The Role of Poetry in Education


imgresSuch synchronicity! Imagine my delight to find this article after enjoying a fantastic writing workshop with students and poets from the Red Room Company. It seemed as if Judith was speaking directly to me, and my senior students who will be studying her poetry in Advanced Module C Representation and Text Elective 2: Representing People and Landscapes.

Although originally published in 1966, many points made by Wright in her article ‘The Role of Poetry in Education’ remain valid. I have been enjoying the sharing of seminal writings from the English in Australia journal as part of the 50 years celebration of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English.

One of my classroom goals is to foster, support and maintain a positive belief in creativity by students. Through adolescence and for a range of reasons, many young people struggle to remain creative. Comments may be seen as harsh criticism and moments of self doubt mean many experience a fear of failure and simply state “I can’t” when asked to write. More explicitly, Wright suggests that

… many young children have reactive and imaginative capacities which go unnoticed, are neglected and even crushed, by the material demands of society and too practical approach to education.

This seems particularly relevant with the introduction of standardised testing and the publication of results for comparison between schools. As teachers, we know of the diagnostic benefits that some testing provides, yet time and again suggestions are made that teacher quality can in some way be measured through student results. When teaching English becomes too closely aligned with learning language techniques and finding examples in set texts, we risk losing the ability to share our passion for the English language. As Wright explains “… the teaching of poetry … seems to sometimes be a process that deadens rather than enlivens children.” Then asks:

Surely it can’t be true that the school-room approach to poetry is that it is a kind of word-puzzle?

I recall my own deadening during high school that began as a mistrust of understanding and became a dislike of poetry. When I began teaching, I lacked confidence and relied on instructional methods that probably perpetuated similar feelings. I used songs to engage students and it was through their generosity in sharing conflicting interpretations that lead to my own awakening in the beauty and importance of ‘the best words in the best order’. The value of poets visiting schools to share their processes and poetry cannot be underestimated in also fostering confidence to create.

Now, when defining poetry, I stress that it is a highly individual view of the world: this makes sense to young people who effectively engage in songs and music videos. It also gives them permission to explain their reaction in terms of personal experience and context. It is through valuing individual sentiments that we foster confidence in teenagers and allow the creation of their own representations. Wright makes this clear when she explains an emotional connection is important as “… a poem is a piece of art, meant to delight or disturb” whereas over-reliance on intellectual comprehension turns the study of poetry “into a complicated and obscure way of saying something that could be said just as well, and much more clearly, in prose.”

In discussing the power of words as creative, not just as tools for communication, Wright questions whether teachers make the explicit connection that poets use

words … as the painter uses colour and shape, or the musician uses notes of music to suggest, evoke and create, rather than simply to create fact.

One way into this level of understanding is through opportunities for students to play, have fun and be engaged with words. We encourage regular participation, sharing, publication and display of student creativity at Moss Vale High School in our Bamir Language Gallery which, from student and staff reflection, has shown an increased positivity in student writing. It is deeply satisfying to observe students reading a poem, story or representation and making meaningful comments to each other.

Knowing that young people in regional Australia are highly likely to experience periods of unemployment, I feel it is important to encourage confidence in personal creativity as a positive opportunity for maintaining mental health.

Image from the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts

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