My research visit to St Albans school in Highgate, Birmingham concluded with an observation of a poetry lesson. A year nine class were undertaking a scaffolded approach to writing their critical responses to Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’. The aim of the lesson was to enable the students to transform their verbal responses to the poem into written sentences and then paragraphs working towards a full essay. Each element of the essay was carefully structured by Headteacher, Mark Gregory, to ensure the students were using appropriate language and specific vocabulary to articulate ideas clearly.
In order to enable the students to verbalise their responses, images of the students were projected which recalled to mind a lesson where they had created tableaux of key fragments of the poem. These images really helped the students embody the character of the ‘King of kings’ and therefore understand the themes of the poem. Indeed they seemed most engaged when trying to find ways to express the folly of vanity as depicted in one image of Ozymandias’ ‘sneer of cold command,’ represented by one of their peers. This technique of working in an ensemble format is one of the key approaches of the RSC. To collaborate with peers to embody a line of poetry or prose clearly creates a safe space for the discussion of meaning and animates the written word. The photos act as a reminder of this process and help the students sustain their engagement with the poem once they have moved on to written responses.
During the discussion of the movement of time as a theme and in the rhythm of the poem one student noticed with some excitement,
‘The last line is the slowest.’
Mark Gregory built on this observation:
‘It’s beautiful what you said and that you noticed.’
They entered a dialogue about which word would be the best to express the idea and agree on ‘pace’. Mark added:
‘If you can close that out, that’s on the money. That will be amazing.’
Importantly then, the lesson draws on the RSC active approaches to challenging texts, but also makes careful links to the demands of GCSE English Literature, a course the students have commenced early, to ensure that the ideas they have developed become more concrete and controlled. It strikes me that there is a balance to be struck between guiding students to ‘cash in’ their learning, with enabling them to transfer their learning, independently, into achievement in their coursework and examinations. The use of photographs of the dramatic process and a rich dialogue with a teacher who challenges thinking throughout seem key to this process.