Ideas to help engage your students in poetry

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As the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award opens for entries, we asked three teachers to offer their tips for teaching poetry and inspiring students

The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious literary competitions and the 2016 competition is open for entries from 11 to 17-year-olds.

We asked three teachers to offer their tips for teaching poetry and inspiring and encouraging talented students to write poetry.

Allan Crosbie
Curriculum leader of English and literacy, James Gillespie’s High School, Edinburgh

In the English department at James Gillespie’s High, we try to embed poetry writing workshops into all courses from the start of secondary school.

If reading and analysis don’t lead on to creation and production, poetry too easily becomes a chore. Pupils also end up reading far too few poems when analysis is the only game in town.

But when teachers use poems as models and prompts for writing, they end up introducing an array of voices and approaches, and pupils start to enjoy and experience poetry in a fresh way, from the inside looking out.

The greatest challenge in Scottish secondary schools right now is the reductive meaningless nature of the internal assessment requirements within the new National Qualifications. They sap creativity and morale and have left us in the middle years with little or no time for poetry writing. In the final exams, Scottish poetry has been reduced to 20 marks worth of textual analysis questions on a handful of poems.

We have not overcome this challenge but, here in Gillespie’s, as soon as the senior phase begins we re-introduce poetry writing and use poems by about 50 contemporary Scottish poets as prompts for pupils’ writing. We can only afford two or three weeks with this as the focus, but it is better than nothing – and nothing, I am afraid, is probably what most English departments devote to poetry writing in the senior school.

We enter pupils’ work into as many competitions as we can (except those run by vanity publishing companies – please, teachers, avoid these con artists) and we do this so that our most gifted and talented writers have a chance at national recognition, and because most competitions provide such useful lesson plans and workshop ideas.

Such recognition, if and when it comes, and the follow-up writing courses or writers’ visits that the winners experience, are the only method I can see that our society has devised for nurturing and encouraging – and apprenticing – the poets of the future.

Here are some of my top tips:

  • Use poetry games and song lyrics in junior school. The Furniture Game is great for creating original similes and metaphors, and pupils have great fun with their versions of U2’s Hawkmoon 269 or The Lemonheads’ Being Around.
  • Work with other departments. We taught The Furniture Game to our chemistry teachers and they now get kids to write poems in the voice of elements from the Periodic Table when they are teaching the properties of different chemicals. Soon after our art department teaches pupils how to “read” a painting, we do a unit on writing poetry about art, using the Scottish National Galleries website for inspiration.
  • Don’t be afraid of using “difficult” poems even in the first years of secondary school. For the poetry about art unit we look at poems such as Fanthorpe’s Not My Best Side, Adcock’s Leaving the Tate, Cook’s Picture of a Cornfield and Glenday’s Empire of Lights. Further up the school Billy Bragg’s lyrics to Cindy of a Thousand Lives is great for writing about an artist (and introduces pupils to the world of Cindy Sherman).
  • Use “free” writing. Go through an anthology such as Emergency Kit and pick out great lines as prompts (just remember to get pupils to credit the poets they steal from).

Lisa Altobelli
Teacher of English
Feversham College, Bradford

When I joined Feversham College in 2011 it didn’t take me long to realise that my students were far more accomplished writers than I could ever hope to become.

I find that working on different competitions provides a real focus for our writing projects. This year for example, we all learned a lot about the 100 Years’ War, the plight of Catherine of Valois and the modes of warfare in Medieval times in the run up to the Battle of Agincourt competition.

One project that has enthused many of my students at the moment is the Poetry Together competition, which involves a young person co-writing a poem with someone over 18.

My year 9s rushed home to ask parents, cousins, grandparents and family friends whether they would consider creating a poem with them. I’m currently having a go at this myself, working alongside one of my superstar students – thinking in tandem is quite a challenge, but so much fun.

I try to encourage creativity wherever I can. Recently, my students across the school have written poems based on the issues and feelings in Othello, which was my chosen text for World Book Day. We looked at the inextricable link between emotions like love and hate, trust and betrayal, honour and shame and everyone created two poems on these oppositional feelings.

It was great for personal and moral development too as it gave us chance to discuss how one feeling can so easily change into its negative form. So for me, poetry is the chance to breathe, to listen to your inner voice and to explore on paper.

The Foyle Young Poets competition comes towards the end of our academic year, so we can griddle the irons of our inspirational fire to give our very best for this most prestigious of events. We are extremely grateful to the Poetry Society for inviting Liz Cashdan to deliver training to our team of English teachers in the run up to this competition.

I really hope that all the work we have done over the last few months will be reflected in the quality of what we manage to produce this year.

I always say that writing isn’t about the end result. It is not about whether you are shortlisted for a competition, it is about the process of being creative. It is the magic of an idea taking life.

Ben Bransfield
Teacher of English
King’s College School, Wimbledon

Like baking powder, poetry has many uses. I use it to hush a rabble or ignite a debate, to open or close a lesson, and as something to set sail with for five or 90 minutes. I unashamedly forage “off-curriculum” with it, use it to illuminate or offer a break from other (often longer) texts, share it to raise awareness of or rouse opinion on current affairs, or as a way to practise mindful behaviour at the end of exhausting days.

I introduce my students to voices that I think they will like but, in terms of their learning, I get most excited by poetry’s ability to kick-start new ways of their thinking about the (un)familiar. Reciting by heart or just reading aloud flexes memory and presentation skills, while drama can unwrap poetic imagery with startling speed – using movement to show what can’t be uttered easily.

Above all, I make time for students’ poetry-writing – and their editing of it – because it makes them alert and sensitive readers, confident explorers rather than device spotters, and gives them a landing strip for their own feelings.

My challenge is often to break down some students’ suspicions of what they expect poetry to be, where and whom it comes from: dive into texts without mentioning the “p” word, and scour poetry magazines like The North for new writing that will speak directly to your students.

With older poetry, I try to source other works inspired by it or more abstract threads back into the past. I’ve used rapper Lil’ Kim’s Lighters Up to launch 16th century martyr elegies, and Kate Tempest’s Icarus on YouTube to introduce the classical world. I model the reading aloud of poetry and use recordings on to share poets performing their work.

Entering competitions is affirming for students as they can be recognised for their talents in arenas beyond home and school.
Working to a worldwide deadline generates momentum and elevates students’ awareness of their poetry being taken seriously, while offering a finish line for a process that could otherwise lack closure. Reading winning entries also allows students to reflect on differences between their own creative ideas and others of a similar age.

The democracy of fantastic writing initiatives like the Foyle Young Poets Award helpfully exposes students to working creative industries and reinforces what we spend all our time and energy passing on: that it is vital, relevant, and entirely within their grasp.

Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

Run by The Poetry Society, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2016 is open to young poets aged 11 to 17-years-old and is free to enter. Poems can be on any theme and of any length. This year’s judges are Malika Booker and WN Herbert and awards are given to the 15 top winners and 85 commended poets on National Poetry Day (October 6) at the Royal Festival Hall. The closing date for entries is July 31, 2016. To read case studies of former winners, read the full rules, download lesson plans and enter online visit


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