Cranbrook School

Resonate Series: Rethinking English pedagogy #poetryisnotdead

Resonate Series: Rethinking English pedagogy #poetryisnotdead

By Kate Kovalik, Assistant Head of English – Literacy Co-ordinator

I was recently faced with the classroom conundrum of making poetry interesting and engaging for a class of high potential Year 7 English students. To help connect students with poetry, I thought it was important to acknowledge the world we’re living in now. Students are online, interacting in real time, creating, and absorbing media content constantly. I wanted to explore what would happen if we united our curriculum with some of those familiar social media experiences to make teaching poetry more relevant and compelling.

In 2019, The United Kingdom Literacy Association published the Honours Thesis I completed at The University of Sydney. My research, called #poetryisnotdead: understanding Instagram poetry within a transliteracies framework, explored the implications of Instagram’s poetry communities on English pedagogy. It found that interacting with poetry on a social media platform increased exposure to, and relevance of, poetry writing and appreciation. The platform also created a space for young people to engage in writing, reading, and analysis of poems, and was a relevant method of peer review and collaboration.

Adapting for a digital world

I found that young people are composing multimodal creative works, including digital poetry, to share with an online audience using social media platforms such as Instagram. Poets and composers, such as New York Times bestselling author Rupi Kaur, connect and provide feedback through online poetry communities. Social media has been exceptional for poetry because it is able to unite voices from all around the world. On Instagram, there’s a growing community of people who are writing poems, sharing them, and receiving real-time feedback in a collaborative and authentic way.

My 2019 research found that community and interactivity are important to poets, especially regarding feedback. The platform and complementary apps, especially those used for photo editing, afforded poets agency and fostered multimodality when composing, thus highlighting the changing nature of digitised writing practices.

Fast forward to 2023, where I now work as an English teacher at Cranbrook School. Although most students approached English with enthusiasm, there was a pervading sense of discontent around poetry, particularly in the younger years. I thought back to the thesis I had worked on at university and decided to investigate whether classroom engagement would increase if poetry was explored through a more contemporary lens.

Making poetry engaging

I started by looking at the attitudes towards poetry held by my Year 7 English class by asking my students to complete a survey. Their attitudes were mixed, though predominantly negative. Some students described poetry as boring, old-fashioned, and pointless. With this evidence, I was curious to test whether engaging these students in poetry writing using a multimodal form of publishing, and offering real-time feedback within a safe classroom environment, could increase their enthusiasm and improve their experience.  

Cranbrook’s Teacher Inquiry Group (TIG) is about evidence-informed classroom practice. It is a systematic inquiry by teachers with the goals of becom­ing more reflective practitioners, effecting changes in the classroom, and improving student outcomes. I worked with The Association of Independent Schools of NSW (AISNSW) to define the research parameters and to plan a lesson sequence that explored whether poetry would become more engaging if taught in an environment that mimics the one found on Instagram.

After watching the film Whale Rider, my Year 7 students wrote a poem based on the perspective of a character of choice. They then went online to Canva to publish their poem as a multimodal piece with text and symbolic images. The students then published their poetry in class and were given real-time feedback from their classmates in a way that mimicked the poetry community on Instagram. Overall, the students produced poems that demonstrated greater insight into the film than I had seen from previous activities.

A dynamic learning activity

To conclude this research, each student submitted a voice recording about their experience. Analysis found students enjoyed the process, saying that publishing their poetry as a multimodal text was a dynamic learning activity that helped them build empathy for characters. They also enjoyed receiving real-time feedback in a format they were used to.

It was wonderful to see teenage boys writing and enjoying poetry in a format that went beyond just words on a page. Of course, embedding multimodal text types or digital tools into classroom activities are not ‘silver bullets’ when it comes to classroom engagement. However, providing students with variety during poetry instruction, giving time to experiment with form and digital tools, and providing them with a level of choice in how they composed and formatted their poem, did increase levels of classroom engagement.

Teaching in this way worked well for a high-potential English class because it gave the students more agency and freedom in their learning, as well as an element of challenge. With some more scaffolding, I believe this unit could be re-worked to appeal to different groups of students as well.  

Overall, my research found engagement levels with poetry increased when publishing works as a multimodal text. This lesson sequence demonstrated that real-time classroom feedback made the unit more relevant and engaging in a contemporary learning environment. In the words of one student, “I always used to think it [poetry] wasn’t a good way of representing anything. But now I really get to see how you can express characters’ feelings and emotions really well in the poetry.”