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.
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.
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?
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 over.
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?
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?