5 things students have to know before they can understand poetry at school.
Sometimes you will read a poem and think - what the heck does this mean?
Actually, change "sometimes" to "most of the time".
I don't think I have every read a poem that I understood immediately. Unless of course, I wrote it myself. That is, essentially, the problem. Poetry is so personal and so dependent on understanding the life of the poet: the world they lived in, the values they held, the struggles they faced...
In our multicultural country, many students of different cultural backgrounds have an even harder time learning Western poetry because they did not grow up with the foundational cultural understanding that is required to understand the bulk of symbolism, metaphors and connotations in poetry.
So here are 5 things that will help students understand a lot of the symbolism and references made in Western poetry:
The Bible: As a deeply Christian civilisation, English texts have their roots in biblical allusions. It is almost impossible to understand some poems and the true depth of their meaning without having a working knowledge of Genesis, Exodus and Psalms.
Greek Mythology: Not so much one singular book, the entire collection of Greek mythology is referenced time and time again in poetry. Famous stories about Achilles, Ulysses and Sisyphus all help young readers unpack poems to their deeper level.
Fairytales (Grimms, Wes Anderson): Fairytales are often what first teaches students values, morals and culture. Every society has their own fairytales and adult literature often contain references back to these childhood tales. Stories such as Cinderella, Snow White,
Proverbs (Adages): A great list can be found here: https://www.myenglishteacher.eu/blog/famous-proverbs-and-common-sayings/
A history book about Western Wars: Any history resource will do (YouTube is great for this). Understanding the Tudors, the French Revolution and the American civil war will help students truly understand the meaning behind poems being prescribed at school. A basic understanding of major historical events is incredibly helpful for English.
Overall, poems prescribed in the HSC have become more diverse and culturally representative - an incredibly important step for students navigating the multicultural country that is Australia. However, a good chunk of the syllabus is driven by Western cultural motifs and ideas so it is crucial to have a good grasp of these!
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