Why is poetry taught so badly in schools?

Poetry is ancient and modern. Poetry is everywhere and used widely for a variety of purposes, not just for traditional poetry reading and writing but also for songs, raps, advertising, personal expression, performance and children’s literature, to name but a few applications. It’s emphasis on the placement, rhythm and sounds of words is vital for literacy skills. Poetry is the best way to teach the meaning and power of individual words in context.

There appears to be little argument that poetry is highly important for students and should be part of teaching and learning across all sectors in education.  Poetry use by educators should also not be just for formal literacy and English teaching but cross-disciplinary.

So, why then is it used and taught so badly in education, in schools?

I do not mean to denigrate the work of teachers, who are highly committed and have to adapt to a range of pressures in education. There are also pockets of excellent practice in teaching poetry and teaching using poetry. However, I want to identify three key factors that may account for why I believe poetry is not taught well in schools.

First, poetry is positioned as other: as a body of literature that children can learn to access only through understanding poetry as a literary form.

This is potentially alienating and conceives poetry as an object outside the experiences of students. I argue that such an approach, often the default approach in English education, separates poetry from the experiences of students. The reading and understanding of poetry need to be positioned as performative and experiential. This makes all the difference.

Second, poetry has been seen as a reading literacy and literary activity such that poetry is for decoding, understanding and appreciating.

I contend that all reading of poetry should be accompanied with encoding—active writing about poetry and in poetry that is enmeshed with the act of reading and comprehension. In doing this active writing there is potential for student engagement and links to the life experiences of students. With this active writing there might also be the sharing and performance of poetry, both that of the students and the poems that they study. As such poetry is best taught through embodied practices.

Finally, the scope of the use of poetry in education, I believe, is too narrow.

There is potential application of poetry in many discipline areas in schools as a form of presentation, a mode of teaching and as a way of conceiving and presenting ideas. Poetry is about ideas, feelings, impressions, and descriptions, and so it might be useful in STEM as well as social studies and Arts areas.

Poetry is equally about reading, writing, presenting and performing.

This essential pedagogical balance I think has been lost in schools. Poetry has the potential to enhance creativity and playfulness and foster new ways for student engagement and expression. Poetry is not one thing (not just a literary form from published poets) but many ways of using words to convey the richness of human experience, including the personal experiences of students. It is up to teachers to take the risk and dare to use poetry with all its possibilities in their classrooms.