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Paul’s Top 5 Tips for teaching poetry

As anyone who has ever left classroom teaching will tell you - you never actually ever stop being a teacher. Nearly five years after I did so myself, I find myself ever-connected to that drive that brought me into the profession in the first place.

The desire to help open learning doors for children to confidently walk through.

Taking the leap from being on a full timetable to going it alone as a freelancer was a massive step, but one which ultimately brought me back to where I started. Performing poetry daily in assembly halls, classrooms and ever increasingly - staff rooms delivering CPD sessions. The chances to open those doors (despite no longer being an ‘official’ teacher) presented themselves more often than they ever did when I was tied to an ever narrowing curriculum.

Entertaining and educating kids through nonsense, rhythm, language and occasionally rhyme is one of the most privileged jobs that I’ve ever done. I come home from work (yes Mum, it is a proper job) and it leaves me absolutely shattered but still with that warm feeling of having done something pretty awesome inside.

That through our writing workshops I’ve helped lift kids up to feel confident in their work; that their perspective about the topic they are exploring has been built on and that they’ve learned communicate what was inside them effectively with their peers. It’s not an easy job by any means - but it is one that is filled with a huge amount of fun.

Yet the delivery of all this is still something that teachers confess to me after our sessions they are still nervous about teaching themselves. “I’m no poet - what do I know?” or “How on earth do you teach a child to openly express themselves like that?” is a refrain I’ve heard many times over from teachers or support staff as I’ve visited schools all over the UK, nervous about somehow ‘getting it wrong’.

Well first off, you can’t - there isn’t a poetry police and I’m certainly not proposing setting myself up as one. Next - even within the working writers community there is a massive debate about what makes a ‘good’ piece of poetry.

Visit any poetry slam up and down the country and you’ll see arguments and disagreements about which piece spoke most effectively to the audience or not. Speak to a judging panel for a poetry prize and they’ll tell you that they are constantly pulling their hair out to find a ‘winner’. No-one has (as yet) come up with the magic formula. How on Earth do you make a comparison between a witty Spike Milligan two liner and a page long political metaphor with a shedload of heightened language by Carol Ann Duffy? The answer is you can’t - not without sounding ridiculously snooty about it all anyway.

Like any art form, it’s unbelievably subjective and so I’ve tried to come up with a simple set of ideas for teachers to refer back to in their classes. Something that reminds everyone that the most important thing is that the ideas have left pupils heads and hearts, taking their place instead on paper and in performance. It hopefully frees things up a bit, gets people feeling that they can attempt to write some new pieces with their kids and develops a sense of open creativity in the classroom.

So here it is - my five top tips for delivering poetry in the classroom. They aren’t rules, they aren’t directions and I’m almost certain that one or two of them will be up for debate - but that’s the joy of creative writing.

Whatever you think of them - let’s get these kids writing.

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