Rebecca Simpson-Hargreaves: Breaking Down Barriers

Poetry… it can feel like some mythical creature that you know is beautiful, but you’re not sure whether reading it will bring you untold treasures or that it will simply cloud your brain, leaving you feeling empty and confused. I’ve always been willing to take that risk, as a child reading as much poetry as I could get my hands on, enjoying the journey. However, I do remember a little moment of hesitation when a teacher I admired insisted we could never truly understand poetry if we did not appreciate classic poets such as Southey (who felt completely unrelatable). Left feeling like I was some kind of charlatan, I was saved by librarians and parents who quietened that teacher’s voice, and my confidence to enjoy poetry once again grew.

The experiences we have in the classroom as children have far reaching implications for us as adults, even more so if we are teachers. The willingness to teach poetry can be a real issue. Not because teachers don’t feel it’s important, but more because they don’t want to ‘let their children down’.  Whether you are experienced or new to the profession, the fear can be very real. The worry of not knowing what the poet was really thinking or feeling can leave us paralysed.

Midnight Feasts, chosen by A F Harrold, Illust; Katy Riddell, Bloomsbury Education.

In my role as a teacher educator I feel excited sharing the world of poetry with my students. When I cast my eyes over their sea of faces, I see some smiles, however the looks of trepidation are far more plentiful. So how do you break that barrier? I always start with a question about how they feel about poetry. If I want them to be able to teach it, they have to understand what could get in the way of them doing it and enjoying it! Year on year their histories all follow the same pattern; poetry experienced in school is usually completely unrelatable to what is going on in their lives and when given the chance to write they are vilified for not following some nonsensical made-up rule. I shudder to think how many hearts are broken by having to add in needless words using a purple polishing pen.

Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha, illust: Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

During the session we look at a wide range of children’s poets’ work, visit subjects that all can relate to such as food or everyday life. A good place to begin are the works of poets such as A F Harrold, our Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho or perhaps the poetry of Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha. Trainees engage in activities that allow them to talk, really, really talk. I’ve yet to encounter a trainee telling me that they love a poem because it has at least three adjectives and an adverb in; it’s all about feelings.

Overheard in a Tower Block, Joseph Coelho, Illust: Kate Milner, Otter-Barry Books

So that is the way in. Just like the importance of having a wide knowledge of children’s literature, the same can be said about poetic forms. We visit lesser-known types such as the Hai (na) ku, a poem that is formed of three lines and only six words (no counting syllables needed). Trainees are encouraged to write alongside their children.

My refrain is that you cannot teach what you have not tried yourself. Children need a poetry rich diet to tempt and inspire them, fill it with music (poetry set to a melody), spoken word, rap, poetry from around the world, the possibilities are endless. Find what speaks to you and your children, what can they relate to? Which poems can open up the world to them? Relationships are fundamental. You don’t have to have a psychic hotline to the poet to ‘get poetry’. It’s all about the connection and that is the true secret to teaching poetry.

Rebecca Simpson-Hargreaves

Rebecca Simpson-Hargreaves is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester. She is passionate about using children’s literature to develop children’s empathy and self-awareness. She enjoys discovering old and global forms of poetry and creating workshops around these for teachers. Her research is centred around facilitating younger children’s voices, particularly in the realm of human rights.