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Last year’s top five competitors pose before the final round. From left: Calvin McGrowder, Kelsharie Ellis, Britney Lee (1st place), Shania Smith (2nd place) and Sashelle Wilson (3rd Place).

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Experiencing poetry through ‘Talk the Poem’

‘THERE IS NO way I would want to teach poetry,’ I heard a young lady utter to her colleague, as they walked past the room in which we were hosting our annual Talk the Poem National Poetry Pedagogy Workshop. I winced at the statement and tried to move towards the door to get a hold of the young lady, but before I could get a chance to engage her in further dialogue, she was gone. I wonder how often we lose both teachers and students who have a fear of or a negative experience with encountering poetry because we are not able to ‘catch them’ in time.
At the heart of any encounter with poetry is an individual’s experience. Experience shapes one’s perception and determines one’s reaction. The teacher in the English classroom was once a student. Often, his or her journey as a student influences his or her outlook and practice as a teacher. Therefore, a student whose memory of poetry in the classroom is framed by constantly being told that his or her interpretation is ‘wrong’ or who was unable to voice an opinion because he or she was required to merely concentrate on the formal elements of a poem, will eventually become a teacher who repeats that same cycle, unless something happens to reshape this ‘reality’. Within five minutes of engaging many teachers or teachers in training with a poem, I am usually able to determine whether their experience with poetry has been positive, negative or non-existent. I will see the frowns on their faces, the rolling eyeballs, the indifferent glances, the suddenly clenched jaws and pursed lips, and I will smile because without having had any previous discussions with them, I recognise that their reaction in this moment is based on their experience in previous moments. Their perception, not of poetry, but of how they have been taught poetry, determines how they will respond not simply to this learning situation, but also to the poem itself. It is not poetry itself that is feared by teachers and students in the English classroom; it is, instead, the memory of past experiences with poetry which trigger negative responses and inevitably lead to an individual’s refusal or hesitation to engage with poetry.

The Talk the Poem National Poetry Recitation Project was birthed out of a desire to allow teachers and students to consistently have positive encounters with poetry through response-based perspectives, strategies and methodologies that will positively transform their attitudes toward and experience of poetry. Each year, the School of Education at The University of the West Indies, Mona, hosts a Talk the Poem Poetry Pedagogy Workshop for teachers across the island and a Talk the Poem National Poetry Recitation Competition for all secondary school students between the age of 13 and 18. The endorser of the TTP Competition is Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate since Independence, Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris and the competition is the first of its kind in the history of the island! The TTP Executive Committee members are: Dr Aisha Spencer (Founder and Director), Dr Yewande Lewis-Fokum (Project Coordinator), Ms Schontal Moore (Project Coordinator), Ms Althea Aikens and Mrs Nadine Valentine (Project Administrators). Various sponsors, including Total Life Changes, SuperPlus Supermarket and Top Loaf Bake Shops, have provided contributions in cash and kind to help to boost both these events. Both the workshop and the competition have helped to raise the profile of poetry in participating schools, enhanced poetry pedagogical practices in the English classroom, boosted the confidence levels of students in their engagement with poems, and transformed teachers’ and students’ perceptions of poetry in participating schools across the island. The talent of our students, as they recite poems they have selected, is absolutely amazing! Last year we had more than 115 participating teachers and more than 60 participating schools. We all had a blast! We anticipate even greater numbers this year. We encourage private and public institutions and companies who have a vested interest in transforming the teaching of poetry in the English classroom and raising the performance levels of our students in the secondary school, to consider partnering with us in this non-profit, community outreach project.

This academic year, the Talk the Poem Poetry Pedagogy Workshop will be held on November 11 at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, 9:30 am to 3:00 pm. The theme of the workshop is “Transforming Spaces, Shifting Bases: Encountering the Power of Poetry in the English Classroom”. Two teachers of English from each school are permitted to attend the workshop. The workshop will be led by poets and educators in the fields of Language, Literacy, Literature and Literature Education. Registration closed on October 21. Please contact Dr Aisha Spencer: aisha.spencer02@uwimona.edu.jm or Ms Althea Aikens at althea.aikens@uwimona.edu.jm for further information.

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