What’s Your Achilles’ Heel?

stress-1084525_1920.jpgThough secondary school teachers are of course experts in their chosen fields, it’s probably fair to state that most of us have an Achilles heel. Mine is poetry. Fellow English teachers extol the emotional connection that they had with a poem, while the emotional connection I typically experience is deep confusion. The Cox Report (1989), which helped to establish the national curriculum as we know it, brilliantly described poetry as ‘language made strange’, though chances are its author foresaw the students finding it alien rather than those charged with teaching it.

Remarkably, the poetry essays I wrote at university all scored firsts, showing that – if I grapple long and hard enough with that baffling language – I can eventually make sense of it. And once the code has been cracked, I do in fact find poetry rewarding. The problem with teaching it is that we don’t have a lot of time to crack the code, either at the lesson planning stage or working with students.

The advent of a new poetry anthology is the worst. Verse from an antique land, such as Ozymandias, is ok because it’s such a staple on the curriculum that meanings are quickly unearthed and a king’s treasure of resources lies waiting to water my desert-like mind. And the household names such as Duffy, Clarke and Armitage hold no fear because countless Internet forums will have already debated what their tomes are all about. It’s the unknown that scares me…

It’s even worse if you’re working with one of the minority exam boards. If you’re on AQA, there’s strength in numbers, you can delay teaching of the anomalies long enough that one of the brainiacs who does “get it” shares the fruits of their labour online. Google some of the OCR poems on the other hand and it’s like gazing into the abyss! Venus’s-flytraps by Yusef Komunyakaa flummoxed me perhaps more than any other. The poet, like Tatamkhulu Afrika from the Edexcel Time and Place cluster, goes by different names but funnily enough, the possession of multiple Wikipedia entries didn’t help me join the dots on his southern opus. And looking at the EDUQAS anthology, whole Afternoons slipped away As Imperceptibly as Grief.

Despite being a shot in the dark, unseen poetry is actually less intimidating because I can S.M.I.L.E. my way through it. The same could be said of all poetry and I am at pains to impress on students that any interpretation is valid as long as it can be supported. A bright and well-trained set of students will do much of the heavy-lifting, offering unique insights and making connections that might not have come to me even if I’d spent several hours on each stanza. However, when it comes to the odes, ballads and sonnets on the exam syllabus, I still can’t help feeling that it’s a dereliction of duty if I don’t equip them with every conceivable interpretation.

Being part of a team creating poetry resources for Twinkl has therefore been the best professional development imaginable. Imagine being able to dedicate the amount of time you spend preparing for an observation lesson on every poetry lesson… sorry, scrap that, that’s unimaginable, unless you’ve mastered working 24/7 without the need for sleep. Imagine, instead, someone else having pored over the poem, done all the background reading and then compiled their knowledge into a handy, ready-to-go lesson pack that is editable for your own needs. That’s some heavy-duty strapping on my own Achilles heel, and I’m now fit to teach any of the poems on any of the exam boards. At least until the next anthologies are released…

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