Teaching Poetry Coolly

My pupils are not those disaffected 15 year olds who can only be brought into the world of the written word through writing gritty raps about their life in the grime of the tower blocks. My pupils are the well-behaved and relatively docile 9 year olds who can be enthused about pretty much anything so long as I describe it with wide eyes and a smile.

Nonetheless, when introducing poetic devices to them in literacy, I am turning to the likes of Marshall Mathers and John Cooper Clarke before William Wordsworth and Edgar Allen Poe. Why? Because in the work of Eminem and John Cooper Clarke, the skill and the poetry is made so brazen and dazzlingly explicit – when you introduce the notion of rhyme to pupils, there is no better showcase of the versatility of rhyming verse than in the opening verse of Lose Yourself.

I explained that there are different types of rhyme, and as we are focusing on performance, the idea of ‘near rhymes’ and internal rhymes are as useful to us as our more common rhyming words at the end of a line. Playing Eminem’s first verse for them is not gimmicky and it isn’t me trying to present myself as ‘the cool teacher’ (that is well established, obvs) – it is simply an astounding example of the craft.

Next on the list came alliteration, and could there be a better example of it than Blackalicious’ ‘Alphabet Aerobics’ – once again, a creative masterclass. We focused on the lines for E and F, where the language was all within their grasp.

Eating other editors with each and every energetic epileptic episode, elevated etiquette

Furious fat fabulous fantastic flurries of funk felt feeding the fanatic

They relished the opportunity to speak the lines and to feel the way that the alliteration and the rhythm of the words forced them to nod their heads – the beat is implicit, but inescapable. We have decided that we want to blow the school away in our annual Poetry Recital by smashing out a whole-class rendition of Alphabet Aerobics, with the 25 kids plus me making up the 26 letters of the alphabet.

I am a huge fan of John Cooper Clarke, and the added bonus of introducing them to Northern voices was too tempting to ignore. Of course, as with Eminem, not all of the work of Johnny Clarke is appropriate for the 9 and 10 year old of East London, but that does not need to besmirch the entire catalogue of his work. Beasley Street, by John Cooper Clarke, is one of the most evocative things you are likely to read, and when it is spoken by Clarke, it is reminiscent of Blake’s London. Again, I did not need to share the whole poem, but could pick out sections which demonstrate the poetic devices I was wanting to share with the kids.

Again, on rhyme.

It’s a sociologist’s paradise, each day repeats

Uneasy, cheesy, greasy, queasy, beastly Beasley Street.

With this example, the kids noticed for themselves the fact that with so many rhyming words – each one building the same mental image – the word choice led them to practically spit out the rhyming words, as though they were disgusted.

This introduced us in a pretty pure way to the poetic devices which we are going to be covering. We are writing our own evocative urban poetry, using ‘Last Night, I Saw The City Breathing’ by Andrew Fusek Peters. Rather than being a ‘bolt-on’, by drawing parallels with rap and with punk poetry, we have been able to connect the poetic forms with the scenes they describe.

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