I wrote here about why I think that drawing on Booth’s evidence-based ‘Memory Magic’ strategies to teach GCSE anthology poetry is an important idea. Progress 8 means that students of all ability will be entered for English Literature. Further, they will sit a closed book exam. Recall is therefore going to be crucial and Booth’s intervention supplies us with a range of strategies that are proven to strengthen this.
I looked at her first ‘magic trick’ here, exploring its possibilities through Agard’s ‘Half Caste’. In this post I move onto Booth’s second memory-enhancing strategy, which is ‘Rehearsal’. I apply it it to the teaching of ‘A Poison Tree’ and, more broadly, poetic meter.
Once again, my starting point with Year 10, when we get onto this, will be to explain to them why ‘rehearsal’ is an effective strategy. I referred to Carol Dweck in my last post. We’re all familiar with her research and its key message, which is of course that if we teach students about the brain’s plasticity, then they are more likely to develop a growth mindset. For me, this is a message that needs to be exemplified within the classroom, time and again. So in relation to the rehearse strategy, I’ll be saying something like this.
What to tell my students about ‘Rehearsal’
We already talked about the importance of focus in learning and how we can strengthen the part of our brain that’s responsible for paying attention. But that’s really just the start of a longer learning process. Once you’ve gained new information through your powers of focus, how are you going to store it so it’s still there next lesson, next term, or when you sit your exam?
This Is obviously a key question – but happily for you – one that has many answers. There are a whole range of different strategies that we can use to help us remember more and more information. You should try to figure out which works best for you as we try some of these out in the classroom. Today we’re going to be using ‘rehearsal’ to help us remember what we learn about Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’.
If you’ve ever had to remember a telephone number for a time before writing it down, you’ve probably found yourself repeating the numbers back, either inside your head, sub-vocally, or out loud.
And I’m sure many of you will have heard your parents repeating, “So I turn left at the cross roads, I take the third exit at the roundabout and then I’m turning left again, just after the Shell garage. Right?” Probably in a somewhat desperate tone.
These are examples of verbal rehearsal. It’s a simple but powerful memory strategy that we use instinctively, because it works. Adding a multi-sensory dimension to the rehearsal can make it even more effective. Did anyone here learn their alphabet to a tune?
One of the things we’re going to be focusing on today is poetic meter, which is as important to poetry as the alphabet is to reading. So it would be a good idea for us to adopt a multi-sensory rehearsal approach.
Learning about meter through ‘rehearsal’ activities
It’s worth bearing in mind that rehearsal is a particularly useful strategy for learning what might be called foundation knowledge. Meter, the patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables as ‘feet’ within verse, is certainly this; it’s knowledge that doesn’t pertain just to ‘A Poison Tree’ but to poetry generally. Furthermore, if students are going to learn about meter to a level of automaticity, then they will need repeated verbal rehearsals of this learning.
I’ll be drawing on the activities suggested in this post every time I teach a strongly rhythmic poem. It might also be productive to deploy them as a series of quick starters, until students are confident with the key concepts. (For example, ‘Lets chant together a line of iambic tetrameter to get us thinking about poetry again’)
So, Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ is written in lines of alternating trochaic trimeter and iambic tetrameter, this opposition perhaps suggesting the conflict that is Blake’s subject. After checking that students remember what a syllable is, we can introduce the poetic foot as a combination of stressed and unstressed syllable(s); and meter – the number of these feet per line.
The trochaic foot can be explained very simply. It’s this
And trochaic trimeter is therefore this, dum de / dum de / dum de (dum Blake misses off the final de to reinforce his end-stopped line, but that might be more than my students need to know at this stage.)
So what we have is the rhythm of a cantering horse and, counting the correct number of stressed syllables off on their fingers, students must chant after me:
dum de / dum de / dum de / dum
They could then create their own lines of trochaic trimeter and share these individually or in pairs. I have got my self a pen before repeating after me some of the trochaic lines in ‘A Poison Tree’ – obviously, in a really exaggerated rhythmic way:
I was angry with my friend
I was angry with my foe
This series of chanting exercises can then be repeated for the alternating iambic (de dum or heart-beat) lines. de dum / de dum / de dum / de dum moving into:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end
I told it not, my wrath did grow
This sort of activity can continue for as long as it takes. Some students tend to hear poetic rhythm without any difficulty at all, for others it’s a struggle. But all students will benefit from regular rehearsal, linking metric patterns to particular poems, because they will all be rewarded if they can explain in the closed book exam how meter contributes to meaning. Candidates are not good at this, on the whole.
Using rehearsals to teach SPIT
I’ve already considered a key element of structure, above, but rehearsals could be used in a wider range of ways than just chanting meter. To explore point of view, I might read a line, two lines or a whole quatrain, if my students are recalling confidently, in the third person. Students must then chant it back but using the correct first person and we could discuss the impact of this. ‘A Poison Tree’ is from Blake’s ‘Songs of Experience’. Does the first person make it sound more like the voice of experience that we are hearing? It is more authentic and compelling?
This poem lends itself to memorization because of its nursery-rhyme like form. Students could begin to learn it in groups, deciding who will be responsible for which lines, whether any will be spoken in chorus and so on. Blake’s imagery could be reinforced visually, with students adding movements to their recital, or freeze frames. After these have been shared, students will be very familiar with the text and ready to examine its symbolism more deeply. Another benefit of this activity is that recall is strengthened when a period of time elapses between reading lines and rehearsing them. Students will be holding lines of verse in their working memories throughout the activity, facilitating the transfer into long term memory.
Finally, Blake’s themes in ‘A Poison Tree’ might be explored through questioning and rehearsal – which line shows that the speaker believes that talking about your anger, being open, is preferable to bearing a grudge? Who has remembered a line that suggests this? Which line warns us that the consequences can be disastrous if we harbor grudges? Do any lines suggest the speaker feels guilty about the death of his former friend? And so on.
So, that’s rehearsal – a way of ensuring that new information is encoded. With frequent repetitions, this information will transfer into long term memory which is why, in relation to foundation knowledge in particular, regular rehearsals are key. However, there are more efficient ways of remembering and learning; strategies which rely less heavily on repetition. In my next post, I’ll be considering the potential of Booth’s ‘group’ as another way of supporting students in preparing for a closed book paper.
This revision video explores in some detail the SPIT of ‘A Poison Tree’.