24th August 2015
Dr Aisha Spencer from the University of the West Indies reflects on exploring poetry with Jamaican High School students.
In late 2014, I was invited to assist a group of secondary school students in rural Jamaica, who were said to be having serious difficulty with understanding and responding to poetry. These students were in their final year of high school and were about to sit their Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certification examinations (CSEC) (which would be equivalent to the UK’s GCSE examinations).
The group comprised predominantly Creole speakers, who lacked fluency in the use of Standard English. Additionally, they were a part of a non-traditional school environment, which, in Jamaica, meant that they were seen as low academic achievers from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These factors led to the students being labelled as ‘unable to do poetry’. But, what makes any student ‘unable to do poetry’? Typically, an evaluation like this is solely based on how well students are able to meet academic requirements. Classroom instruction geared towards helping students to be successful in their external examinations tends to focus heavily on very technical aspects of understanding a poem, rather than on the use of various strategies to help students personally connect with and understand the poems they read. An understanding of the technical aspects of a poem is important, but very often, we start at the wrong place when introducing students to the world of poetry. Examinations play an important role in helping students to matriculate so that they can gain access to various institutions or into the world of work, but as was argued by philosophers like Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey over a century ago, education ought to be a much wider and more experiential process which cannot itself be solely contained in the act of sitting a test for one to three hours. There is nothing a student is unable to do when he or she meaningfully connects with the subject matter or task at hand.
As I thought long and hard about how to help these students better understand and respond to the poems on their English Literature syllabus, my mind became activated by Louise Rosenblatt’s characterisation of literary interpretation as occurring through a transaction between the reader and the text. Rosenblatt describes the literary process as occurring through the prior knowledge and experience readers bring to the text as they internalize the textual details present. I began to reflect on the actual classroom experience of poetry many young people have today, both locally and internationally. These experiences are often quite static, focusing on the teacher as the crystal ball holder who contains all the ‘right’ ways of reading, interpreting and responding to the poems being studied in the classroom and who in turn passes on this ‘knowledge’ to his/her students. I therefore wanted to alter the ways students were ‘expected’ to react to poetry in the classroom by surrounding the student with that which was already familiar and by utilizing that which was already a positive feature of the student’s context. I wanted to allow students to ‘enter’ the poem (as spoken of by Milner and Milner (2008) as the way through which to introduce students to the literary content to be explored) based on the personal connections they were able to make with the poem, rather than solely based on their knowledge of the technical structures of the poem, such as the literary devices present or the traditional rhythmic patterns used in the poem. This kind of knowledge, I felt, could come after students were allowed to first establish a point of connection with the poem; a reason for wanting to read and explore the poem.
Many of the artistic and cultural experiences of students in Jamaica are framed by the deep-rooted presence of orality and music in the nation. Researchers (C. Brown(1970); Bernhart and Wolf, 2004) have already shed light on the intricate relationship between music and poetry, but few of us, as educators, understand the value of the ‘sound’ of poetry in helping students to truly appreciate, understand and respond to poems. One of the sub genres of poetry which pulls both orality and music together is Dub Poetry, a form indigenous to Jamaica, which emerged in the mid-twentieth century out of the well-known genre of Reggae music. The results were amazing! The students engaged with poems from poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Mikey G. Smith, Mutabaruka, Lillian Allen, some young local amateur dub poets, and many other dub poets across the globe. The oral component of dub poetry exposed the students to their history, culture and identity, and helped them to listen and respond to the poem with ease because students were already comfortable with this oral context. The musical component, which has its roots predominantly in the genre of reggae music, awakened their appetites for further engagement with the poetic by allowing them to evaluate the use of proverbs and other cultural forms present in the poems, which were embedded within their society’s oral tradition.
Rather than have students focus solely on dub poetry however, the dub poems were used as a tool through which to engage the students in other forms of poetry, including free verse poems, sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, and other types of poetry. Through focus on the ‘sound’ of the dub poetry and the ways in which this ‘sound’ was articulated by the poet on the page, students became skilful at analysing how sound can be produced in other poems through various rhythmic patterns, the specific arrangement of stanzas and lines, the placement of words, the use of literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, puns and so on. They were given the opportunity to create their own dub poetry, recite dub poems and other forms of poetry and were also asked to articulate the similarities and differences in sound present in various parts of a poem based on the use of such patterns as the iambic pentameter, the pattern of lineation in certain sonnets, internal and external rhyming patterns and many of the technical elements of prosody often present on the CSEC English Literature examination. Students also examined the use of tone and the power of the speaker’s persona and voice in representing events, situations and emotions within the poem. Through moments of intense and close listening to the ‘sound’ of the poem and through a number of recitations both of the poems being studied and their own creative pieces, the meanings of so many poems suddenly came alive and their figurative meanings no longer seemed so ‘impossible’ to comprehend. Students were able to comprehend, talk and write about their interpretation of the poem’s content based on their understanding not simply of ‘what’ was being said, but also of ‘how’ meaning was articulated in the poem. This played a crucial role in helping them to appreciate, understand and respond to the poems on their syllabus and eventually, in their exam.
In my interviews with these students about the use of dub poetry to help them better connect with other forms of poetry, the students expressed above all else, how much listening to and ‘sounding out’ the poems helped them to better interpret the poem on the page. Some students also shared that by remembering the poem and the way certain parts of the poem functioned, they were able to note similar patterns in other poems they read. By the end of the term, the students’ test results improved significantly, their attitudes were positively transformed, and more importantly, they no longer feared poetry but saw it as something to which they could respond, once they found the right point through which to personally connect with the poem.
Dr. Aisha Spencer is a lecturer in Language and Literature Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. She has been teaching language and literature for eighteen years and is especially passionate about finding innovative material and alternative forms of literary pedagogy to help children and young people better connect with and enjoy all genres of literature. She is the co-editor of a recently published anthology of Caribbean poetry, entitled ‘Give the Ball to the Poet’ : A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry. Her areas of research interest are in Gender and Nationalism, Postcolonial Literatures, and Literature Education.