Some Ideas about Teaching



Writing Poetry in the History Classroom*


*    all the poems in this section, except my own at the end, were written by Year 7 pupils in a Special needs class


In terms of the ‘productive work’ element of the History lesson, poetry is one of the least-explored but most rewarding strategies.
• It is particularly attractive for the less-literate learners, who can sometimes produce beautiful and evocative work when they are freed from the requirement to write prose text – ALL the poems in this article except my own are by Special Needs pupils.
• It accesses the creative side of the pupils’ brains.
• It is particularly useful for embedding and expressing empathetic understanding.

Choosing the topic
Almost any topic can be used as the basis of a poem, as William McGonagall proved, but you may wish especially to use it when studying events where the emotions run high (e.g. Thomas Becket, Aberfan). Great sadness, joy, love, horror, devotion, admiration etc. all lend themselves to poetic expression.
You may wish to avoid topics where the pupils might be tempted to explore unacceptable emotions (e.g. murders, issues of race and ethnicity).



The Pilgrim
Do you see God?
     My heart and soul see Him.
Do you feel relaxed and calm that you are
                                       pleasing the Lord?
     Yes, for saving my soul.
Why do you wear rough clothes?
     To show that I am like Jesus.
            He was not rich, but rich in heart and love.


Academic Preparation
Good poetry is based on good knowledge and understanding, so the learning elements of your lesson will be unchanged.
• Teach the topic to ensure interest and understanding.
• Make sure that the pupils are given materials which allow them to use different learning styles – visual (eg picture sources; stills are better than video, so that the pupil can reflect on them), auditory (spoken word, printed text) and kinaesthetic (e.g. for the story of Becket, bring in a metal sword for the pupils to close their eyes, touch, and feel the context of the events).
• Drama is an excellent preparation for poetry work, since it encourages ‘standpointing’ and ‘gets them into the experience’ of the different people/elements in the scene. For the story of Becket, for example, a ‘tableau’ (sometimes called a ‘freeze-frame’ scene) is excellent for allowing the pupils to see the scene from different points of view – get them to set up the tableau, then quiz them about what they can see and how they feel. (Why not get some of them to be inanimate objects – such as a pillar, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the sword – instead of being one of the people in the scene?)



The Battle
I am the grass
Happy in the sun,
I hear thumping.
It’s horses.
I think,
‘After all these years,
It’s happening again.’
They’re evil.
Cruel men,
Wicked and vicious.
Someone falls on me.
They are in pain.
I feel sad
after all those years
in peace.


Literacy Preparation
Don’t just ask the pupils to write a poem. Show them a poem that somebody else has written about the event (or, better, a similar event). Don’t just read it – declaim it, enjoying the language and structures.

Spend some time discussing the poem with the pupils. Is it a good poem? What did they notice about the poem? How did it make them feel when they listened to it? What techniques did the poet use to achieve these effects?
Show respect to poetry as a way to express knowledge and understanding.

Emotional Preparation
Always explain to the pupils that, seeing as they are going to write poetry, they must access the creative/poetic side of their nature.

Declare ‘a time for reflection’. Explain that during this time they are going to sit and reflect, allowing the creative side of their brain to take over, and seeing what poetic and beautiful phrases come into their minds.
• Insist that they become quiet and reflective, sitting in silence and listening to their hearts.
• Get them to spend some time reflecting on the stimulus material(s), allowing the poetic side of their nature to influence the way they are thinking and feeling.
• Keeping closing their eyes is a vital element of this.
• Suggest that some pupils might wish to take the standpoint/personality of a specific element inside the scene – perhaps an unexpected element such as the floor. What can they see? What do they feel?
• Depending on the class, you may wish to encourage/allow them to make themselves ‘creatively comfortable’. Some may wish to isolate themselves from the others. Some may wish to lie on their side or sit on the floor. I had one pupil who did her best work sitting cross-legged under the table! Stress to the pupils that the issue here is trust – you need to be able to trust that they are genuinely seeking to be creative, and not just being silly.
• If the pupils welcome it, play appropriate, relaxing, music – Mozart is supposed to be best
• Whilst the pupils reflect, occasionally read out powerful or beautiful phrases from your exemplar poem in a respectful manner.
Most pupils respond to this surprisingly enthusiastically – perhaps because it is so different to the normal way they are required to work. Some of the most unlikely pupils demonstrate creativity and aesthetic appreciation.



The Tournament
I saw people cheering, but then
     I saw people weeping.
Their clothes were strange and ripped in half.
One shouted, ‘Do not fear my love,
I will be with thee.’
He tried to help me with my fight to where no one had ever been -
into my heart then I saw that he loved me.
My heart was burning deep inside and twice it beat like a drum;
as hard as a stone I looked at him.
I felt as if he fell for
me I loved him so and he loved
me and then he said, ‘Wilt thou
dance with me’. My love is like
an ocean my heart is like
a touch of gold.

Initial Ideas
Tell the pupils to start writing down some of the phrases that they are coming up with.
Try to insist on phrases. With very limited pupils, however, just words can eventually make a very powerful and meaningful poem.



The Battle of Hastings
Fighting for your life:
          and crying.
          and clashing,
          and slashing.
The winners march slowly off.

With less able pupils, it is useful at this stage to have another adult in the room. Go round the pupils, especially those who find written expression difficult. The adult approaches the child, gets them to close their eyes and visualise the scene from their chosen standpoint – What can they see? What are they feeling? Then they write down the pupil’s words verbatim – this is the pupil’s poem, not theirs.

After a while, call the pupils attention to yourself, and ask them to share some of the phrases they have come up with. The pupils’ creativity will be stimulated by other pupils’ ideas.

Praise EVERY suggestion and write them on the board until you have six or seven phrases.

Modelling the Poetic Process
Show the pupils how to turn their words/phrases into a poem by ordering the words/phrases for sense, structure and sound.

Depending on the level of ability and motivation, demonstrate how you can:
• change individual words and phrases,
• play with words/language,
• experiment with line breaks/layout on the page and/or
• add connectives
to achieve the best effect..
Sometimes some phrases need to be omitted altogether, and new ones need to be created; sometimes it is just a matter of adjusting the odd word or word-order.

Read out the resultant poem proudly, with feeling.

Writing their Poems
Send the pupils back to their individual workplaces to:
1. Sort their phrases into order to make their poem.
2. Consider the effectiveness of their poem as a whole, and – where necessary – change the order of phrases/ words/ elements to polish the poem. (Adults help at this phase by suggesting to pupils elements of their poems which ‘don’t work for me’. Pupils might be invited to consider making changes, but don’t insist or suggest what the change might be – always remember that the poem is the pupil’s intellectual and creative property.)
3. Write up the finished piece neatly.



The Death of Becket
One of the
Bold knights can’t pull him from the
Virgin Mary’s pillar.
A strike,
Blowing his crown off and falling
Fearless to the ground.
Blood gushing out of his ears
As he
Lay on the ground he
Bravely spoke:
‘For the Name of Jesus I am ready to

Type up the best efforts. Read them out proudly and passionately to the pupils at the start of the next lesson, and display them prominently.

ALWAYS write your own poem on the scene and read that out to the pupils.
This is essential – you must be prepared to expose your poetic/creative side, too.



The Sword that killed Becket
Falling, I can see the tonsured head
          and feel the crunch of metal on stone
          and watch the blood flow from the broken skull,
And know that now
          I am become death.
Mr Clare


Aug 13 2003, 03:06 PM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2003/2006), 'Writing Poetry in the History Classroom',  at Greenfield History Site (