Lesson on 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London' by Dylan Thomas
This lesson will explore the way poems might be read to bring out the ways a poem could be interpreted. One of the best ways of helping students to fully understand poetry is by asking them to read one aloud, either as individuals, in pairs or groups. This is a very good way of enabling pupils to become confident at working at poems for their subtlety without being teacher directed. Students begin to realise the need to fully understand words/lines/stanzas in order to read the poem, so they ask the questions instead of the teacher; and the activity of preparing a reading sometimes reduces the feeling of pointlessness that some adolescence have when they meet poems for the first time. For the most able students, it is also a way of appreciating the pacing of a poem through the use of poetic techniques, for example, enjambment or short staccato lines.
- To encourage the pleasure of reading poetry.
- To encourage the pleasure of listening to poetry.
- To explore ways of interpreting poetry through different readings.
- To develop pupils’ ability to work in groups.
- Poetry Archive recording of Dylan Thomas reading 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London', and his own introduction to the poem.
- Whiteboard or screen linked to the Poetry Archive website for viewing the text of the poem (or individual hard copies of the poem for students).
Teaching sequence of activities
The lesson might begin with a prediction. The teacher gives the class the title of the poem and asks the students in pairs to decide what they think the poem might be about from the title and why someone might feel that way about a child's death. The teacher may wish students to discuss their initial response with another pair or share them with the whole class. (Joining pairs leads quite easily into groups for the next activity.)
Alternatively, rather than the title the teacher might like to give the students simply a line from the poem - for example: 'After the first death there is no other' - and the students are asked to comment on what they think it means. Any line that you think your students may like or find intriguing can work with this approach. For example, some lines simply sound wonderful and the students may enjoy hearing and saying the line as well as trying to understand it exactly.
Divide students into groups (or allow self-selecting groups). Ask the group to appoint a Chair who will ensure some procedures are carried out and may be the person to report back for the plenary.
Hard copies of the poem are distributed. The groups are then asked to read the poem. They can choose one person to read the whole poem, but often it works best if a number of students read a stanza each.
Everyone is then given about 3-4 minutes simply to write down some initial responses to what they think the poem is about. The teacher may suggest that if they don’t think they can understand the whole poem, they might just look closely at a stanza, or perhaps just choose a line they liked even if they are not sure what it means. But they need to be ready to suggest what they liked – for example, the sound of the words, the unexpectedness of the image, the syntactical arrangement etc. The Chair in each group should make sure that no-one speaks in this part of the lesson.
Then the Chair should ask each person in the group one by one to share what they have written without any comment from anyone.
Then the group can decide how they would like to proceed next: either read the poem again round the group, perhaps varying the order, or read a stanza at a time and then discuss more freely what has been said about it so far, any further thoughts etc.
The group is then given approx 15-20 minutes to discuss the poem more freely and someone is asked to jot down ideas for reporting back to the group.
It may be helpful if the teacher suggests some ways of structuring the discussion using some of the following:
- The students could be asked to prepare some questions about the poem to put to the rest of the class to answer. (The students don’t have to know the answer; this will help the teacher determine the levels of understanding.)
- With a class experienced in poetry the discussion may be left quite open.
The groups then report back (20mins). To keep pace, ask groups not to repeat things others might have said, but simply make new points. For this reporting back the teacher should explain to the group that she/he will not be making any comments other than to summarise what students have said as necessary. The students are asked to write down any points that they think are interesting. If one group (or all groups) has/have created questions, the teacher might write these down for future reference in a subsequent lesson.
The students then listen to Dylan Thomas reading the poem himself. They are asked to note down anything that strikes them about the reading or any new sense they may make of the poem. They may also find an answer to one or more of their questions.
The reading is repeated. Students can share comments about their first impressions of the reading by Thomas. As teacher, you may wish to add some comments of your own at this point, depending on what you want to emphasize for the students specifically.
You might like to conclude by playing Thomas's introduction to the group, and consider his own comments about poets reading aloud in light of comments the students have already made.
- Students will have worked together in groups.
- Students will have listened to poetry being read aloud, both as a recording and in their groups.
- Students will have begun group and/or individual responses to poems with minimal teacher direction.
- Students will have gained an increasing sense of the aural effects of technical poetic features.
- In the group work the teacher may need to be a 'roving presence', especially if this is the first time a group has worked with this more open-ended approach to poetry. With a few focused questions to individual groups to elicit responses so far, and wherever possible praise for their attempts, students should become more confident at approaching poems in this way.
- Another approach might be to ask the groups to focus on certain aspects of the poem and respond to these, e.g. the images, nouns, adjectives, etc. (As you can use this method with many different poems, simply select whatever seems most relevant for the particular poem that has been chosen.)
- 'In my Craft or Sullen Art', also by Dylan Thomas - how does this reading compare with 'A Refusal to Mourn...'?
- 'The Flowering of Gorse' by Peter Abbs
- 'November' by Tobias Hill
- Other work by Dylan Thomas, including 'Under Milkwood'.
- 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' and 'God's Grandeur' by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
- 'After the First Death', a novel for teenagers by Robert Cormier - quite demanding and possibly disturbing, but very compelling.
It is very common for poets and novelists to take a single line from an existing poem (or frequently, lines from Shakespeare) to use as inspiration for their own work. The poet Andrea Hollander Budy has done this with her poem 'The First Death'. So, too, has the novelist Robert Cormier (see below).
Students might like to read Hollander Budy's poem and see how she writes about an experience of death.
They might also take any other line from the Dylan Thomas poem that they particularly like, and use it to begin a poem of their own.
Students might try devising an internet project to research how many titles they can find where writers have used other poets' work for titles of their own poems or novels.
Possible adaptations, differentiation