When the concrete mind meets the abstract concept
Teaching Poetry to 7 year olds.
Akin to speaking a little-known foreign language to a deaf person.
The mind of a 7 year old resides primarily in the concrete. The child has worked hard throughout the entirety of their lives to make sense of the indiscernible. Within the space of a few short years, many unknown sites and sounds are compartmentalised in the mind and made sense of. Whereas a child of 6 months will be confused by most aspects of daily life, a 7 year old has steadily progressed along the path of understanding.
They get stuff. Stuff they don’t get, they either ignore, adapt past knowledge to fit or create a new knowledge bank. Children of this age thrive on the concrete. Gaining and sharing knowledge is a highlight. This is not to say that imagination has no place, far from it. Often, imagination is where the child can put forward their knowledge in an area completely controlled by their own mind. They learn something new, it makes little sense at the time. The child puts it into practice in a controlled setting and this helps to bring light to the subject matter.
Poetry doesn’t quite fit this process.
Poetry relies, to a degree at least, on wording the unwordable or describing the easily describable in a beautiful, abstract way.
Today, when writing Cinquain poetry, I challenged the children to describe an athlete at the Olympics in an event…poetically.
To put into words the grace of Sally Pearson cascading over hurdles on her way to gold, to capture the might of Usain Bolt’s presence.
“He ran fast,” “She jumped” seemed to be the extent of the offerings.
Trying my best, I attempted to draw out what I knew was inside of them. Each child. Reaching their potential and all that.
“But what did it look like? When Bolt streaked away from the field, leaving the competitor’s far behind?”
I needed more. I would push and push for their minds trapped in concrete definitions to exaggerate the events they had witnessed.
And they would look at me with their big, beautiful, sparking, eager-to-please eyes which barely guarded me from the utterly blinding light, signalling that, in fact, that hadn’t a clue what I was on about.
Essentially, I learnt a few things through the exercise.
1) I need to get better at teaching poetry
2) I need to change up the processes in the classroom. Too often, children complete the pattern of being set a task, completing the task, checking how they went. Such a structure emphasises being “right” – suitable for certain circumstances, but not for higher-order thinking. Not for poetry!
3) Occasionally, children need less modeling. Often, I find myself almost patently pointing out to the children step by step what needs to be done. Whilst this is occasionally necessary, when it comes to writing this, by and large, serves to censor the inherent creativity of a 7 year old. Leading them to fixate incessantly on formula, spelling, handwriting rather than sentence structure, rich description and flare.
At the end of the day, whenever I reflect on teaching, I’m drawn to the conclusion that for every argument I make toward one path of teaching, I can make an equally pertinent yet perpendicular argument.
That’s the joy of teaching. That’s the frustration of teaching. I guess, like poetry, teaching is not about right or wrong.