I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about helping students avoid making nonsensical interpretations of poems.
One of the most frustrating misconceptions I hear from English Literature students goes something like this: “I can say what I like about a poem because it is my opinion”. I sometimes struggle to refrain from writing in the margin of an essay, This is nonsense! when a student decides upon an interpretation of a poem and then wildly contorts the meaning of the words of the poem to accommodate his or her interpretation.
One of the worst cases of nonsensical interpretative contortionism happened very early in my career, when a mock A Level paper chose “Siege” by Gillian Clarke as the unseen poem. At one point in this particular student’s response, the line, Thrushes hunt the lawn,/eavesdrop for stirrings in the daisy roots, was a metaphor for Policemen in search of clues, when, in fact, it was simply Clarke describing thrushes hunting for worms on her lawn. Some thirty years on, I remember that example as though I’d read it yesterday.
Recently, however, I have invented a teaching device which means I do not have to judge whether an interpretation of a poem is credible or not; instead, students engage in dialogic talk and pass judgement on each other’s interpretations, whilst I just stand there and occasionally orchestrate the conversation. The device is called the Field of Interpretation. It works a treat.
The Field of Interpretation
Recently, we were discussing Poppies by Jane Weir, a poem included in the AQA GCSE Literature Anthology. I asked the question, “Has the soldier been killed?” One student gave an answer and backed it up with some evidence from the poem. I then asked the class where they would put that interpretation of the poem, inside or outside the Field of Interpretation – a simple circle I’d drawn on the board, with a spot in the middle? And so the dialogue began. If the interpretation was credibly supported by the evidence in the text, another student sited with an X the first student’s interpretation within the boundary of the Field of Interpretation – the closer to the centre spot, the more credible the interpretation. If the interpretation was judged by another student to be unsupported by the text, the interpretation fell outside the boundary wall of the Field of Interpretation.
All judgements of an interpretation have to be validated by close reference to the text. Often I do not have to say a thing, as the students argue constructively between themselves about where an interpretation falls in relation to the Field of Interpretation.
This simple device is rooted in two pedagogic practices: metacognition and dual coding. The power of metacognitive talk is highlighted in the EEF’s Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-Regulation, and Oliver Caviglioli’s recent publication on Dual Coding shows the efficacy of combining images and words to develop students’ learning.
Try out the Field of Interpretation next time you are asking students to give an opinion of a text; it certainly minimises the nonsense…
I have used a physical representation of this for many years with smaller A level groups. Students stand in a circle, with one student in the middle who gives an interpretation about a text. Students then either move towards or away from the student, depending on whether they agree or disagree, and the distance they move is indicative of the extent of their agreement or disagreement. I would then ask individual students to explain their reaction with reference to the text/other critics etc. What I found particularly powerful was when I saw students start to move one way but then move the other – I could physically see them forming an argument in their head, which I would then ask them to articulate. Or if they moved very quickly, I could see how firm their opinion was, and engineer a debate between students to try to introduce an alternative perspective to that student. It was a great way to ensure that the not so vocal students put forward a point of view as well. I have recently left the classroom (although not education) – I wish I had thought to use the same principles in the way that you have described above, so that the many GCSE classes I taught would have benefitted in the same way.