Some Ideas about Teaching
Writing Poetry in the History Classroom*
all the poems in this section, except my own at the end, were written by
Year 7 pupils in a Special needs class
In terms of
the ‘productive work’ element of the History lesson, poetry is one of the
least-explored but most rewarding strategies.
• It is particularly attractive for the less-literate learners, who can
sometimes produce beautiful and evocative work when they are freed from the
requirement to write prose text – ALL the poems in this article except my
own are by Special Needs pupils.
• It accesses the creative side of the pupils’ brains.
• It is particularly useful for embedding and expressing empathetic
Almost any topic can be used as the basis of a poem, as William McGonagall
proved, but you may wish especially to use it when studying events where the
emotions run high (e.g. Thomas Becket, Aberfan). Great sadness, joy, love,
horror, devotion, admiration etc. all lend themselves to poetic expression.
You may wish to avoid topics where the pupils might be tempted to explore
unacceptable emotions (e.g. murders, issues of race and ethnicity).
Do you see God?
My heart and soul see Him.
Do you feel relaxed and calm that you are
pleasing the Lord?
Yes, for saving my soul.
Why do you wear rough clothes?
To show that I am like Jesus.
He was not rich, but rich in heart and love.
Good poetry is based on good knowledge and understanding, so
the learning elements of your lesson will be unchanged.
• Teach the topic to ensure interest and understanding.
• Make sure that the pupils are given materials which allow them to use
different learning styles – visual (eg picture sources; stills are better
than video, so that the pupil can reflect on them), auditory (spoken word,
printed text) and kinaesthetic (e.g. for the story of Becket, bring in a
metal sword for the pupils to close their eyes, touch, and feel the context
of the events).
• Drama is an excellent preparation for poetry work, since it encourages
‘standpointing’ and ‘gets them into the experience’ of the different
people/elements in the scene. For the story of Becket, for example, a
‘tableau’ (sometimes called a ‘freeze-frame’ scene) is excellent for
allowing the pupils to see the scene from different points of view – get
them to set up the tableau, then quiz them about what they can see and how
they feel. (Why not get some of them to be inanimate objects – such as a
pillar, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the sword – instead of being one
of the people in the scene?)
I am the grass
Happy in the sun,
I hear thumping.
‘After all these years,
It’s happening again.’
Wicked and vicious.
Someone falls on me.
They are in pain.
I feel sad
after all those years
Don’t just ask the pupils to write a poem. Show them a
poem that somebody else has written about the event (or, better, a similar
event). Don’t just read it – declaim it, enjoying the language and
Spend some time discussing the poem with the pupils. Is it a good poem? What
did they notice about the poem? How did it make them feel when they listened
to it? What techniques did the poet use to achieve these effects?
Show respect to poetry as a way to express knowledge and understanding.
Always explain to the pupils that, seeing as they are going
to write poetry, they must access the creative/poetic side of their nature.
Declare ‘a time for reflection’. Explain that during this time they are
going to sit and reflect, allowing the creative side of their brain to take
over, and seeing what poetic and beautiful phrases come into their minds.
• Insist that they become quiet and reflective, sitting in silence and
listening to their hearts.
• Get them to spend some time reflecting on the stimulus material(s),
allowing the poetic side of their nature to influence the way they are
thinking and feeling.
• Keeping closing their eyes is a vital element of this.
• Suggest that some pupils might wish to take the standpoint/personality of
a specific element inside the scene – perhaps an unexpected element such as
the floor. What can they see? What do they feel?
• Depending on the class, you may wish to encourage/allow them to make
themselves ‘creatively comfortable’. Some may wish to isolate themselves
from the others. Some may wish to lie on their side or sit on the floor. I
had one pupil who did her best work sitting cross-legged under the table!
Stress to the pupils that the issue here is trust – you need to be able to
trust that they are genuinely seeking to be creative, and not just being
• If the pupils welcome it, play appropriate, relaxing, music – Mozart is
supposed to be best
• Whilst the pupils reflect, occasionally read out powerful or beautiful
phrases from your exemplar poem in a respectful manner.
Most pupils respond to this surprisingly enthusiastically – perhaps because
it is so different to the normal way they are required to work. Some of the
most unlikely pupils demonstrate creativity and aesthetic appreciation.
I saw people cheering, but then
I saw people weeping.
Their clothes were strange and ripped in half.
One shouted, ‘Do not fear my love,
I will be with thee.’
He tried to help me with my fight to where no one had ever been -
into my heart then I saw that he loved me.
My heart was burning deep inside and twice it beat like a drum;
as hard as a stone I looked at him.
I felt as if he fell for
me I loved him so and he loved
me and then he said, ‘Wilt thou
dance with me’. My love is like
an ocean my heart is like
a touch of gold.
Tell the pupils to start writing down some of the phrases
that they are coming up with.
Try to insist on phrases. With very limited pupils, however, just words can
eventually make a very powerful and meaningful poem.
Battle of Hastings
Fighting for your life:
The winners march slowly off.
With less able pupils, it is useful at this stage to have another adult in
the room. Go round the pupils, especially those who find written expression
difficult. The adult approaches the child, gets them to close their eyes and
visualise the scene from their chosen standpoint – What can they see? What
are they feeling? Then they write down the pupil’s words verbatim – this is
the pupil’s poem, not theirs.
After a while, call the pupils attention to yourself, and ask them to share
some of the phrases they have come up with. The pupils’ creativity will be
stimulated by other pupils’ ideas.
Praise EVERY suggestion and write them on the board until you have six or
Show the pupils how to turn their words/phrases into a poem
by ordering the words/phrases for sense, structure and sound.
Depending on the level of ability and motivation, demonstrate how you can:
• change individual words and phrases,
• play with words/language,
• experiment with line breaks/layout on the page and/or
• add connectives
to achieve the best effect..
Sometimes some phrases need to be omitted altogether, and new ones need to
be created; sometimes it is just a matter of adjusting the odd word or
Read out the resultant poem proudly, with feeling.
Send the pupils back to their individual workplaces to:
1. Sort their phrases into order to make their poem.
2. Consider the effectiveness of their poem as a whole, and – where
necessary – change the order of phrases/ words/ elements to polish the poem.
(Adults help at this phase by suggesting to pupils elements of their poems
which ‘don’t work for me’. Pupils might be invited to consider making
changes, but don’t insist or suggest what the change might be – always
remember that the poem is the pupil’s intellectual and creative property.)
3. Write up the finished piece neatly.
Death of Becket
One of the
Bold knights can’t pull him from the
Virgin Mary’s pillar.
Blowing his crown off and falling
Fearless to the ground.
Blood gushing out of his ears
Lay on the ground he
‘For the Name of Jesus I am ready to
Type up the best efforts. Read them out proudly and passionately to the
pupils at the start of the next lesson, and display them prominently.
ALWAYS write your own poem on the scene and read that out to the pupils.
This is essential – you must be prepared to expose your poetic/creative
Sword that killed Becket
Falling, I can see the tonsured head
and feel the crunch of metal on stone
and watch the blood flow from the broken skull,
And know that now
I am become death.
2003, 03:06 PM