Madeleine Champagnie, Head of English, Thames Christian School
It can sometimes be daunting to start teaching new texts. In this post I’ll share some tips and ideas on how to make the most of the poems added to the latest version of the anthology (for first assessment 2024).
As a multiracial teacher in a multicultural school, my first reaction to the inclusion of new, diverse poems in the anthology was joy and relief that our exam board was taking action to ‘walk the talk’ of decolonising the syllabus. The initiative to broaden beyond the ‘canon’ whilst not losing touch with those great works is a welcome one. It also challenges us as English teachers to expand our students’ literary experiences.
My second thought was, inevitably, how do I plan the lessons in a way that honours the poetry, inspires our students and still hits the exam criteria?
The resources that OCR produces can be found on Teach Cambridge, and are an excellent starting point for a quick overview of the poems. In these you will find short summaries about each poet, poem, questions to ask, connections with other poetry, and links for further research. The questions are very helpful as a springboard for lesson elements, in particular to stimulate discussion. The links are great for a deeper research dive.
Approach this in the same way you would any less familiar context, such as the Tudor period for Shakespeare, or the 19th century for so much of ‘the canon’. The difference here is that there is a wealth of information online, for example in the form of the still living poets talking about their own work. A video of a poet performing or exploring their poem is a powerful way to allow the text to become a reflection of lived reality, and to move beyond a text awaiting analytical dissection.
Thematic pairing is a helpful way to practise the ‘unseen’ section of the paper as well as to reflect ideas in the anthology poems. You could use a section of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ before looking at ‘Papa T’ as a way to blend past and present and to raise the question of why we should choose to study poems by authors of colour. Roger Robinson’s ‘The Darkening Red of your Blood’ gives another layer of depth to Caleb Femi’s powerful ‘Thirteen’.
Sometimes it’s not necessary to analyse, but rather to experience and feel. For poems with challenging or painful themes, a spoken word video can be an illuminating way to lift the mood. ‘Apples and Snakes’ on Youtube is an excellent place to start.
Yes! Where you have planned for tasks which address exam mark schemes or assessment objectives, it is a quick task to swap the references, even doing this ‘live’. When exploring how to ‘explode a quotation’, verbally modelling your thought process with an unfamiliar poem can lead to new, fresh insights for students and for us as teachers. Asking questions aloud, being tentative and self correcting are helpful ways to show students that dialogue with poetry is a process. Interpretation is not about finding the correct ‘answer’.
It can seem like there is a small mountain to climb when planning lessons from scratch, with the additional need to research and study new material, and then to process that in ways that will engage your students. As with travel, the journey of exploration into new poems can be exhilarating or frustrating in equal measure. (I spent about a week trying to track down the meaning of ‘seasalter’ in ‘Papa T’, as Google insisted on sending me to a seaside town in Kent! It simply means one who collects sea salt.) But the joy that comes with a fully annotated, deeply researched poem which you feel ready to share with students, is well worth the effort. The discussions and diversions along the way become part of your own conversation with the poem.
There may be students in the room who have a close affinity with the cultures presented in the poetry: this does not mean that they need to be the expert. Or they may very much want to contribute their perspectives. Perhaps the key is not to make assumptions, but to approach discussion with a genuine spirit of warmth and inquiry, as we do with any text.
What works in the context of one school may not be appropriate in another. How to create a classroom culture of respectful curiosity goes beyond the scope of this blog, but these poems may be just one way to begin to test and build that.
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Madeleine Champagnie (BA(Hons), PGCE, MA), is Head of English at one of our Lit in Colour Ambassador Centres, Thames Christian School. Madeleine has been teaching in inner London since the 1990s, with 23 years in the state sector. Her degree from Durham University is in Medieval Literature and Language. She is a lifelong fan of science fiction and is focusing on dystopian texts for the OCR English Literature A Level. Her current interest is in afrofuturism and Octavia Butler