By Beth Kemp, author and English teacher
Poetry can be a little daunting, and the AQA Power and Conflict anthology is often seen as a challenge. Students seem to (erroneously) zoom in on the idea that they have fifteen poems to ‘memorise’.
Here are some key tips to make it a bit more accessible, most of which come under the heading of ‘focus on the end task’.
1. Encourage comparison from the start
Students are asked to make links in how ideas are explored. So, the minute they’re on their second poem, it’s helpful to start them working in that way. Useful classroom activities include:
- Creating an ideas map to highlight connections around a poem (with the expectation that this will grow as you study more poems) – creating a resource that students can revise from.
- Offering sophisticated links for development by more able students (Shelley and Agard both critique the abuse of power through the structure of their poems…).
- Encouraging a comparison by using a simple grid can be helpful to get students used to the idea that differences as well as similarities are relevant.
2. Emphasise themes and ideas
It makes sense for ideas to take centre stage in our lessons, as the questions focus on themes. This can be brought into class tasks such as:
- Building up theme ideas maps and links at regular intervals, again to both reinforce this angle and as a revision resource.
- Encouraging students to look at poems through the lens of ideas as a way of introducing the poems. This is also helpful for the unseen questions.
3. Don’t focus on quote-learning (especially long quotes)
Many students will, left to themselves, focus their revision on trying to learn chunks of poems. A very productive early-stage revision activity to temper this is to provide students with quotations from a poem, some useful and some less useful (e.g. ‘gift of a nine-hundred-year old name’ and ‘bough of cherries’), and ask them to map the themes and ideas that these quotations could be used as evidence for. (With a lower-ability group, I might be kinder and only give them useful quotations.) This helps them to see that one quote can serve them for a range of possible questions. Single-word quotes can also be used, as can ‘references’ to the poems’ content (e.g. “When Armitage describes the looter’s body graphically, it shows how violently the soldier is affected”).
4. Teach second poem choice
While there are many opportunities for individual links across poems, encourage students to select their comparison poem based on being able to make several links. This is a useful mid-to-late-stage revision task:
- Choose a poem with many possible comparisons to be made to different poems (e.g. Ozymandias, Checking Out Me History, Remains).
- Have the remaining poems available on slips of paper.
- Ask students (in pairs) to choose five possible candidates for comparison. This could be done blindly, by selection or a mixture (e.g. three blind, two by choice).
- Students then identify as many points of comparison as possible.
- Follow-up discussion focuses on how, although maybe one link might be more impressive than others, it is more useful to select a poem that links in multiple ways (and, of course, in relation to the given theme).
5. Consider strategic revision
Students do not need to know all the poems equally as well – this is a message supported by the examiner’s reports. It may be sensible to encourage them to view some poems as more suitable for use in comparison than others, based on their flexibility and application to multiple themes. Students can:
- Consider which themes apply to which poems.
- Note which poems have the most themes relating to them.
- Make sure they have a baseline knowledge of all the poems (key meanings and features, useful context, which comparison poems work best).
Beth Kemp is an English teacher and author of many English Literature study guides, including the York Notes for GCSE Power and Conflict AQA Poetry Anthology.