Lesson on 'Journey of the Magi' by T S Eliot
This lesson is designed to provide a rich experience of poetry as well as developing some key concepts about persona and narrative to counter the pervasive influence of the 'Purple Ronnie' school of poetry. 'Journey of the Magi' is obviously well suited to a pre-Christmas special lesson, and may be useful as a way of channelling all that festive hyper-excitement into something constructive. It is a challenging poem to explore in the classroom for all sorts of reasons to do with its themes and issues, attitudes and values, but its form and language are accessible, lending it well to semi-independent and creative activity. The recording is spine-shivery.
For students to:
- develop an understanding of some key concepts about poetry, specifically the persona and narrative poetry;
- experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of Eliot's original recording;
- explore many interpretations of the poem's meaning and form through playful, creative and collaborative activity with others.
- The Poetry Archive recording of T S Eliot reading 'Journey of the Magi'
- Copies of the poem for each student
- A data projector and internet-connected computer
- Images of the Nativity scene (see below for sources of these)
- Marker pens and/or speech-bubble post-its or annotation tools on an IWB
- Blank storyboard sheets (templates available at www.teachit.co.uk)
Teaching sequence of activities
Play one or both of the trailers for the 2006 film The Nativity Story, available free and online at www.apple.com or via The Internet Movie Database. You may need a free download of QuickTime installed on your computer for this. The trailer presents the Nativity story in a very pithy form useful for a starter discussion:
Who would change the world.
The Nativity Story.
The trailer provides a lively visual focus for developing through discussion the shared understanding of the basic story that is necessary for engaging with Eliot's poem. Allow plenty of time for going off at tangents, as religion is generally an emotive topic, and this may provide a valuable opportunity in multicultural classrooms to share religious and cultural understandings and narratives. Also, getting any heated distractions out of the way at this stage may allow more settled attention to the poem afterwards.
Then give out images of the Nativity to individuals, pairs or small groups, as you prefer. These need to include the magi, otherwise later connection to the poem will be more tenuous. The images could come from Christmas cards, art postcards, or Google Images - just type in 'the nativity'. The task is for students to graffiti the images with speech bubbles, putting words into the mouths of some of the people in the scene. Give them free licence and/or two 'goes' at the task so they can do one scatological one and one a little more serious in style. This could be done with paper copies and marker pens, or paper copies and speech bubble post-its, or using the annotation tools on an IWB. Review the students' ideas, gradually focusing in more sharply on the magi. Use these ideas to introduce some key points:
- that the 'voice' of a poem may not be the poet's, and we can use the term 'persona' to make this distinction;
- that it is quite common for poets to adopt the persona of a figure in a classic story or a work of art:
- that telling or retelling a story contributes to a genre called narrative poetry.
Then introduce Eliot's poem, 'Journey of the Magi', as the retelling of an element of the Nativity Story (the magi's journey to Bethlehem) from the point of view of one of the magi. Encourage the sense of the spokenness of this by NOT giving out a paper copy of the poem just yet. Invite the students to listen to the recording, noting first of all their impressions of the speaker. Review and develop some of these ideas. Then give out a copy of the poem (perhaps with some key words glossed) and play the recording again, this time inviting initial impressions of the story the speaker tells. Review these, making sure everyone is generally on the right track, and teasing out/seeding some interesting questions for consideration in the next task.
Next, divide the class into small groups and set them the task of producing a storyboard for a TV version of the poem (for those who need grounding in TV reality, show/tell about the BBC's The Nation's Favourite Poem poll with televised readings). Some key questions to consider (adapt freely) might include:
- How will you represent the speaker? Through voice alone or will he appear? If so, what will he look like? Sound like? Dress like? etc
- Who is the speaker telling his story to?
- How will you represent the structure of the poem? Talking Head? Flashback narrative?
- What sections will you divide the poem into for the storyboard shots? How many (perhaps within a specified range)? Why?
- What choice of images is needed in order to represent visually the key elements of the poem?
- What kind of reading of the poem will you use? Eliot's reading as a voiceover? Is his reading good for the poem? An actor's voiceover? – if so, who or what kind of person, and how would you direct them to read it? An actor playing the magi and speaking dramatically? On-screen subtitles?
- What other soundtrack elements would enhance the mini-movie? Music? Sound effects? Other words?
- If your students are media-savvy, you could include a question about camera shots etc.
This task can be done perfectly well with A3 storyboard sheets and a box of felt tipped pens, but there is also an opportunity for cut-and-paste nirvana if you have an ICT suite or a pile of laptops. Of course, should you have world enough and time, and the digital media equipment, there is always the option of actually producing these mini-movies. Maybe an activity for a curriculum enrichment day...
Have students presenting their storyboards to the class, with attention in the discussion to similarities and differences, and how these relate to interpretation of the poem. If you have large classes or small groups, these could be displayed around the room first, with an invitation to students (if they are of the moderately behaved variety) to have a look and find one that is similar and one that is distinctly different.
Whole class review of what has been learned about the poem:
- The themes and issues, attitudes and values
- How these are conveyed through Eliot's use of persona, narrative structure, imagery, and language
- Invite students to write their own poem from one of the other points of view: the shepherds, the Archangel Gabriel, Mary...
- Comparison of personae and/or crises of faith in Eliot's 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'
- Other poems in which the poet adopts the persona from a classic narrative (eg Carol Ann Duffy's 'Mrs Midas'), or from a work of art (eg U A Fanthorpe's 'Not My Best Side')
- Other narrative poems, such as Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'