Poetry and the Art of Teaching Practice

Have you forgotten the way to my hut?

Each evening, I wait for the sound of your footsteps

But they are never there.

I heard this haiku translation (or something close to it) in Berlin several years ago during a workshop on Big Words, Small Grammar by Scott Thornbury. I am not sure why, but I fell in love with this short poem then, and was fascinated by the sheer volume of study content embodied therein: present perfect simple; question formation; possessive pronouns; time referencing; present simple; prepositional phrases; coordinating conjunctions; negation; determiners; irregular verb forms; the article system, transivity, countability, plurality…

Since then, I have only taken two opportunities to exploit it for teaching, and both times, I have found it to be a beautiful, enriching and yet confounding experience.

The first time was several years ago, shortly after getting to know the poem; the second time was two days ago, as part of an observed lesson on a CELTA course I am teaching on.

I would like to share with you what happened in this lesson, share the written outcomes by my students, and say a little about why I am surprised and invigorated by the power of poetry in ELT.

“What am I going to do?! – What comes naturally, I suppose.”

I was sitting at the back of the room, observing my trainees teaching. The two candidates at work that day were doing a good job, especially considering it was only their second time teaching. They had designed their own listening skills lessons based on self-created live listening tasks and texts, and I was as proud as anything you can imagine.

It still amazes and energises me that complete novices to teaching can create engaging and purposeful lessons based on little else than their own life stories and some general guidance about basic principles of lesson design.

However, as my trainees’ lessons progressed, I was faced with an impending problem, namely: what the hell was I going to do in the final 40 minutes when they were supposed to observe me teaching a writing skills lesson with their learners?

I had been thinking about it throughout the day and had developed a number of alternative ideas – the social media profile (“I have a handout with my XING profile somewhere…”), the agony aunt letter (“Hmmm, where is that Virginia Ironside letter page I got on my DELTA from David Carr…?”), the breaking news in brief article (“Why is there nothing usable on the BBC or Reuters today of all days…!?”)

Nothing was falling into place, however, as I felt that whatever I did, it would be forced and unconnected with these people, this time, this place…

What a mug…

So when I sat down at the front of the room, and placed my mug of coffee in front of me, it was with a heavy heart. I didn’t know what I was about to do, but I did know that, whatever it was, it needed to be a useful model for writing skills work for the trainees sitting at the back.

I took a sip of coffee and set the mug down.

A student to my right looked at the mug. She smiled and asked me about it.  Perhaps you can see why.

My mug - pic 1
A teacher’s mug always looks well-used…
My mug pic 2
…and low-tech…
My Mug pic 3
…and describes the owner.

I explained that I had just received it as a present from a colleague, who I had worked with for several years and who had just left to move on to greater things. Some of the students knew my colleague, as she had tested or worked with them, and they volunteer memories of her. It was clear that they liked her as much as I did, and they expressed their sympathy when I told them that she had moved on and how much I was missing her.

The poem I mentioned above had been on my mind earlier: in this moment I made the connection and the lesson came into focus in my mind’s eye.

Real-time

I ask the learners to take their pens and copy down the poem I am going to dictate. I recite the poem line by line, and check they have it accurately transcribed, then write up the original text on the board. On the fly, I create three comprehension/interpretation questions

  1. Where do you think the poem is taking place?
  2. What is the relationship between the two people?
  3. Why do you think one of the people has gone away?

The students discuss their ideas about the poem in pairs.

While monitoring, I get the feeling that one of the students is challenged by the distance between what she feels she can say in English and what she feels she wants to express. With empathy and encouragement (and some community language learning), she expresses a well-developed and beautiful reading of the poem.

In response to a need for the word for Trauer in English, I teach them the similarities and differences between mourning and grieving, grief and mourning, to grieve and to mourn. Out of nowhere, I tell them about my unresolved feelings of grief for my cat, which I haven’t talked about in almost twenty years.

Stripped for action

Then I go to work on the organisation of the poem: what is the function of the opening line? What time references are at play? Is the third line a surprise or not and what words prime us for this surprise? How can we vary the lines to allow for more positive or negative readings of the verse potential?

The group seems a little reticent when I ask them to write their own takes on this poem, but they all get down to work quickly.

There is a silence and a focus in the room that initially sets me on edge, but quickly I fall into ease.

The students’ poems start to take shape and I start to help refine them. An insertion here, a question there, an alternative phrasing to help the line scan there…

The lines become verse, slowly, inexorably.

Publish and be damned

As each student finishes, I ask them to write a fair-hand version on a new piece of paper (I’d brought some coloured paper to the room without being sure what to do with it apart from the hope to capture whatever was produced in fair copy, to help the trainees with their assignments). I ask the students to pin their work on the whiteboard and read the work of their colleagues in a gallery.

After the poems have been read, I ask some of the students to read their work aloud, giving voice and ownership to their words. Then I exploit some links in phrasing between some of the poems to highlight the structural similarities and functional differences I notice between their uses of WILL.

I ask the students if I can keep the poems overnight and bring the lesson to a close.

I am immensely tired and immensely happy.

Questions, questions…

Why do I shy away from poetry in language teaching? As a trained high school teacher and graduate in English Language & Literature, I have a strong connection to this form of writing, yet I generally avoid it in my professional life.

But here I am, having had one of my most intense and rewarding teaching experiences – for the second time in my career – thanks to a poem.

Many questions floating in my head today. No matter: here are my students’ voices:

Can I find the way to your heart?

Each evening I try to do this in my dream

And I know, that one day I will succeed.

Can you remember our time together?

Each evening, I wait of your good night kiss.

But I never get this again.

Can you hear the birds in the air?

They are singing our song all the day

And soon you will be back.

Can you see the moon in the night?

It is the same moon I see

And the New Moon will bring you back.

Can you remember our last holiday?

Each evening, we went to a pub to drink beer

And the next day we never had a hangover.

Can you remember, when we had fun together?

Each evening, I dreamed about this time.

I know, we’ll see each other soon.

Have you forgotten to call me?

Each day, I wait to hear your voice,

But the telephone never rings.

Can’t you remember my phone number?

All day I wait to hear from you.

But my mobile phone never rings.

Have you forgotten to call me?

Each evening, I wait for your call and I want to talk to you.

But you never call me any more.

Thank you for writing these for me, and thank you for allowing me to share.

34 comments

  1. CristinaM.

    Wonderful sample of teaching as art – unplanned, yet so rich in its implications upon student learning and feelings.

  2. Valeria Benevolo Franca

    Anthony,
    This was a beautiful blog post, showing clearly how poetry in the classroom can lead to such a rich learning experience, which perhaps becomes more meaningful and memorable exactly because so much emotion is harnessed durng the process by both teachers and learners.
    Thank you very much for this.
    Valeria

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    • Anthony Gaughan

      Hi Laura – glad you enjoyed it! Go for it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

      Funnily enough, one of my trainee teachers (who hadn’t seen my lesson, by the way) came for guidance on friday for his next lesson and wanted to use a poem. He had some good ideas about it and seemed excited to get cracking, so there must be something in the air 😉

  4. Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

    I’m positive the students came home feeling so proud of themselves and well, just plain feeling good after this lesson.
    Glad you shared it with us.
    I’m going to take a deep breath and forward it to our local list. The battle over literature should be taught is raging again.
    Naomi

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Hi Naomi,
      I hope some of the students write something here, as I gave them the link – fingers crossed!)

      Funny how literature in ELT gets the blood up, isn’t it? What is the point of contention on your list?

  5. Scott Thornbury

    Nice one, Anthony.

    Curiously, I ‘did’ this poem in Thursday with a group of teachers on a course here in New York.

    It comes from a book of translaitons of the poems of the Japanese hermit-monk Ryokān (born c. 1758). and the actual words are:

    Have you forgotten the way to my hut?
    Every evening I wait for the sound of your footsteps,
    But you do not appear.

    I used this (in my workshop, but also in Chapter 1 of ‘Beyond the Sentence’ to illustrate just how much ‘grammar’ is locked into a single short text, but I’ve never developed the activity into having the students write their own poems based on it – great idea.

    Interestingly, when I do it as a dictogloss (whole text heard once, collaborative reconstruction immediately after hearing) there are always one or two in the class who hear ‘heart’ for ‘hut’ – which works just as well.

    Source: One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokān, trans. John Stevens, New York: Weatherhill, 1977.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks Scott – now I see the title of the anthology I remember it from that time you shared this with us in Berlin. I was working with this on THursday too – at 5pm CET, so if you were working with it at roughly the same time, that would be an incredible piece of synchronicity!

      I think that the hut/heart association was definitely at work for one of the writers, who used that in his opening line. I’m also fascinated by the prevalence of the MOBILE PHONE IS HUMAN COMMUNION metaphor in my students’ work: modern times 😉

      Thanks a lot for commenting, and for the book reference. I hope the course in New York is going well.

  6. phil wade

    You’re on a roll now Anthony.

    You are right there though. How many of us have done units or parts of books/copies about books/literature/poetry? Probably most of us and that never scared us. But remove that material and think about doing your own lesson and suddenly it does scare people. Maybe it’s the content vs language issue which is very tricky at times. But outweighing that is the ability to select and generate (if they go for it) art that suits the learners. For instance, I’d say that most of my students haven’t enjoyed the book segments, poems and stories in some books where I’ve worked. Why? It’s not the book’s fault but art is personal, in every form. Same for films, music etc. These topics lend themselves to a dogme approach I think in that dogme is in the here and now, has relevance and uses what and who is in the room. Chia showed this in her recent series where she covered music.

    I’ve had failed lessons in the past due to these problems as if a student doesn’t like stories or poems you have to ‘sell’ the unit/topic. Trying to relate it to them and getting them hooked is hard. Would I enjoy a lesson on poetry in French? Maybe not but I’ve been taught it in Chinese and quite enjoyed it. Teachers seem to use them for pron mainly but, as you demo’d, there’s so much more to an average poem. Same for a story or film. This is another example of us ‘racing through lessons’ maybe and not appreciating what we are doing.

    A CPE student sent me an MP3 of her reading a poem last week to check her pron. It wasn’t good at all and when we discussed it I realised that the words were just words. For me, words have meaning and emotion which should come through. About an hour and 2 poems later her pron had gone from FCE to CPE and she began to sound like she was enjoying speaking English and choosing words for their expressive value. Her favourite being ‘irksome’.

    Thanks again, your posts always give me much to think over.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      This is another example of us ‘racing through lessons’ maybe and not appreciating what we are doing.

      Thanks Phil. I’m really glad I could give you something to mull on – and here you give me something back. Lots to think about there.

      One thing I’ve asked my trainees to focus on next week is becoming more efficient in what they do; I hope they don’t mistake this for raw speed and start “racing”.

      • phil wade

        RAW!!! Now that’s worth a lesson or blog post. The basics, the essence, uncultivated. RAW TEFL!! I wouldn’t say dogme is raw but nurtured maybe. We ay have a new movement here Anthony even a RAW Yahoo group.

        • Anthony Gaughan

          You’re on to something there, Phil. While Dogme looks to a “poor pedagogy”, or “a pedagogy of bare essentials”, it is still a “cultivated pedagogy”. I don’t think you can have pedagogy without this cultivation, however. I wonder what you see in your mind’s eye when you envisage a RAW class? I’d love to hear more!

          • phil wade

            True but it seems that dogme teaching may have acquired a bit of a standard procedure and common tools. I mean Talk, Focus, Talk then writing with dictogloss…I think there’s a big difference between someone who is just redoing a dogme lesson they’ve read or copying something from the book and someone who has embraced the idea and lets a class evolve such as yours. But maybe this is for another post.

            By RAW we could mean students+teacher with nothing prepared or possibly just a broad objective or a desire like “I want to help my students improve their..” or “they need help with..”. I think these kinds of objectives seem more human than 1)To learn and use…. The sooner we admit that students don’t learn that much but rather relearn, activate and/or build on previously learned knowledge perhaps the better.

            • Anthony Gaughan

              Agreed: one negative effect of finding simple examples to illustrate practice and make it accessible is that these can be taken as orthodoxy or as the practice itself.

              I see the same issue when presenting a framework for a given lesson type (say, listening) that gets taken as the framework. I’m sure I’m part of this problem – its hard not to coerce novices to play things safe.

              RAW teaching and learning… No agendas beyond knowing more or being more able when we leave than when we came. I like the idea of that.

              • phil wade

                Yep. Quick copyright it. I do like L.O.s like that. things like “to help my students appreciate…” or “to increase their range of collocational knowledge” or “to fine-tune their use of correct register in writing”. The ‘learn’ and ‘practise’ LO.Os are very cold and inspire a factory assembly line mentality.

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    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks, Matt: I think I definitely needed to read that poem at this point. That’s the mystery of poetry – it turns up just when you need to hear it. Thanks again.

  8. Chiew

    Tony’s food for thought:
    Poetry in ELT.
    An all-season sport?

    You’re the top think tank
    We soldiers read and follow
    Bite, chew and swallow.

  9. LouiseAlix

    As someone who regularly uses poetry in one form or another in class (and I really like this one you used – it’s new to me) there’s just one aspect I miss in your story (perhaps you dealt with it but didn’t write about it) and that is “affect”. Poetry tends to ‘affect’ even relatively low level language learners. I always recommend my students read “readings and feelings” by David Bleich before dealing with literature in class as they otherwise tend to head straight for comprehension style questioning. (http://www.rochester.edu/college/eng/faculty/david_bleich.html)

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks for raising affect, Louise, and for the references to Bleich’s work. You can find the source of the poem I used in Scott’s comment, above, in case you are interested.

      You are right to point out that poetry communicates before it is understood (T.S. Eliot) and that this communication is as valid as the understanding which may follow. I didn’t explicitly explore how the poem had affected my group, but this was not a level-driven decision. In fact, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all.

      During the lesson, I left the poem and its impact to work on the students for itself: the questions I provided were really only there as a pretext for students to share their readings of the poems, and in doing so, I suppose they explored their response to the poem.

      But I did not pursue this, and why I didn’t is one of my unspoken questions that I refer to at the end of the post. What is it about my view of, and relationship with, ELT that it seems to preclude or at least restrict my engagement with literary texts as literary texts in class with language learners? It’s not lack of expertise or lack of confidence (for once!) Clearly, there is something at work in my schema for ELT which debars me from dealing with literature as literature rather than as vehicle for language skills or systems development work. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue; in moments when I try to make use of literary texts, I feel this tension.

      I think my approach to the work did not strip the work of its literary impact, and I think I allowed for students to relate to the poem as poem – but I shied away from working explicitly with this. So guilty as charged, Louise, I’m afraid!

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  11. Chris Ożóg

    Hi Anthony,

    Enjoyable post and I have to say the learners’ poems are great in so many ways! I was interested when you say:

    “Why do I shy away from poetry in language teaching? As a trained high school teacher and graduate in English Language & Literature, I have a strong connection to this form of writing, yet I generally avoid it in my professional life.”

    I’m in a similar boat, having a degree with the same title, and I enjoy reading poetry myself (well, not all of it..) but I never use it in class. The reason for this is that I tend to find most people just don’t like poetry at all and can even be quite uncomfortable with it. As a language learner myself, I know from experience that I hate being presented with poetry. I remember being given Baudelaire in a C1 French class and not being able to understand the point of this at all. After all, I wasn’t in a a literature class and all I wanted to do was learn to speak French better, not get involved with poetry and insane lexis/ways of expressing yourself. I also knew I was missing a lot as there’s a lot of subtle meaning in poetry that I couldn’t access in French. I think a lot of learners will share this view and have similar experiences.

    That said, the areas of your class which are very different to the French one outlined above are that the poem is short, easy to understand and you gave them the chance to try to produce something similar. I had a Spanish class in which we were to write a haiku, a task I was dreading when it was given, and in the end enjoyed it very much. The enjoyment came from the writing and from the others’ work, as we were making each other laugh a lot (and recycling lexis too, I might add). Maybe Haiku is the perfect form for the language class?

    As side point, here’s an anecdotal example of having trouble with literature in class. I once prepared a few lessons (at C1) in which we would spend a part of each class looking at The Killers by Hemingway, one of my favourite short stories. We would read for itself first and discuss our responses to it, what might happen next, etc. After we’d done all this over a couple of weeks, I was then going to use it for some language work that I now forget. Well, it was a total flop and from that point on I’ve never brought anything similar to class. The learners just didn’t really like it and the lessons didn’t go as planned. I abandoned it. Is one bad experience enough to put me off? It was from that point that I started using the learners as the resource as much as I could, so in the end it worked wonders for me.

    Anyway, thanks for the post and for sharing your learners’ work.

    Chris

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Hi Chris, thanks for reading and for sharing your experiences. I can definitely relate to your stories here – reminds me of what Michael Lewis said in Practical Techniques all those years ago: “nothing is interesting if you can’t do it”.

      The trick seems to be making texts of any kind – literary or not – challengingly accessible. On top of which, or as a prerequisite, they have to be relevant or desirable for the learners themselves – however much we love them. And as you say at the end, it is often the rejections which teach us the most about the importance of this.

      Cheers,

      Anthony

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