One thing we got wrong last year, for a chunk of our students, was the clamouring rush to compare. For students who had not yet mastered the single poetry essay, this was akin to painting by numbers, trying to work out (with lots of help) which bit went where.
I vowed that this year, 10 and 11 were going to write lots of individual essays, to perfect their essay writing skills, close language analysis and more importantly, to make sure they really, really know each poem. Armed with this knowledge, they will be far more able to juggle the chunks of information and evaluate point for point – which is the most, which is the least, which is different, similar etc.
Asking Y10 to write single poem essays has made me think really carefully about what I want them to do and how to make it accessible for students of all abilities. The first thing to tackle was the introduction. I know some departments have taught students not to write an introduction. I am slightly Old School about this, and fairly pragmatic. For me, a good introduction is a student’s way of saying very clearly ‘I’ve got this. I know what you’re asking me and I can answer it.’
Now, I am an absolute convert of Louisa Enstone (@englishlulu) and her work on PEE and have been a fan ever since I saw her talk through her methodology at researchEd in Swindon in 2015. She could not be more right when she talks about the limiting nature of any formula as structure, especially PEE to teach analysis. However, even she acknowledges that it is not necessarily ‘that PEE is the problem – it’s the way that we use it’. This is surely true of any formula for writing. In the words of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, the best way forward is ‘a tight but loose approach’.
So how can we help students with low confidence write a sophisticated introduction that is loose enough to be applied to any poem and any question that AQA might throw at them and tightly structured enough that it will support?
We are looking at Cecil Day Lewis’ Walking Away and the question: How does the poet portray his sense of loss and separation?
I first asked students to complete the sentence: The poet portrays the sense of loss and separation as …….
The overwhelming majority of students chose the words ‘Painful’ ‘Difficult’ ‘Hurtful’. It was a ‘hallelujah’ moment knowing something had been retained from first reading. This is a vital step and one that I want students to spend time on with each of the 15 poems. James Durran argues that ‘to really ‘know’ a poem, students need to have formed a relationship with it which is more than intellectual.’ I think this act of pinning down is a sophisticated culmination of knowledge and essential to the analysis process. Chris Curtis also touches on this in his post on how he teaches ‘An Inspector Calls’. The reduction of the text to a single, pivotal idea is crucial.
I then put the following model on the board:
The poet portrays loss and separation as something painful and difficult. ‘Walking Away’ is a memory of the poet’s son leaving to play in a sporting match. This event has scarred the poet and he still remembers it vividly after 18 years. Although painful, it does end on a more positive note.
We then analysed the function of each sentence and spent time looking at how each adds logical meaning to the one before.
The final sentence, the ‘Journey’ sentence is one that has played on my mind for some time, as something that I felt needed including but is hard to help students decide where and when. Random rules seems much harder to remember.
Reduction to a pivotal idea is key, but does the poem leave the reader in the same place it began? Is there only one pivotal idea, or does the poet grow, develop, change, taking the reader on a journey? Whether it does or doesn’t, this help students to really ‘know’ the poem as Durran suggests and is a sophisticated, structural point for an introduction: How does the poet portray x? Mainly in this way, but leaves the reader feeling another way.
Mainly this way, and ends leaving the reader feeling the same (stuck, unable to move on, still haunted, scarred etc.).
What I realised as well, about the Journey sentence, is that it gives students wriggle room. It allows them to cope with contrasting ideas and anomalies in the poem and doesn’t force them into a single box e.g.. The poet feels this (and only this).
I’m going to continue to work with students on this process and modelled introduction and see how their understanding develops.
Allison, S. and Tharby, A., 2015 Making Every Lesson Count Crownhouse Publishing
https://www.nate.org.uk/file/2017/03/NATE_TE_Issue-13_33-36-ENSTONE-FINAL.pdf Time to stop ‘PEE’-ing ?
http://www.jamesdurran.blog A poetry lesson