Sydney PAF Forum

Below is a brief report on the Sydney forum, which I’ve emailed around to the PAF group.

Talking Poetry in Schools

A brief preliminary report on the Poetry Australia Foundation Education Committee forum at the National Poetry Festival, Sydney, September 2004. The following notes are my impressions and summary of the session and can in no way replace the full forum papers that will be published early next year.

The forum was designed to take the online discussion that has been taking place for the last eighteen months at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pafeducation/ The forum was designed to gain various perspectives about the state of Australian poetry in schools, but more importantly, to focus on practical strategies for improving the quality of teaching of poetry in schools, increasing the amount of quality contemporary Australian poetry and poets in the school curriculum and developing relationships between poets and their representatives with the educational authorities in the various states in Australia.

Lorraine Gillespie was the first speaker. She is based at Southern Cross university in Queensland and is completing a research degree specialising in poetry as well as being a poet herself. Lorraine discussed the need to enhance the esteem of poetry in schools, argued that teachers matter enormously and argued for poetry as a specific subject within schools and the need for specialised teachers.

Ron Pretty, the well known publisher of Five Islands Press, and a poet and teacher himself, was next to speak and spoke of his recognition that single author collections were not necessarily what schools needed. He talked about the bigger picture of wanting students to leave school with a sense of the breadth and depth of Australian poetry and equip them for a lifetime of reading poetry. Ron also talked about the importance of the teacher and gave a personal account of one teacher who had influenced him. Ron argued for poetry to be brought into the centre more.

Brook Emery then spoke from the point of view of the poet, but as a teacher his views were also naturally enough from that perspective too. Brook talked about the educational politics of curriculum design and the way post-modernism has turned poetry into something else. In the NSW curriculum, for example, it’s quite possible for students to study Bruce Dawe poems not for themselves, but as evidence of consumerism or something. Like the previous speakers, Brook also talked about the importance of good teaching, and how teachers need skills, knowledge, confidence and a box of books. Brook argued that poetry could be improved in schools by beginning in the junior years and by poets working with English teacher associations like VATE.

I then spoke from the point of view of the teacher, arguing that teachers needed access to quality, relevant, contemporary Australian poetry. I talked about the multiple purposes that poetry can be put to in classrooms but how difficult it was for teaches and schools to easily access quality contemporary work. I argued for the creation of a database of Australian poets that schools could access searchable by topic, author, year level and supported by rich teacher resource material.

The next speaker was Jessica Chang, a young university student, who spoke of her experiences of poetry at school, from early encouragement at primary school which helped ‘normalise’ the writing of poetry to the way poetry in secondary school was often characterised, which was a kind of ‘decoding’ exercise. Jessica also talked about the importance of good teaching. Finally, Jessica gave a personal account of how difficult and frustrating it was to submit poetry for senior English assessment and felt that it was not properly recognised.

The final speaker was poet and teacher Lyn Hatherly, who talked about the teaching of poetry beyond school. Lyn talked about her broad experiences teaching poetry and how adults she encounters are often terrified of poetry, but love writing it. Lyn talked about her teaching methodology and how she is able to bring people to the craft through a shared environment and a shared effort. Her reflections have direct bearing on how poetry in schools could be approached.

There was a good general discussion afterwards and agreement that the proceedings should be shared with a wider audience through some kind of publication. The Poets’ Union have taken up the issue and are intending to feature these papers in an early edition of Five Bells next year. There was also discussion about moving into some discussions with English teacher associations as they plan their teacher conferences for next year.

Warrick Wynne is a poet and teacher. http://warrickwynne.org

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