Secondary School for nine years. He is the Form 2 English Coordinator and teaches two Form 2 classes and oral classes for Forms 4 and 5. Matthew works closely with the rest of the English Panel. During this interview the English Panel Chair (EPC), Ms Wu, willingly contributed her views on using poetry in the classroom.
The NET & English Panel Chair on Poetry:
When did Poetry first become part of the school English programme?
EPC: At the beginning of the year we decided that poetry should become a formal component of the English curriculum. I wanted to get away from the idea that only those teachers who like poetry used it in class so I started to encourage a wider use of poetry. This is important as soon School-based Assessment (SBA) will become a formal component of school assessment practices. Three years ago, we started introducing a new poem to the students every year at every level. From that beginning, we have been integrating poetry into the curriculum in a more systematic way. An important aspect of our programme is resource sharing between the panel members. Resource sharing helps to overcome the ‘scared feeling’ many staff have when they need to use poetry in the classroom.
What is it that frightens local teachers about poetry?
EPC: Some teachers feel as though they don’t know how to teach poetry while others feel that poems are difficult to understand. Still others think that it is only the literature-trained teachers who can teach poetry. I try to convince teachers that everyone can enjoy poetry. We have found that many fears can be overcome by resource sharing and collaborative lesson planning.
NET: Some local teachers have the same sort of fear of poetry as some teachers back in Australia. At times, poems are not obvious and this can lead to fear. Poems can be mysterious and a little inaccessible and this can lead to a lack of understanding. Sometimes in poetry the rules of grammar do not apply and this can worry some teachers and students. It is important that when this happens the teachers feel supported by the English Panel Chair and the school administration.
Matthew Lye and Ms Wu
Resource sharing helps to overcome the ‘scared
feeling’ many teachers have when they need to
You value the process of resource sharing very highly. How does this process happen in your school?
EPC: It happens within each Form Panel and then across Form Panels. Teachers need to share resources not only with the other teachers of the same form level but also across form levels. We have set up a section on our Intranet where resources can be shared.
NET: As a Form Coordinator, you get to know the strengths and the weaknesses of your teachers. You build on the strengths and help teachers to develop the skills and knowledge to overcome the weaknesses. Sharing is very much a two-way process where all teachers are constantly building on their skills. I have learnt from local teachers. One of the Form 1 teachers told me how she used poems as a basis for phonics activities. I hadn’t thought of using poetry like that before. This really shows the value of resource sharing and collaborative lesson planning.
A process of resource sharing really does help to break down any fears and barriers.
If you’re working in a school which doesn’t encourage resource sharing and a decision is made where all teachers must include poetry in their teaching, some teachers could be left in a huge vacuum.
On a formal level, resource sharing is done during form level meetings and at full panel meetings. But, resource sharing is not just a formal process. Informal resource sharing is also very important. This often happens during our collaborative lesson planning sessions. Also, part of our formal staff development programme is taken up by resource sharing.
How do you go about selecting poems for use in class?
NET: It depends very much on the class. One of the special features of poetry is that it can be very flexible, though you do need to try to choose a poem which has some relevance to the students. The poem’s topic, context and concepts all need to be within the experience of the students. If you use the same poem with students of different abilities, you can just focus on different aspects of the poem with each group.
Resource sharing is not just a formal process.
Informal resource sharing is also very important.
The poem’s topic, context and concepts all need
to be within the experience of the students.
EPC: The TSA and the NSS have sent teachers the very clear message that poetry needs to be part of English language learning programmes. At the school-based level, we let every teacher know that poems will be part of the English tests in Forms 1, 2 and 3 and then the backwash effect ensures that poems become part of every class learning programme.
What else is important in your English language learning programme?
NET: A very important process is you need to evaluate everything you do very thoroughly, not just in a robotic way but in an honest, reflective way. This is a process where you ask yourself if something is working or not working. If it’s not working, then you attempt to fix it. Our theme is reflective learning and this is illustrated by the fact that what we did in poetry last year is very different from what we will do this year. Through this reflective process we are constantly revising and updating our resources.
EPC: Participation in the Hong Kong Schools Speech Festival and other competitions is very important. The more students are involved in these types of events and the more teachers are involved in training and coaching, the more that poetry becomes part of the normal school routine. We need to remember that poetry is not just for reading and writing but it is also for reading aloud and sharing.
NET: One of the benefits of participating in competitions is the students develop a knowledge of poetic devices like personification, metaphor and simile. Then these students become resources. The students who enter the Hong Kong Schools Speech Festival simply because they love poems are a positive influence on other students.
What are other reasons for teaching poetry?
EPC: When students are labouring with grammar, then poetry can act as a bridge as poetry can have fewer rules than other forms of English writing. The content can be very personal and this aspect is often very appealing to the shyer students. Poetry is
Poetry writing gives the students space to be creative. Creativity in written expression needs to be valued to the same extent as accuracy.
We need to remember that poetry is not just for
reading and writing but it is also for reading
aloud and sharing.
NET: Students love the idea of a form of writing that frees up the constraints found in other genres. So much of our students’ written work is marked for accuracy of language use whereas poetry writing gives the students more space to be creative.
Creativity in written expression needs to be valued to the same extent as accuracy.
Poetry can also help to change established practices. As poetry is sometimes avoided, by using it and showing how much the students love it and by sharing high quality student work, we can help change the attitude and practice of some of our colleagues.
How do you begin to teach poetry with a class?
NET: First, I like to introduce the students to poetry that they can instantly relate to. In Form 2 we do that through the topic of being a teenager. Then we move on to teach the basic elements of poetry - the poetic techniques. We try to develop within our students a critical awareness of the use of rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, simile, imagery and metaphor.
Next, I introduce poetry appreciation along with the idea that each poem can have multiple interpretations. This idea that we can all have different reactions to the same poem helps to ease the fear that some people have of poetry.
EPC: At the start you need to grab the students’ interest. You need to expose them to a number of different forms and types of poems. The poems need to be within the experience of the students. I don’t introduce the poetic terminology too early as I just want the students to experience the poems and develop a sense of poetry. Sharing with classmates is very important at this stage.
How do you integrate poetry into the curriculum?
NET: Well, it needs to be in all of the four key learning areas. Students need to read, hear, speak and write poems. Also the use of poetry needs to happen often enough for it to be seen as part of the normal school programme. I want to stress the importance of students reading their own poems, their classmates’ poems and other poems aloud and the importance of publishing/displaying student poems. These are all very powerful motivators.
The idea that we can all have different reactions to the same poem helps to ease the fear that some people have of poetry.
The use of poetry needs to happen often
enough for it to be seen as part of the normal
The NET: David Johncock
David Johncock is from Torbay in the southwest of England. He has been teaching in Hong Kong since 1996 and has been the NET at Marymount Secondary School in Happy Valley since 1998.
The NET on Poetry
‘Poetry’ is a word that frightens many students and even some teachers. I think some people associate it with classic writers whose style is grand, imposing
and inaccessible to all but a privileged few. To my mind, this is a very unfortunate state of affairs. To help students develop an ‘ear’ for the English language, they need to be exposed to verse and song as early as possible and as often as possible. Long before students have to confront any of the formal terminology of poetic devices, the classroom should be a place where they can enjoy hearing and producing rhythm and rhyme.
For younger students and for those who are less confident with reading and spoken English, picture books which make use of alliteration, assonance, repetition, rhythm and rhyme are invaluable. Our school uses a wonderful set of readers which systematically introduces progressively more complex spelling patterns through very short stories which use alliteration and rhyme, with titles such as The Hairy Bear Scare and The Tip Top Chip Shop. Dr Seuss is also wonderful to read out loud, although the illustrations can be a little dated. Then there’s Julia Donaldson with books like The Gruffalo, Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book and The Magic Paintbrush.
Once students are able to read books like these comfortably on their own and are able to take pleasure in the sound patterns of verse - without necessarily being able to identify or analyse those patterns - the next step might be to get them to think of their own examples of alliteration or rhyme and to use these as the starting point for writing simple lyrics.
To help students develop an ‘ear’ for the
English language, they need to be exposed to
verse and song as early as possible and as often
Providing students with a structure – a specific form they have to use when writing – may seem restrictive, but can actually help them as it can give them a scaffold within which to develop their ideas. This might begin with students just providing the rhymes or suggesting a line to complete a couplet. Then they could move on to short poems such as limericks and haiku. For example, students can be given the first line of a limerick, together with blank spaces to indicate each syllable of the rest of the poem, and they can work together to fill the gaps. I like to give them an example of my own writing to show that you don’t have to be Edward Lear to write limericks:
Are limericks hard to compose?
For some folks they are, I suppose It can take lots of time
To think of a rhyme
And to stick to the rhythm, which goes:
Dee-dum-dee dee-dum-dee dee-dah Dee-dum-dee dee-dum-dee dee-dah
Dee-dum-dee dee-dum-dee dee-dah.
But once you’ve perfected this rhythm If your friends ask for poems, you’ll give ‘em A limerick or two
(It’s not hard to do)
And if they’re no good, you’ll outlive ‘em.
Then once they’re familiar with the form, they get the template:
There once was a _____ _____ called ______
Who said _____ / _____ _____ _____ / _____ ______
_____ _____ ____ / _____ _____
_____ _____ ____ / _____ _____
and now _____ / _____ _____ _____ / _____ ______ .
For younger students and for those who are
less confident with reading and spoken
English, picture books which make use of
alliteration, assonance, repetition, rhythm and
rhyme are invaluable.
Having to write something which fits into a structure such as this can make students think carefully about syllables and stress patterns in words, about what rhymes and what doesn’t. Students will need to think about finding alternative words and phrases to convey an idea when the first words that come to mind can’t be squeezed into the framework of the poem. Of course, this is not the kind of exercise that you should use with students who are completely new to poetry, but it can be a useful way of reminding an older, advanced class to be sensitive to the sounds of language. I’ve even used this kind of fill-in-the-blanks template with stressed syllables indicated by a bold line to get S6 Literature students to write sonnets. I figured that if they were going to have to study Shakespeare’s sonnets, having their own experience of writing sonnets would give them a bit of an inside perspective. I started by giving them this advice in verse:
What do you need to be a sonneteer?
A sense of rhythm: “DUM dee DUM dee DAH”
Without this gift your poetry career Stands little chance of going very far.
You must have metre, too. Keep each line neat By checking that it’s not too short or long–
Ten syllables in five iambic feet
Should do the trick to help you build your song.
A rhyming scheme will come in handy, too Such as: ABAB CDCD
EFEF GG – that ought to do!
It worked for Shakespeare and it works for me.
The final couplet should be quite a blast Since sonnets always save the best till last.
Long before students have to confront any of the formal terminology of poetic devices, the classroom should be a place where they can enjoy hearing and producing rhythm and rhyme.
Providing students with a structure may
seem restrictive, but can actually help them
as it can give them a scaffold within which to
develop their ideas.
Aside from writing poems, I ask the older students to do a wide range of creative work to help develop their analytical skills. One exercise I set for a particularly able F. 3 class involved reading Andrew Marvell’s seduction poem To His Coy Mistress.
Mid-17th Century lyric poetry might not seem like the obvious choice for the Hong Kong classroom, but it didn’t take the students long to figure out that beneath the mock-heroic formality of the poem there was the voice of a particularly nasty, violent sexual predator. After some fairly straightforward analysis of the imagery and of how the structure of the poem contributed to its pace and tone, I set the students the challenge of writing a reply from the coy mistress.
Another exciting exercise involved asking F. 6 students to find pop or rock videos on the Internet which explored similar themes to the sonnets they were studying. As we read My love is as a fever longing still / For that which longer nurseth the disease we got to watch Bon Jovi performing Bad Medicine, a song which says essentially the same thing as the sonnet. Another sonnet inspired students to play and discuss the video of J. Lo’s Love Don’t Cost A Thing.
Teaching F. 6 Literature in English, I have had lots of opportunities to break through students’ idealistic preconceptions about poetry. I focus particularly on developing students’ awareness of ambiguity. In reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in particular students have been at first shocked but later entertained by having the opportunity to uncover Shakespeare’s bawdy humour and his openness to taboo subjects.