Teaching poetry: Does this smell like a good poem?

Written by: Joanne Bowles | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The prestigious Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is open for entries. Joanne Bowles offers some lesson ideas and tips for getting your classes involved in poetry and competitions

I run an annual poetry week at my school: a celebration of all types of poetry where we try to involve all year groups and where we embed it across the curriculum.

Running the poetry week doesn’t make me a poetry expert. I find a lot of poetry difficult to understand, and I’m honest about this with my students. I make poetry a learning experience for all of us – the result is that the students can, and often do, come up with another meaning for a poem that I thought I understood!

We tend to adopt the theme used for National Poetry Day. I have found the resources on their website a really helpful starting point. In 2016 the theme was “messages”. Before students even listened to or looked at any poems, I started my library lesson with an exploration of all the different types of messages.

I thoroughly enjoy spending time researching around topics to engage students with fascinating facts, such as “the oldest message in a bottle spent 108 years and 138 days at sea after being released by the Marine Biological Association UK into the North Sea in 1906” (source Guinness World Records website).

The 2015 theme of “light” gave me the chance to link up with the science department and the “remember” theme from 2014 linked wonderfully to the First World War centenary.

One of the important parts of poetry week isn’t sharing the library’s collection of poems but getting the students writing and editing their own poems. It’s an exercise in writing with their fingers and their ears, as they begin to listen to the words they write, which helps them when they do read poetry as they gain a different interpretation and a deeper appreciation of the words on the page.

An important part of the week is running a competition. This is less daunting than you might think. Having an annual theme is very helpful in focusing the mind and I use this to create the competition, a lesson plan, and quizzes for the whole school.

We are a large secondary school (made up of three schools), so we try to create a sense of competition between the three – which one submits the most/best entries, etc. Tutors and school heads become very competitive, which gives an excitement and buzz to poetry week.

Having support and resources available through The Poetry Society has helped me immensely with planning – bizarrely, this year I find myself creating my own lesson plan for The Poetry Society – Does This Smell Like a Good Poem? – which involves exploring some of the ideas in Cyrus Larcombe-Moore’s poem my ghost, which is a previous winning poem of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition.

The lesson plan uses our sense of smell rather than our sight and hearing as a way to understand the poem and to help us with our own poetry writing. Smell invokes a strong human reaction that contributes to imagery, metaphor and structure.

If you’re thinking about running your own competition, do not underestimate the power of chocolate as a prize. Remember though that prizes are not everything, I have found that simple recognition as a winner or getting on to the shortlist really does enthuse even the most reticent students.

If you’re entering external competitions aim high – an international competition like Foyle offers 100 top winners – reaching that top 100 is a great and realistic aspiration to give a class.

Students can have the wrong idea as to who writes poetry, the themes and where poetry exists to be read, seen and heard. In the library during lunchtime, I play a variety of YouTube videos/clips of poetry readings. Students don’t need to sit and listen formally to this – they can flit in and out or just catch bits of it while they are looking for books.

It captures those students who might normally avoid a formal poetry reading experience, but also offers a non-judgemental space for those students who might not want to admit they like poetry to their friends. Once you have opened their eyes to what poetry actually is, students will recognise the poetry in rap and grime.

The same applies to song lyrics. Give them the current number one with the title missing and read it aloud as a poem. Once you have got students listening to this and beginning to break it down and analyse it, then you have them hooked and more willing to tackle “heavier” works.
Poet mentors and poets-in-residence are a great help. We have had a visiting poet for the last two years to perform and run workshops – this has ranged from whole year group performances to small group work.

Ensure you include fun activities and opportunities for students to share their poems – this year we are going to give our budding poets the opportunity to perform at the end of year “reward” concert which has historically just been the platform for our singers and musicians. I am really looking forward to hearing their creations.

Competition-winning poems, need to be celebrated, but don’t just publish them in the library or classroom. Create unusual and eye-catching displays around the school so that all students and staff can see the results. That means toilet doors, the changing rooms and outside spaces – and use props to draw attention.

If you’re going to have a permanent display then make sure you refresh the poems and the look of the display to keep everyone’s attention. I have even made bookmarks with the poems. When students come to borrow a book from our library, I put one in each book.

Above all poetry should not be reserved just for poetry week but promoted as a fun and engaging pursuit throughout the entire school year.

  • Joanne Bowles is the senior librarian at Tor Bridge High School in Plymouth. Joanne is a 2017 teacher trailblazer, acting as a mentor and sharing lesson ideas for school librarians and teachers wishing to enter their students for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

Foyle Young Poets of the Year

  • The Foyle Young Poets of the Year is a prestigious award for writers aged 11 to 17. It is an annual competition that welcomes poems on any theme and entry is free. Since it began in 1998, the award has kick-started the career of some of today’s most exciting new voices. Past winners include Sarah Howe, Helen Mort, Jay Bernard and Caroline Bird. Winners receive prizes, including mentoring, a residential Arvon writing course, Poetry Society membership and books. The Poetry Society also continues to support winners’ development with performance, publication and internship opportunities. The deadline for entries is July 31. Find out more and enter your students’ work at http://foyleyoungpoets.org/
  • A range of resources are available to support teachers and their students, including Joanne Bowles’ lesson plan Does This Smell Like a Good Poem? For these, go to http://bit.ly/2rd25fr

Resources and further information


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