Violence - 'The shout' by Simon Armitage and 'Blues' by Derek WalcottJulie Blake
Contrary to popular belief that English lessons, and especially poetry lessons, are all about flowers and soppy romance, we spend a lot of time working with much sterner stuff. Romeo and Juliet has at its core a very nasty community feud, though perhaps we spend more time talking about the star-crossed lovers; first world war poetry concerns the brutal inhumanity of war, though perhaps our compassion for its poeticised victims overrides our anger that powerless young people are still dying for their countries in horrific ways on behalf of the powerful. These two poems also explore violence, and provide some different perspectives: contemporary and situated in everyday reality, understandable and mystifying, isolated and alienated, knives and guns, concerned with the lives and life chances of vulnerable young men.
For students to: Understand and respond to ideas, viewpoints, themes and purposes in texts Use different dramatic approaches to explore ideas, texts and issues Experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of the two poets' recordings
Poetry Archive recordings of Simon Armitage reading 'The Shout', and Derek Walcott reading 'Blues' Copies of the two poems for each student. It would be helpful for 'Blues' to have line numbers Highlighter pens A data projector and internet-connected computer Space for drama work
Teaching sequence of activities
Lesson 1 You could start with discussion of junior school teachers and the most memorable activities they did with them: perhaps the funniest activity, or the strangest, or the most dangerous, or the most exciting. Start with quiet individual reflection and jottings, then have students share them with a partner, before telling some of their stories to the whole class. Lesson 2 You could start with the title 'Blues' and invite predictions about the poem: what might it be about? What might its mood or tone be like? What language might we expect? Listen to Walcott's recording of the poem, with copies available to read too. How do their predictions compare with the actuality? Explore initial responses: what does it make you think or feel? This will undoubtedly entail some sensitive exploration of language choices: 'nigger', 'wop', 'jew', 'spades', 'spicks'. This is important language work that can be linked to learning objectives about language use and change.
Lesson 1 Then look at Simon Armitage's introduction to 'The Shout', up to 2and that would be the size of the human voice". Discuss what students think would happen in this experiment and preferably get out onto the playing field and try it. Read the first three stanzas of Armitage's poem and the first line of the fourth. What do they think might happen next? Then read from "Out of bounds" to "I lifted an arm" at the end of stanza five. What do they think might happen next? Then read the last two stanzas and invite responses. Surprised? Shocked? Listen to Armitage's recording of the poem and invite further responses: what does it make you think or feel? Lesson 2 Get students into pairs or small groups to look at their copies of 'Blues'. Their task is to identify which of the words at the ends of lines do not rhyme with any others appearing at the ends of lines. For example: in stanza one, line 3 'night' rhymes with line seven 'bright'. You need to model half-rhymes too, so 'guys' in line 1 half-rhymes with 'nice' in line four. This poem does not have a formal rhyme scheme, but it does have a lot of interlacing, sometimes between stanzas. So, 'night' and 'bright' in stanza thread through into 'bright' in the second stanza. The students should then use a colour highlighter to show the words not interlaced in this way, and decide which ones sum up the poem's meaning. Having established this focus, invite groups to improvise a short scene, covering one, some or all of the moments in the poem. Obviously with a poem that deals with a fight, clear direction needs to be given about stage fighting techniques, and it is entirely possible to focus on other moments without any fighting, e.g. the moment before the fight breaks out, or the moment just after it's ov
Lesson 1 Using copies of 'Shout', and further listening to the recording, develop class ideas about the speaker, situation, setting and theme, encouraging reference to details from the poem. These questions might help: Who is the speaker? What is he like? What does he seem to think or feel about what happened? What happened on the school day the speaker is remembering? What happened after this? Why? What sort of place did the speaker go to school in? Where did his classmate end up? What sort of place is this? What does this poem have to tell us about school? About adult life? About communication? About violence? To what extent do you agree with these ideas? Lesson 2 Students perform their improvisations based on 'Blues', with follow-up questioning of what they chose to represent and why, and how it links to the poem. Listen again to the recording and ask why its title is 'Blues', as a way of focusing the ideas developed. Consider what the poem has to tell us about life? About communication? About violence?
Written work could follow on well from this, working on developing viewpoint and voice. Invite students to select one of the silent characters in either of the poems: either 'Boy with the name and face I don't remember' (or the science teacher, for those who want a bit more of a challenge...), or one of 'The spades, the spicks', or 'one kid's mother' (or, again for a challenge, one of the watchers). With some prompts about developing character, viewpoint and voice, invite students to tell this character's side of the story, in whatever form they like: poetry, prose, drama, dramatic monologue. Alternatively, extend the memorable lesson idea we started with, and develop creative writing from that stimulus.
For more poems on the theme of violence, use the Poetry Archive's 'Browse all poems by theme' function. Click on 'View all themes' and then 'Violence'. Careful selection will need to be made according to age and context. Recommendations include 'Bruises heal', 'Variation on an Old Rhyme' and perhaps 'Yobbos'.