7th September 2015
Firstly, let’s get something clear: I am a busy, but essentially, pretty lazy teacher. I’m the Head of A Level English Literature in a large sixth form college with over 200 students and several members of staff to manage. So when I first heard about Poetry by Heart my initial reaction, like it is to so many other initiatives, was “No, I just don’t have the time.” But this initiative was giving me the chance to be involved in something that had made me want to become an English teacher in the first place: Poetry!
So what do I do to make it manageable? I begin by using the website, www.poetrybyheart.org.uk as a learning resource. When our AS students return for a fortnight of A2 and HE research one of the tasks they have to undertake is to explore the timeline, find a poem they love and then share it with the rest of the class; just a lovely thing to do.
I also use a drip, drip effect throughout the year. All my AS classes learned ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Cold Heaven’ (actions included) as preparation for their exam in May, “See – you can all learn a poem off by heart.” Then in September I start to advertise the competition and hold my first meetings. I’m always surprised by who turns up, often some of my ‘quietest’ students want to take part.
I hold my comp just before Christmas, an entire evening given over to poetry, live music and wine. I’m lazy but I also like to show off my students so I host the night too, inviting a panel of judges made up of local heads, the Editor of the Northern Echo and, last year, Matilda Neil who gave a stunning performance (another advantage of living in the north east.) Each year I offer the audience the chance to vote for their favourite performance and the winner receives a small prize; this generates a lot of buzz during the interval. Teachers perform poems towards the end as the judges deliberate and the winner comes back on stage for a final recital. As the audience leave they each receive a handwritten poem in an envelope, each chosen by my students and copied out in their best handwriting.
But you don’t need to go to so much fuss, just a lunchtime with the librarian and a few other judges will suffice, because what I really love about PBH are the conversations and preparations that take place along the way. Asking students why they chose a particular poem is so enlightening. Often they find it difficult to articulate beyond “I just like how it sounds” but that’s a wonderful starting point for discussions on tone, meaning, and emotions. Listen to competitors at Cambridge meeting for the first time and they’ll spend ages discussing their poetry choices like freshers discussing their A Level results.
Note from the editor: We might need to consult the OED on the definition of ‘lazy’ as reading the above we think it might mean creative, industrious and imaginative!
We are very grateful to one of Julie’s students who writes below about her participation in the Poetry By Heart project:
What Poetry by Heart meant to me by Emily Popple
“Last December I took part in the Poetry by Heart competition at my college, thanks to a lot of encouragement from my English Literature teacher because, for a drama student, I was very reluctant to take part. That sounds stupid, but I was not fond of poetry and I did not like public speaking – at least not when I wasn’t playing a character. But, with Julie’s help I eventually picked out two poems and learned how much I actually love reading and performing poetry. The first poem was a no brainer for me, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns. Burns’ poetry has always been a huge part of my life, my mum is from Ayr and so I’ve always had that connection to it. My brother and I used to have Burns’ poems and songs as lullabies, including this one, so it was an easy choice.
The more modern poem was more difficult as, like I said, I was not a poetry fan. I ended up with ‘Two Pages’ by Choman Hardi, which I just thought was so interesting. And it’s Poetry by Heart I have to thank for my new found love for poetry, I think that some people would find not winning discouraging and maybe that would reinforce a dislike for poetry, however, in my case it has just made me more determined to enjoy poetry and take part again next year. I can now say, with confidence, that I like poetry and that is all down to Julie Ashmore and the Poetry by Heart competition.”
About Julie Ashmore
Started teaching in 1999 and has been Head of A Level English Literature at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington for the last 10 years. Julie also teaches creative writing to adults and always includes poetry activities. She is passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, running and her two gorgeous daughters.