Poetry 2: Knowledge and Revision

The poetry anthology is a difficult challenge for revision because there are so many moving parts and it’s difficult to know what to prioritise. I’ve had lots of people asking for advice in the past week or so, wanting things which are going to be ‘engaging’ and ‘new’ for students. The problem with this is that planning for the sake of fun and engagement rarely produces high impact learning for students – it often means that teachers focus on novel activities, rather than on long term learning.

When I talk about revision, I don’t mean that last panicked bit at the end of the course, when the students have finally realised that an actual exam is imminent. If you get to that part of the year and find yourself encouraging massed practice (otherwise known as ‘cramming’), I fear that it might be too late!

Revision, to me, is something which should be done in the long term, consistently, with repetition and frequent cycling through things already taught. In my first poetry post (here), I advocate teaching the poems from the anthology in small chunks over the course of Y10, and then returning to them through quizzing and recall activities for the remainder of the course. This works just as well for the other set texts, of course, and you can easily interleave revision, putting questions on Romeo and Juliet and the Romantic poets into the same task.

How should this long term revision and focus on knowledge work in practice? First, we need to embrace the cardinal rule of learning: if it’s not hard, it’s not working. Our classrooms should be havens of focused, challenging activity where students are expecting to work hard.

1. Aim for focused, evidence based practice. We have all been asked “Sir/Miss, will this be a fun lesson?” My answer is always the same; “trying your best and overcoming struggle is fun.” While this makes me sound like a soul-less robot, and they always groan and says to their friends “I told you!”, deep down, they enjoy my lessons because they know they are achieving. Lessons where students feel they have learned loads, worked hard and been successful are always engaging in their own right.

2. Keep it simple. As simple as possible. Veer away from the bells and whistles – don’t overload students if you don’t need to. There is nothing at all wrong with a test in silence, some teacher modelling and a piece of independent written work.

3. Don’t be afraid to be repetitive. Peps McCrea says ‘predictability breeds trust’ (Memorable Teaching, 2017) If students know what to expect from lessons, this can reduce anxiety and allow them to settle into a calm routine. All of my lessons start and end with quizzing and recall activities in silence, from memory.

4. Embrace silence. Revision lessons don’t need to be about running around the room finding the right post-it note and ‘giving them a break’. Students will sit 8.5 hours of English exams. Let’s prepare them for it by expecting silent focus as often as possible in the run up. I often tell mine it’s like they are in training for a marathon – time in silence is golden preparation for the hours of exams ahead.

My favourite strategy for revision and embedding knowledge in the long term is revision grids. Here are my favourite ones with some simple explanations. You can find ALL the resources I mention in this series of poetry posts by following this link.

Revision grids

These are brilliant, simple and easily adapted to any student, group or focus you may have. The key principle is that students complete revision grids by themselves, in silence, from memory as far as possible. I always allow mine to spend the final few minutes looking back at their notes and adding any information they may have forgotten to include. This is an important step, because explicitly identifying the things they missed will help them to remember them in future.

1. Themed Grids

Select a theme or idea which links lots of the poems together – the more specific, the better. Students attempt to fill each box from memory with anything and everything they can remember. In the case of the ‘soldiers’ grid here, that could be quotations, key vocabulary, key ideas, narrative voice, author intention, context details etc. They could also make links between the poems by writing across the dividing lines and connecting them with each other. 2. Imagery Grids

Select a range of images from across the poems which all share a common thread (in the case below, it is imagery of mouths). This is a great way of encouraging more advanced analysis, beyond students simply saying, ‘they are both about conflict’ or something similar. If you want to introduce more challenge, you could give a few possible image types and let students find their own quotations from across the anthology. Some I’ve used in the past include images of: children, sunlight, the colour red, heat, the sea…

3. Key Quotation Grids

This grid can take quotations from one poem (like the one in the example below), or quotations from a range of different poems. Students identify where the line is from, explain its literal meaning, identify any literary devices, explore some possible interpretations, relevant context information, patterns and common ideas within the poem, possible links or comparisons with other poems in the anthology…

4. Question grids

These grids can be very flexible; adapt them to your precise needs and the stage your students are currently at. The example below has themes and key questions from a range of literature texts (this is on R&J and ACC, but could easily include poetry and/or the modern text, too). It is easily changed to suit the needs of students – I tend to give fewer boxes and questions depending on student need and capacity.

5. The BIG Picture Grid

This works really well for any literature text, and supports students to consider structure and have a more sophisticated overview of texts.

Tell students which text to focus on. They then make notes, from memory, in each box:

‘The most profound…’ what is the most powerful line, moment or message in the text? Why?

‘The least profound…’ what other messages or ideas are there which are less significant, in your view?

‘The climax…’ what is the dramatic climax of the text? Is there a moment of sudden change or heightened emotion for the reader?

‘The calm…’ what is the opposite of this climax? Is there a more reflective, peaceful moment in the text? This could be the calm before a rise in tension; a moment where everything seems to be OK, or where the reader is lulled into a false sense of security.

‘The journey…’ is there a journey, an arc, or a change over time during the text? A character might change, or the text may have come through a series of ideas and reached a conclusion. This might be related to an interesting structure or shape in the text.

‘The lesson…’ what is the overall message or idea of this text? Is the author trying to convince us of something? Challenge us? Is it a complaint about something or a call to action? Is there something for us to learn about human nature, politics or power?

For a more detailed exploration of these ideas, there is a whole chapter on memory and recall in my book, ‘How to Teach English Literature’, available on Amazon.

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