Lydia Ridding, English Subject Advisor
An inspiring English teacher colleague of mine used to begin every one of her A Level Literature lessons by reading a poem to her class. It marked the start of the lesson and helped to get the students into ‘the zone’ for what lay ahead in their English lesson. Pretty soon, word got round the English department that this was happening and a real buzz was created about poems students had heard and what they might listen to next. Students began requesting their favourite poems at the start of class and some even read ones they had written themselves!
Timetable pressures mean that many of us can’t devote every single lesson to sharing and appreciating poetry, but why not use National Poetry Day on 5 October this year, to get your students in the poetic zone?
A great place to start with poetry day activities could be to explore this year’s theme. You could begin by asking students to define what the word ‘refuge’ means to them and discussing their ideas in light of dictionary definitions of the word. Hopefully, there will be plenty of different interpretations in the classroom, all of which might get ideas going. Then, you could use some of the poems available on the National Poetry Day website to make connections between the theme and the poetry. Ask students to reflect on how different poems connect to their interpretations of the theme. Do they have a favourite poem from a selection on the website and why?
As well as poems, the National Poetry Day website also has a range of materials designed to support teachers. You can download posters to print and display in your department, find out about events taking place across the country, as well as access a range of more detailed activities for use in the classroom.
If it isn’t practical for you to attend one of the organised events for National Poetry Day, you could create your own event in school – as large or small scale as you like. It might just be a simple decision to share a poem at the start of every English lesson on the day, like my colleague did. Students will love the break from the normal routine (if you don’t usually start every lesson with a poem, of course) and will no doubt have interesting thoughts to share afterwards.
A slightly more ambitious celebration might be to ask students to search for a poem on the theme of refuge and share it with their peers. If you have students who are anxious about reading poetry aloud to the whole class, they could begin by sharing their findings in pairs or small groups. A fabulous source of poems and poets is the Poetry Foundation, an easily navigable and searchable website.
If you are responsible for delivering a school assembly or you have a tutor group, an excellent way to bring poetry to a wider audience can be to watch a short video of poetry in performance. One of my favourite poets is Lemn Sissay, whose powerful performances can be found on YouTube.
The Conflict cluster of our GCSE English Literature poetry anthology include works from Imtiaz Dharker, Ilya Kaminsky and Caleb Femi. The National Poetry Day website features resources for Dharker’s ‘The Right Word’, suitable for Key Stage 3 students who will soon be moving on to GCSE. Kaminsky’s ‘We Lived Happily During the War’ is one of the named poems in our Conflict cluster and a Key Stage 4 focused resource is available on the site.
Perhaps your students are familiar with Caleb Femi’s work from the anthology and are now studying an A Level qualification with us. Have a look at the National Poetry Day resource on ‘A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home (I)’ to develop students’ reading experiences.
A final way to commemorate National Poetry Day might be to ask students to write their own poems. If this kind of activity is ever met with a disappointed groan by your classes, first of all, ask them why. Students may say that they find it difficult to write poems because they ‘don’t sound good’, or that they can’t make them rhyme. This in itself can spark a really interesting discussion about the nature of poetry and how although we may imagine that there are rules, they are there to be broken.
To encourage students to have a go at writing poems, give them the gift of free writing. In practice, this means setting aside a short space of time where they can write whatever they like in whichever form suits them: bullet points, individual words, sentence fragments and even upside-down, twisty-turvy letters all count. If this finds its way into a poem, great! If not, they have been allowed to experiment freely with words and language and hopefully, expressed a little of their own personalities on the page. A good tip is to let everyone in the room know that they will not be made to read their work aloud to the class – unless they want to that is!
Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any questions, you can email us at email@example.com, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_English. You can also sign up to subject updates to keep up-to-date with the latest news, updates and resources.
Prior to joining OCR in June 2023, Lydia spent 20 years working in a range of sixth form colleges across the country, teaching A Level and GCSE qualifications in English. She was a coursework moderator with OCR for a number of years and has an MA in Victorian Studies from Birkbeck University.