Sunday, 19 August 2012

Making Kids Recite Poems at School

As a writer of children's poetry, one might expect me to be dancing with joy at Michael Gove's announcement that revision of the school curriculum in England would see the introduction of compulsory poetry recital for children. In fact, I was left with the distinctly uneasy feeling that the proposal, although well intentioned, could be horribly damaging.

It may border on heresy, but my view is that teachers are the major obstacle standing between children and a love of poetry. This isn't because teachers aren't capable of delivering engaging lessons which focus on learning and reciting poetry. It's simply that most current teachers' experience of poetry during their own schooldays will have been shackled by studying the classic poets, Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare et al.

If the UK Government is to make the memorising and reciting of poetry  a compulsory activity throughout the school system, it must provide a variety of resources which includes poems by contemporary children's writers and a framework of support so that teachers, including those who don't themselves enjoy poetry, can engage with the subject and enthuse their pupils.

My Own Experience of Reciting Poetry at School

It should be emphasised that my own introduction to reciting poetry at school may be entirely atypical, in that I attended a boys' prep school during the mid-1970s. The subject of poetry never raised its head during 6 years of English  lessons, which were taught by an extremely decrepit master who was already years past retirement age. Pupils were, however, introduced to the 'joys' of English poetry by the classics master.

Aged eight, a Latin lesson was rudely interrupted by the distribution of a selection of classic English poems. I received as copy of Wordsworth's Daffodils which I was instructed to memorise and recite in class two days hence. I was a bright child, but not particularly self-confident. The prospect of memorising the poem held no terrors - indeed it was the sort of school where learning by rote was highly prized and we'd already been required to learn the books of the Bible, the Kings and Queens of England and Pi to 30 decimal places. The thought of having to recite a poem in front of a class of my peers was a less appealing prospect.

It's tempting to relate the episode as something that scarred me for life, but the reality is that I remember nothing of the performance itself. I can say with some certainty that as a boy whose main interests at the time were rugby, James Bond and matchbox cars, I didn't connect on an intellectual level with this strange poem in which some wandering loner delights in finding a clump of daffodils. Indeed I'd go so far as to say it instilled a life long hatred of both daffodils and William Wordsworth. It might also have put me off poetry for life, but my interest was rekindled through the medium of parody five years later by a classics master at a different school, which is story for another time.

The Virtues of Poetry Recitation

I  would agree that there are benefits to children learning and reciting poetry, but I'm not convinced the benefits are universal or that school is necessarily the best places for such activities. However, most of the claimed benefits:
  • Enhancement of the memory
  • Development of linguistic skills
  • Building analytical and critical skills
  • Honing presentational skills
  • Acquiring self-confidence
  • A sense of achievement
would accrue whether children are required to memorise a poem, a piece of prose or the proverbial laundry list.  I therefore advocate introducing children first to contemporary poetry, which is built around themes, language and cultural references to which relate directly to their life experiences. If children are engaged by poetry they will explore the poetic highways and byways in their own time and at their own pace, discovering the delights (or horrors) of classic poetry for themselves. The proposed Gove approach of introducing school children to poetry through reciting classic poems could undermine a love of poetry for a whole generation of children.

To misquote wildly, 'the past is another country and it's poetry is seriously weird'.