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Avoiding Teaching Poetry Because it’s Too Hard or Boring, Denies Children a Vital Means of Expressing Themselves

“We should expect that our children can let us know when they feel swallowed up by sadness or ready to pop with joy”

  • Avoiding Teaching Poetry Because it’s Too Hard or Boring, Denies Children a Vital Means of Expressing Themselves

Words are expression. They enable us to translate a jumble of feelings, emotions and experiences into a form that can be appreciated by others. So why do we cut up language – words, writing, literacy, literature – into chunks, giving value to different forms, calling literature high art and slang the language of the gutter?

Well, it makes us feel good. It helps solidify a ‘them’ and an ‘us’. How often do we judge and make assumptions on wealth, intelligence and class based on accent, vocabulary and recognisable references? Probably daily, probably in every new interaction we have. Why? Because it makes us feel safe, part of a tribe, and in numbers there is safety. 

This fear is one of the reasons why we cut up our wonderful language into mediums – prose, poetry, rap, beats, libretti – when really they’re all language. They’re all tools to be used by anyone.

Imagine carpenters defining themselves as just doing doors or windows or shelves. The skill of carpentry would ultimately suffer. But this is what we do with language and this is what we teach our children.

Popping with joy

We cut children off from the full gamut of wonderful tools available to them, often already being used by them, because we fear it will be too hard or too complex. We’re terrified it may bore them. What we really mean is that we’ve had bad experiences.

Poetry has been presented to us in the past in a way that is alienating, complex or boring and we don’t want the children under our care to suffer that same fate. So we avoid it, we opt the child out of an experience with poetry. We cut them off from one of the most useful tools of language and limit the means they have to express themselves.

Simply put, poetry is the music of language, the joy of playing with words, of aligning them according to sound (rhyme) or starting letter (alliteration), or forming words into patterned structures that enable us to draw conclusions and make new, surprising connections.

Einstein got part of the way towards the theory of relativity by imagining what it would be like to travel straight up into space in a lift, and by likening light to a bouncing ball on a train.

Without similes we’d have no language for such thoughts that take us beyond what is observed by connecting the known with the unknown. We may not be expecting our children to come up with ‘the theory of everything’, but we may hope and expect that they will have the tools to describe how they are feeling in a way that we can understand, in a way that our labels for emotions cannot quite reach.

We should expect that our children can let us know when they feel swallowed up by sadness or ready to pop with joy.

Powerful poetry

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of delivering creative writing and poetry sessions in schools and have seen first-hand the impact and therefore the importance poetry can have on a young mind.

During one event I read my poem If All The World Were Paper (watch it below).

I invited the audience to call out their own lines, inspired by the poem. One child yelled out, “If all the world were love, my mum would still be here.’ What other medium gives us the courage, or the permission, to share such experiences? What damage do we do by not making such expression welcome?

On several occasions I have worked in classes with an elected mute present and on at least three separate occasions in separate schools I have seen these children speak out loud during a poetry session.

This, of course, is not due to poetry alone. These children had had months, if not years, of in-school support, but I find it fascinating that a poetry session became the moment that they chose to speak.

We know anecdotally that poetry holds this power which is why we turn to it at times of need: at weddings, funerals and births. We understand that poetry holds a magic for us and yet we fear it, or maybe we fear ourselves, fear what poetry might make us think about or might make us reveal.

Children don’t have such fears, not until we teach them.

Children are already very close to that honest centre that poetry inhabits and rather than turning them into adults that run to poetry when emotions threaten to drown them, why not instead nurture their natural propensity to play with words to create more emotionally intelligent adults: adults who are not afraid to share their emotions with an audience; adults who face their fears and speak out loud; adults who expertly express and wield their emotions to the benefit of all.


How to turn pupils into poets

  • Look up, speak out!
    Get students reading poems aloud effectively by asking them to read one line in their head, then lift up their head and speak the line out loud. Repeat this mantra: ‘Look down, read – look up, speak out!’
  • Give students a notebook
    I’ve often introduced personal notebooks to classrooms (notebooks that never get marked!) and have been delighted to see the kids asking to take their books out at breaktime to draw, doodle and write.
  • Read, read, read
    All reading is valid. Often kids can get hooked on apparently non academic areas like computer games or fidget spinners, but if you give these kids a computer game manual or a review of the latest fidget spinner you can get them reading.
  • Share poems
    Let your students see you as a poetry reader. Share poems that have moved you or poems you have written. Write a poem for your class. Whenever I’ve seen teachers do this, the kids have been in awe.
  • The world is your notepad
    Writing can be done anywhere. Get the kids outside to write on fallen leaves, found pebbles, in sand, in mud with sticks, on tarmac with chalk. Take away their fear of writing.

Joseph Coelho is the author of Luna Loves Library Day (£11.99, Andersen Press). Find him at thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com and follow him on Twitter at @poetryjoe.

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