This is an active and creative lesson that aims to transform students’ perceptions of poetry and experience their first taste of artistic license, whilst also sharpening their understanding of the essentials of any form of writing in English: writing for an audience and understanding the conventions of genre.

I truly believe that engagement is the linchpin of all great learning and that if we can get this right, then the rest will follow. Since taking up the post of assistant head of English in 2015, I have worked tirelessly to completely redesign our KS3 curriculum with this in mind.

This lesson is taken from our Spoken Word scheme of learning at Year 7. It is one of the fruits of my labour and is a real favourite of mine! This lesson aims to improve students’ understanding of the complexity of the way that language functions in poetry.

Fed up of hearing the collective groans and sighs when I told my classes that we would be studying poetry next term, I knew something needed to be done! I began calling it ‘spoken word’ or ‘slam’- avoiding the word ‘poetry’ at all costs.

I wondered whether I could shape students’ perceptions of poetry with semantics alone and to my surprise, I really did. This, coupled with a series of active and dynamic lessons created some of the most fiery, political and intelligent poetry that I have ever read from students of this age.

Starter activity

Context: this is a group warm up aimed at building up an awareness of antithesis in poetry and its power to create tone. The teacher introduces the key word ‘antithesis’ and explains to students that contrasts are one of the ways that a poet adds depth and tone to their work. For this activity, you want to split the classroom into two different groups on opposing sides.

To begin, the teacher lists a series of words and students shout back the antithesis of those words. Eg ‘I say ‘evil’… you say… ‘…’. ‘I say ‘hot’… you say… ‘…’.

When students have got the hang of this, each side of the room can work in small groups to create a list of adjectives to use in a slam battle against the other side of the room. Small groups then combine to decide on a list of their favourite fifteen adjectives. Teachers should encourage students to be really thoughtful in their choice of these words - this is a competition and they should aim to outsmart their opponents!

In turn, one student from each side comes up to the front and says their adjective in the same format as you did at the start of the lesson. Eg I say ‘hope’… you say… ‘fear’. This happens on a carousel rotation until one student from one side cannot think of the antithesis. When this happens, the other team win a point.

Teacher is to tally up the number points at the end of the activity and question students about the effect of some of the more unusual adjectives.

Main activities

These tasks aim to help students to build up a word bank for a piece of slam poetry. They could be done over a series of lessons.

Task 1
You need to start by putting a strong image stimulus on the screen. The powerful viral image of the Syrian child washed ashore in Turkey, or a photo of the protest signs from recent women’s march in New York are brilliant examples of things that provoke an emotional response from students.

You want to select something that your students are going to be passionate about. Students can work collaboratively in groups of four to list word associations with the image. The teacher can model this to students first. Eg for the refugee image: violence, innocence, calm.

In a different colour, students can then start to layer up words that create antithesis eg anarchy, evil, peace. At this stage, the teacher can take feedback and create a class word bank of all of the best examples on the white-board.

Task 2
This is where students can start to link vocabulary choices to sounds. Explain to students the difference between rhyme and half-rhyme. Get students to work in their groups to add words that create sounds with what they already have in front of them. Eg ‘violence’ and ‘silence’.

Task 3
Introduce the key word ‘refrain’. Students are to think of a hook or chorus from a modern song that can be related to this poem’s theme. Eg for women’s rights my Year 8 students selected Little Mix’s ‘Salute’ and ‘ladies all across the world, listen up, we’re looking for recruits’. This will form the refrain of the poem.

Summary

This lesson aims to engage students with poetry, introduce some of the key vocabulary for the scheme of learning and get students experimenting with language. I always find that the word based tasks help to encourage even the most reluctant writers that they can contribute to the planning for an empowering piece of poetry. When I do this lesson, I like to use the planning done by individual groups to write my own slam poem using some of their words. This really inspires them and makes them realise that they have the basis for a great piece of writing in front of them.
Assessment for learning can be done after each mini-task and the teacher can use questioning to explore why some language choices are more effective than others.

Home learning

Ask students to bring in their own stimulus for a slam poem and write a short summary of why it is powerful. Give students some examples of stimuli.

Download this lesson plan as a PDF file here.


Danielle Perkins is an aspiring middle leader, who has been teaching English for four years and works at The Spires College as Assistant Head of English. She has responsibility for KS3 and after a successful 18 months in post, also supports the development of Assessment without Levels across the college.