5 Strategies for Teaching Pupils to Write Poetry

For younger students, writing poetry is an engaging and inventive classroom activity – less daunting than a short story, and with more options for experimentation and play. I also find junior classes eager to read their work out loud, which helps develop confidence and public speaking skills. Unfortunately, when pupils reach the senior stages poetry becomes something to be read and studied, rather than a genre they feel comfortable writing in. This is partly due to dire warnings about the SQA’s procedures for assessing poetry, and also because poetry becomes, at around age 14, deeply uncool in the eyes of teenagers. Nevertheless, I have had success in class with the following strategies, which spark the interest of students and allow them to write compelling, appealing poetry of their own.

Rhyming with the Burns Stanza

Asking pupils to write their own odes recreating this simple, repetitive structure focuses their attention on the creation of rhythm

When pupils encounter Robert Burns for the first time in class, they tend to spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to decipher and understand the Scots vocabulary they are unfamiliar with. While this focus on promoting Scots is admirable and beneficial, I feel we sometimes neglect to look at something potentially more accessible for pupils: the structure of Burns’ work. The form which has become known as the Burns Stanza was used in his most famous work, 'To a Mouse'. It follows a punchy AAABAB rhyme, with potential for humour and drama. I have found that asking pupils to write their own odes, recreating this simple, repetitive structure focuses their attention on rhyme schemes, the syllables in each line and the creation of rhythm. Learning about these techniques is equally, or potentially, more useful than memorising the meanings of archaic words that pupils are unlikely to use often.

Anthropomorphism

This is one of my favourite features in any form of writing, and it works wonderfully when pupils write their own poems. I recently used this strategy whilst studying Brian McCabe’s poem 'Seagulls', which personifies the eponymous birds as violent hooligans with a complete disregard for human society. The attitude of the gulls comes through strongly in the poem, and McCabe uses a range of simple yet effective techniques that students can replicate. My students loved the idea of inhabiting the mind of another creature, and were able to produce some excellent poems from the points of view of tigers, horses and unicorns. The key to them really getting to grips with the task is for them to identify and plan what sort of attitude they are going to give their animal – how, essentially, they are going to personify them. For older students, Edwin Morgan’s 'Jaguar' might be a good alternative to use as a model.

'The Loch Ness Monster’s Song'

They can choose their own inarticulate beasts – bears, worms, zombies – to write about. I have seen some truly unexpected, animated readings from pupils who would never normally volunteer

I love playing with pupils’ expectations of this poem. I set up the class with my most solemn tone of voice and mannerisms; jotters open, pupils sitting quietly, prepared to make notes. I inform students that we are about to listen to an incredibly important and complex poem, and develop their expectations for a seriously boring lesson. However, as soon as the audio file of 'The Loch Ness Monster’s Song' begins to play, their enjoyment and appreciation of this weird-sounding poem is evident. Once they have heard it a few times, and discussed the creation of mood and images through the sounds used, I instruct them to write their own sound poems. This usually works best in pairs, and they can choose their own inarticulate beasts – bears, worms, zombies – to write about. The eventual recitals of these verses are enormous fun, and I have seen some truly unexpected, animated readings from pupils who would never normally volunteer for or even engage with this sort of activity.

Themes and competitions

Giving pupils a real purpose to write poetry is a great way of getting them to channel their efforts. All too often I worry that we use creative writing as a meaningless space-filler, used only to kill some time and keep a class quiet. It shouldn’t be like this, and one way to show that work has meaning is for the final pieces to have ‘publication’ – whether this be part of a wall display, a school assembly or by entering a competition. This year, the Poppy Appeal ran a competition for pupils, and the Pushkin Prize is also a good contest to enter. Similarly, finding themes to focus on can create a buzz. Remembrance is usually a key theme in schools during November, and Roald Dahl Day on the 13th September is a wonderful opportunity. This year, my pupils read and watched Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes poetry, and were then challenged to choose their own fairy tales and myths to re-write, with predictably ghastly outcomes. These pieces formed the centre-piece of a Roald Dahl classroom display, and were the topic of lots of conversation once on show.

Write-by-numbers

While I would not normally advocate enforcing too many rules and stipulations on pupils’ creative output, it can be appropriate for younger children writing poetry. Since we are hoping to develop their familiarity with and analysis of language features, I think it makes sense to ask pupils to make sure these same techniques are included in their own poetic creations. This should vary from class to class, and probably even from pupil to pupil, but I have found success in the past asking pupils to write poetry that must include (for example): two similes, one metaphor, two alliterative phrases and one oxymoron. This forces students to really focus on what these techniques mean and the impact they can create with them – which only strengthens their ability to analyse them when studying poetry in future lessons.

Have a look at Alan's top tips for investigating poetry in this blog. Alan has also shared accounts of how his pupils 'vandalised' their local spaces with poetry and how he used spam emails to develop persuasive writing skills!

For more inspiration, check out our other blogs about creative writing.

Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie lives in Glasgow and teaches at Fernhill School.