One of the groups of students I work with is a group of advanced year 7/8 writers. All of them are working above their grade level, and so our time together is about providing them opportunities to explore writing in different ways and hone their skills.
This week I started a unit on poetry, which always elicits groans and protests from some students. But to me, poetry is a way for them to develop skills they’re inclined to gloss over in other writing—using rhythm and repetition, using metaphors and descriptive language, thinking about the emotions they want to evoke in their readers.
Anyway, I didn’t want to approach poetry with these students in the same way it had been presented by all their teachers through primary school. I wanted to surprise them with poetry.
So on Monday morning, when I said we were going to start poetry and got the expected grumbles, I launched conversationally into a poem I’d prepared for them.
When I say you’ll write poetry
You want to write prose.
But it’s not as bad as you think.
For poetry is simply prose
With metre and rhythm to link
The sounds with the words when they’re spoken aloud
Because this is where writing began.
With stories recited ‘round fires at night
Using rhythm and rhyme so we can
Remember our history, whakapapa too,
Remember what’s wrong and what’s right,
Give thanks to our gods,
Record all our deeds,
And remember the info that might
Come in handy someday when we look to the past
And wonder just where we went wrong.
And that music?
You know, that you play on your phone,
And dance to on Saturday night?
It’s nothing but poetry set to a tune.
So while you all grumble and fight,
Saying poetry’s musty, for old troglodytes,
I know poetry’s more, when we stop to look close,
Than a sappy old card for your mum.
It’s our history, our music
Ancestry and more.
Doesn’t have to be silly or dumb.
It took them a few lines, but when they realised I was speaking in verse, the looks on their faces were priceless.
Now, my poem didn’t convince them all—I still had a couple of grumblers. But I played them some videos of modern spoken poetry—edgier and messier than most of what they get exposed to at school—and I saw eyes light up.
“Do we have to use rhyme?”
“Can we use rhyme?”
“If you want to, of course.”
The idea they could write something wild and messy that followed no rules and call it poetry was revolutionary to some of them. They’ve written some excellent poems, too. No boring acrostics, no forced limericks, no pale imitations of famous poems. Instead, they’re focusing on the words, emotions and meanings embedded in their poetry. They’ve used metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration with intent, rather than because they have to. And I think most of them are actually having fun. I know I am.