I read this article in The Times last week and it resonated with my own thoughts. I have been increasingly worried with the senior English students I see at Kip McGrath Ashford, not with them, but how the English curriculum and exam boards are “squeezing” the skills that our students have.
Sir Andrew Motion, who was Poet Laureate to 2009 knows more about poetry than I can ever profess to know, but made a comment that is stunningly simple: “Poems are not things you ever reach the end of. That sense of what a poem is has to be preserved within the academic structure – that pleasure that poetry gives to people.”
Sir Andrew feels that exam boards, and thus teachers in schools, have fixed ideas about the right answer, yet poetry has no right or wrong answer.
I was looking at one poem on Tuesday with Sharik, a bright intelligent pupil who was struggling to aim to produce what his teacher wanted him to write in a controlled assessment. He had identified a metaphor and whilst he was trying to explain the effect the poet was trying to achieve we disagreed on the meaning and interpretation.
The real meaning of poetry was going to be lost on a system that strives to teach pupils a rigid, correct answer, to regurgitate what people want to read. Sharik’s interpretation was different to mine, both were valid, we could both explain the effect and the response it provoked in our mind, both were different to what Sharik had been told what it meant in the preparation for his GCSE exam.
Sharik would have loved to hear Sir Andrew’s viewpoint, “Some children find it difficult to give exact answers to things, they [need to have] permission not to worry about it with poetry, because it doesn’t matter.But with poems, in some fundamental way, I couldn’t be wrong.”
The exam boards need to listen, to reward pupils who think and reflect on what they need, and the meaning they attribute to the words they read, to the feelings and thoughts that those words evoke.
Controlled assessments and pre-seen poetry create a pressure that makes the belief that there is a right and wrong way of reading something.
Sir Andrew Motion states “We need to push back from that.” A comment that both Sharik and I can readily agree with