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.
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.
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
- Where do you think the poem is taking place?
- What is the relationship between the two people?
- 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.
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.