Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Teaching Poetry

Once again I am teaching poetry and once again I am feeling inept.

I actually grew to love the poetry selections in the Bhutanese curriculum and marveled at just how much of a culture that was so far removed from their own, those students could take on board. There were revelations too. The most surprising for me, being that “Ode To Autumn” made more sense to them with real life experience of an agricultural system that still largely resembled the one described in the poem in many aspects, than it ever had to Australian students. Despite the vast differences in the harvest described, they could see its beauty, relate to its images and understand its message.

Here and now, I am grappling with African poets about whom I know nothing while the students grapple with a fear and loathing of poetry, born from the difficulties of the exam questions, routinely asked. I had cause for celebration when I realized that the vast majority of poems in the anthology, we are using are African and there are only a few outstanding exceptions, which are well worthy of inclusion, in my humble opinion. I have found again that any poem can easily be enjoyed by someone with an open mind and a willingness to think beyond their own limited world experience. When there is an opportunity to step back and simply see what they do understand and can interpret, they amaze themselves and me. When guided through deliberate and careful questioning, in the secure environment of group discussion they are capable of analysing with astute clarity and derive real pride from the achievement.

“Why are the exam questions then so ornery?” I ask myself. Should the system be designed to weed out the least discerning or expose the hidden knowledge, abilities and talents of students? Luckily I am the writer of the end of term exams but unfortunately I am once again bound by the need for them to pass national exams with those ornery questions! At least the classroom practice can be of my own making.

Again the students are discovering that they enjoy the writing process and attempting their own poetic compositions. Many even delight in sharing their creations in the classroom context. While the pressure to complete the course work once again dominates the schemes of work and lesson plans that we teachers devise, the deviation into a little creative input from the students is a welcome relief for both them and me.

The imagery which spills easily from their pens in their desperate attempts to incorporate the literary devices we have studied, shout Africa and remind me how little we have seen or really know about this vast continent.

Once again there is so much for me to learn and yet again I wonder if I am teaching the students as much as they are teaching me….


  1. Thank you for this post. I know both of you are more than just capable - you are exceptional teachers. Wherever you are in the world, that never changes. I care so much about those Orkeeswa students and knowing they are in your hands makes me feel so relieved and thankful. I know you are doubting yourself, but if you can get those students to think creatively, to share feelings and put images into words, to allow them - through poetry - to escape their reality even for a few moments (or to view their reality from a different lens), you've achieved so much in such a small amount of time. You are teaching them everything.

  2. Thank you so much Lisa! We know what an amazing job you guys did, by the respect with which the students talk about you both and can only hope to keep the learning cycle happening