We love poetry and we love teaching. But is it possible to combine the two?
We came across an article in the Times Higher Education (Illingworth, 2022) that did just that, and decided to try it. This post describes our experiences of using poetry to widen the horizons of our trainees, showing them how they might use a combination of a reflective model and poetry to critically analyse their teaching experiences. Inspired by the article, we ran sessions with our trainees on the full time (Chloe) and part time (Alison) PGCE/Cert Ed course, drawing on an activity that meshed poetry and Gibbs’ (1988) model of the reflective cycle to scaffold trainees’ reflections on their experiences on placement. Illingworth’s (2022) article explains how the Gibbs’ model can be used to structure a reflection on a lesson/session. The task is then to write a poem that describes, very concisely, the critical evaluation and analysis of that experience.
Our trainees were asked to read the article prior to our session to familiarise themselves with the techniques they were going to use in class. We explained how the activity related to the module assignment, in which they have to synthesise methods of reflection and evaluation to critically review progress and monitor targets. Our aim was to stimulate engagement, and to help trainees consider different ways to reflect and evaluate – a crucial skill for teachers, and not one that comes naturally to everyone.
This is what happened…
The full-time cohort
To model the process, Chloe and the Post-16 Course Leader created poems based on their own recent teaching experiences and shared these with the full-time group. The group then worked collaboratively to create poetry. One group was led by an enthusiastic trainee who acted as the nominated poet, distilling peers’ experiences into examples of free verse, with some attention to rhyme and much humour. This tone contrasted with the challenging circumstances they had encountered on placement. Another group worked in pairs to analyse the progress of one learner from getting a D in a mock exam to an A*. This is their poem:
An immense sense of pride washes over me,
One of my students received an A* from a D,
And from this I learnt communication is key,
Which creates stronger teacher / learner bonds for me.
Moving forward I will continue this method,
Guiding them through life like a teaching shepherd
Another larger group drew on their questioning techniques to ascertain exactly what had happened following the five stages of Gibb’s Reflective Cycle (1988) closely, resulting in a haiku-style poem outlining the significance of a medical issue. Another pair reflected on the alternative placement experience at the Botanical Gardens, detailing a sensorial perspective and the personal and professional impact the experience had afforded them. Other poems generated by individuals were visceral and direct, evoking the impact of their experiences, and the creative process of writing poetry collectively about them.
The part-time cohort
We weren’t sure Alison’s part time people (a small group of five trainees completing their two-year part-time course) thought it was going to happen, despite the preparation required. But it did, and despite the groans and quizzical glances, the trainees participated actively in the task set. Alison split them into two small groups, with a ‘prize’ for the best poem produced. She then asked them to use their latest observation to produce a poem based on Gibbs’ reflective cycle, applied to a reflection on the observation. Alison went first and wrote her poem on the board, providing an example that trainees could follow if they wished to do so. The poem reflected on the ongoing session itself as it was the first face-to-face after the holidays, and included a nod to Burns as it was January 25th :
Reflection is iterative
1st time this year.
Did I talk too much?
Was it too intense?
Ended in poetry
A fitting way to end
on Burns’ night?
No ‘wee timorous beastie here’?
Try it again
Reflection is iterative.
The best trainee poem was a witty, succinct, rhyming poem reflecting on an observation Alison had done on a trainee in the previous semester:
Alison was late, because she’s not Tom’s mate
His timings were up for debate.
Moving forwards he’s going to plan more effectively,
By looking at his timings more perceptively.
What did we learn?
Using poetry allowed the trainees to synergistically link different models of reflection, and they had a lot of fun whilst doing so. Possibly the biggest gain was the way trainees tackled the activity (despite their initial misgivings), worked well together in their small groups, and as a larger cohort. We suggest that this type of session could be applied in different courses, and we highly recommend trying it with your students. It’s ‘out of the box’ and gives students a unique experience of reflective analysis and evaluation. The technique seemed to develop students’ capacity for collaboration, and pushed them to be more concise and precise in their reflections. Ultimately, the task provided students with a means to reconstruct their experiences in a new genre, which perhaps illuminated a new perspective on those experiences. Moving forwards, we’ve been asked to run a workshop later this year at the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers conference with Sam Illingworth, the author of the article that started all this.
Try it. What have you got to lose?
Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic, Oxford.
Illingworth, S. (2022). Learned words: using poetry to reflect on practices in higher education. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/learned-words-using-poetry-reflect-practices-higher-education
Dr Alison Hramiak and Chloe Hindmarsh are senior lecturers in post-16 education and training.