"A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place." - Jeanette Winterson
What is the easiest source of literature when you are short of time? What is the easiest source of literature when you have lots of time and would like to enjoy the power of words? What is the easiest way to give your students a taste of a complete work of literature? The answer is easy, it's poetry! We often crave for literary texts that can either entertain us or describe the way we feel, and often only poems can offer solutions. Poetry can be our most immediate entertainment or remedy, and we are not always aware of the poetic nature of the language we use.
From an early age we are exposed to rhymes, alliteration and onomatopoeia, and we are used to figurative language from the moment we encounter verbal language. We might not even be aware of the number of metaphors, metonymy and synecdoches we use in our everyday language. We often say our storytelling ability makes us human, but we also possess the creative ability of reading and writing poetry. As children we learn through rhymes, songs and poems, and through puns and verse forms we get familiar with the playfulness of language. Why not take advantage of this creative power of language in the English class?
To help you celebrate poetry, we have collected ten classroom activities and ideas you can do this week or on any day of the year.
Poetry in the English class
1 Poetry reading stage
Work with other teachers, and set up a poetry reading stage and organize a poetry reading day. You can do it in as many languages as your students speak, and they can all pick their favourite poems and read during breaks or after classes.
2 Read poetry aloud
Dedicate some time to reading poetry aloud in your English class. The power of the human voice will enchant your students, and the moment you start reading or reciting a poem, something magical will happen!
3 Talk in rhymes or alliteration
You can do it as a group activity. Choose popular themes like love, friends, family, nature or holiday. Ask your students to come up with rhymes or alliterating lines.
4 Learn about tropes and figures of speech
Can you come up with your own tropes and figures of speech? Work in groups and write more examples.
Metaphor is the identification of two things on the basis of similarity. For example, "Your eyes are bright stars, your skin is velvet". The points of similarity are obvious: brightness and softness.
If you'd like to demonstrate how metaphors work or how omnipresent they are in the language we speak, read this extract from Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which focuses on a young boy with Asperger's Syndrome.
"The second main reason [for his difficulties] is that people often talk using metaphors. These are examples of metaphors.
I laughed my socks off. He was the apple of her eye. They had a skeleton in the cupboard. We had a real pig of a day. The dog was stone dead.
The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words μετα (which means from one place to another) and φερειν (which means to carry) and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.
I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about." (Mark Haddon)
Metonymy works like metaphor because it is the identification of two things, but here the two things are identified on the basis logical connection, and not similarity. For example, when you say "gold" instead of "money". Here is another example: "the City says". Here is a classic example from Charles Dickens's novel Nicholas Nickleby:
" – [I am looking for] Mrs Nickleby. – said Ralph. – It’s the second floor, Hannah – said the same voice. – … Is the second floor at home? - Somebody went out just now, but I think it was the attic – replied the girl." (Charles Dickens)
Synecdoche is a part of speech in which you identify the part with the whole or the whole with the part. For example, in "Sailing to Byzantium" by W. B. Yeats, you can read this line: "An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick". Here the "coat" refers to its owner, the "man".
Kenning is an Old English figure of speech in which you use a compound phrase to describe an object. For example, a "wave traveller" is a "boat". This device was much used in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic poetry.
Oxymoron is a figure of speech in which you bring together two words with opposite meanings. For example, "cruel kindness".
Simile is a figure of speech in which you compare two things using the words "like" or "as". For example, "her eyes are like black coal".
Synaesthesia is a figure of speech in which the different senses are mixed up. For example, "sweet music" mixes taste with sound ; and "warm colour" mixes feeling with sight.
Understatement is a figure of speech in which you say less than what you mean. The context of situation is important when we hear an understatement. For example, when it is 20 below zero and we say 'it's a bit cold' becomes an understatement.
5 What's in a poem?
This activity is taken from the resource book The Principled Communicative Approach by Jane Arnold, Zoltán Dörnyei and Chaz Pugliese.
There are two more activities based on poems in the same resource book::
- "Dear friend" on page 42.
- "Advice from a tree" on page 130.
6 Introducing sound patterns
This activity is taken from the resource book Writing Stories by Andrew Wright and David A. Hill.
There is another activity to help you with figures of speech in this resource book:
- "Introducing figures of speech" on page 162.
7 List poems
This activity is taken from the resource book Thinking in the EFL Class by Tessa Woodward.
8 From poem to story
This activity is taken from the resource book Creative Writing by Maria Rinvolucri and Christine Frank.
There are two more fun activities in this book:
- "Poems Using Names" on page. 107.
- "Editing a poem" on page 120.
9 Internalising a poem in three ways
This activity is taken from the resource book Imagine That! by Jane Arnold, Herbert Puchta, Mario Rinvolucri.
Try this activity from the same resource book:
- "Images to Poem" on page 85.
10 Illustrate a poem
Choose poems for groups or one for each student. Make photocopies on large sheets. As your students are reading the story, ask them to illustrate them.
- Bassnett, Susan and Peter Grundy. Language through Literature. Longman, 1993.
- Bényei, Tamás. Introduction to Literature and Culture. Lecture notes 2005. IEAS - University of Debrecen, online access. (The examples and definitions in Exercise 4 are based on these lecture notes.)
- McRae, John and Luisa Pantaleoni. Chapter & Verse. OUP: Oxford, 1990.