• Aversion or allure?


    Aversion or allure? : working with second-language English student

    teachers  during teaching experience sessions in selected Gauteng

    schools : creative literature teaching


        Kathy Mabin

           Division of Languages, English, Wits School of Education



    Many second- and additional-language English speakers in South African high schools are reluctant to read and study English literature, especially poetry. Reasons for this resistance include language and comprehension difficulties, a lack of personal and critical engagement with texts, rigid or outdated methodologies, poorly trained or unenthusiastic English teachers and the allure of non-print media. Hillis Miller maintains that literature “gives access to a virtual reality not otherwise knowable” (2008, 28). Imagining this ‘virtual reality’ is invaluable in developing understanding between readers, teachers and learners across language, social and cultural barriers. The catalyst for this paper was an excellent and enjoyable poetry lesson taught by a student, a second language English speaker, to underprivileged learners in a township high school.  In this paper the reasons for the success of this lesson, and similar lessons I have observed, will be analyzed with a view to helping other student teachers, English lecturers and school teachers to design and teach excellent literature lessons which engage seemingly disinterested and disengaged adolescents. Reports will be presented on lessons observed, and on discussions with students and teachers regarding vital aspects of successful literature lessons.


    During a period of teaching experience in May this year I supervised students in various township and other schools in Gauteng. In this paper I shall discuss the reasons for the successful poetry teaching of four students I visited. One of them was teaching in a high school in Ennerdale, south of Johannesburg. Ennerdale is a relatively poor township which was declared as a coloured group area during the apartheid regime. Even though apartheid ended in 1994, Ennerdale still remains a largely coloured community. The crime rate in the area is high, and many learners have relatives who are gang members. Drug and alcohol abuse are major problems in the community. Many learners thus experience major difficulties at home, and are rebellious and angry young people who are not easy to teach.  Lerato, my student (not her real name), is a second year Bachelor of Education at the Wits School of Education. English is her third language. Sesotho and Afrikaans are her first and second languages. Her written English is weak. I had awarded 47% for her April assignment on high school poetry methodology as part of our curriculum studies course.


    It was with some trepidation that I walked towards the Grade 10 classroom where she was going to teach a lesson on Milton’s sonnet ‘On his Blindness’. As we neared the classroom Lerato said that she had chosen to teach this poem because she had studied it at high school, and because she liked it. I thought it very likely that her lesson preparation and methodology would not be worthy of a credit. However, my fears were unfounded. Lerato proceeded to teach an excellent lesson, in fair English, which captured the learners’ imagination. It was the last period of the day and the learners were tired, and many of them were somewhat restless when we entered the classroom. But Lerato succeeded in gaining their interest as soon as she began teaching, and they were completely engaged in the lesson from start to finish. I have spent some time analysing the reasons for the success of the lesson.


    Yandell’s research demonstrates that when both the literary text and the teacher’s pedagogic practices enable students “to inhabit other possible selves, other possible worlds” learning is enriched and extended” (In Hodges, 2008, 4). At the beginning of Lerato’s lesson the class was given the opportunity to imagine the despair Milton felt when he became blind. The learners were asked to close their eyes and keep them closed for about 30 seconds. Lerato then asked them how they felt about not being able to see for a while, and then what they thought it would be like to be blind. Many of them responded, and spoke briefly about difficulties experienced by blind relatives. John Milton was then introduced as a poet who went blind, and the learners were immediately interested. The learners had sympathy for Milton’s plight and were eager to begin reading and studying the poem.


    Richards-Kamal writes that “pupils make meaning in the texts they read by approaching them through their own histories and experiences” (2008, 56). Because Lerato had given the learners the opportunity to share their experiences of one of the major themes of the poem before analysing it, meant that the learners were interested in reading the text.


    Lerato then proceeded to read the poem to the class twice before asking a learner to read it aloud. She had clearly practised reading the poem aloud. She paid attention to all the punctuation marks and read with expression. The learners then read the poem quietly to themselves and made notes on their understanding of its meaning.  Milton’s language is difficult for some learners to understand, but this did not deter them from eager reading and writing.


    Analysing the poem was the next step in the lesson, and the learners enjoyed this because their interest had been awakened, and they were keen to discover more about the text. Lerato had researched the techniques used in the poem thoroughly, and used well-formulated questions to enable the learners to work with her in finding out how Milton expressed his meaning. The class discussed the theme of limitation in particular depth. They were sensitive to Milton’s belief that his blindness would spoil his chances for using his talents as he once could have done. They were able to link this theme to that of Milton’s faith, perseverance and hope, and to the importance of never giving up however difficult one’s circumstances are. The teacher told me after the lesson that a high percentage of the class are forced to deal with extremely difficult circumstances in their lives, and is was heartening to know that a trainee teacher had succeeded in igniting the interest of all the learners in a poem which could help them to deal with their problems. It is encouraging that the Lerato’s imaginative approach at the beginning of the lesson was the main reason for the learners engagement.


    Second-language English students have the advantage of being equipped to teach poems which are written in a combination of English and various African languages. A Xhosa=speaking student, Nombeko (not her real name), demonstrated this in a very good lesson on a poem written in English which refers to a long Xhosa name. Cahnmann-Taylor and Preston write that an educator who welcomes bilingual resources and poetry in the classroom is able to maximise “classroom contributions from students whose linguistic and cultural identities are valued” (2008, 240). This was well illustrated in Nombeko’s lesson on the poem ‘My Name’ by Maoleng wa Selepe. The poem follows:


    Look what they have done to my name …

    The wonderful name of my great-great-grandmothers

    Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa


    The burly bureaucrat was surprised

    What he heard was music to his ears

    “Wat is daai, sê nou weer?”

    “I am from Chief Daluxolo Velayigodle of emaMpodweni

    And my name is Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa”


    Messia, help me!

    My name is so simple

    And yet so meaningful,

    But to this man it is trash …


    He gives me a name

    Convenient enough to answer his whim

    I end up being

    Maria …

    I …


    Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa


    Nombeko was teaching a Grade 12 class at a school in Kwa Thema, a township near Springs in Gauteng. It was brave of her to teach this class. Some  learners were older than she, and it was a very large class. At the beginning of the lesson I was concerned that she would find it very difficult to maintain class control throughout the lesson. However, the learners responded very well to the poem. The school is situated in a largely Zulu-speaking section of Kwa Thema. There is a certain amount of antagonism between some Zulu and Xhosa people, and studying this poem offered the opportunity to identify with a Xhosa speaker. Nombeko asked several learners to read the poem for the class, and speaking the Xhosa name with pride strengthened this identification. All the learners felt strongly that the speaker should have been allowed to keep her name. They much enjoyed discussing the changes of tone in the poem. Main and Seng write that “(t)he word tone in literary discussion is borrowed from the expression tone of voice. Tone is the manner in which a poet makes his statement; it reflects his attitude toward his subject. Since printed poems lack the intonations of spoken words, the reader must learn to “hear” their tones with his mind’s ear. Tone cannot be heard in one particular place since it reflects a general attitude, it pervades the whole poem.” (1973, http://www.frostfriends.org/tone.html accessed 9 October 2009). Because some time was given to discussing the poet’s changes of tone the learners were able to understand the poet’s attitude; they identified with the importance of being proud of one’s name. They identified with her anger, fear and pride, and this is the major reason for the success of the lesson.


    One of my final year students, Joyce (not her real name) was doing her teaching experience at a well established English-speaking girls’ high school in Johannesburg. Joyce is a mature age student from Zimbabwe who struggles a great deal with her English. She decided to teach a follow=up lesson on Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Great Lover’ to a Grade 8 class. All the learners are second or third language English speakers. Joyce had already taught one lesson on this poem. In her first lesson she had discussed the poem as a Romantic themed poem. Brooke’s use of structure, particularly the couplet and his use of metaphors throughout the poem are aspects which had been considered in terms of ways in which he creates meaning.


    In ‘The Great Lover’ Brooke reflects on life, and alludes to the fact that it is likely that he would die soon since he was about to go to war. In lines 13 to 16 he mentions those he has loved:


    Shall I not crown them with immortal praise

    Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me

    `                                               High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see

    The inenarrable godhead of delight?


    From line 21 to 26 he writes:


    And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names

    Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,

    And set them as a banner, that men may know,

    To dare the generations, burn, and flow

    Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming …

    These I have loved:


    These lines certainly help to give access to what Hillis Miller describes as “a virtual reality not always knowable” (2008:28).


    And then in line 27 he begins a long list of things that he loves:

    White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,

    Ringed with blue lines; and feathery faery dust;

    Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust

    Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;

    Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;

    And radiant raindrops couching in cool flower;

    And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,

    Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;

    During her first lesson Joyce was pleased when the girls identified with many things listed by Brooke which they also liked. She asked them whether they would like to write poems about ‘things they like’ or ‘things they love’. The response was enthusiastic, and it was agreed that an opportunity would be given for writing these poems the next day.


    At the beginning of the lesson Joyce re-read the poem which the learners all had in front of them. A brief revision on Brooke’s reasons for writing the poem and a discussion of some of his metaphors not recognized in the previous lesson then followed. They girls were encouraged to use poetic devices in their poems to express their meaning. They then discussed things that they like or ‘love’ in groups before beginning to write. They were asked to finish writing their poems at home.


    Although the poems were not brilliant, the girls thoroughly enjoyed writing them. One poem follows:


    My irresistible lovers …


    The cold sweet taste of ice-cream

    When you lick it.

    My scary, weird, over active imagination

    Harry Potter books

    with him the sun never sets

    the smell of freshly baked

    cup cakes mmm …… delicious.


    An extract from another poem follows:


    I love the spoon

    the amount of food it takes to my watery mouth

    with a perfect pattern design

    On the handle.

    I love the taste of chocolate as it melts into my mouth.

    I love my skin which is like chocolate

    My eyes like melted honey.

    Joyce taught with infectious enthusiasm, and it was wonderful to witness a class so enjoying reading a poem, and then writing their own. Joyce is doing her best to improve her English, and from the lesson I saw, is perfectly capable of teaching English in primary schools in Grade 8. The English teacher agreed that Joyce was making excellent progress. She said that this was the first lesson this year during which learners had written so enthusiastically. In fact the girls had not seemed very interested in poetry before Joyce’s lessons. Because they were able to identify with the poet and respond creatively, both lessons had been most successful.


    Harris mentions that James Britton, the well-known educator, believed that “if students and teachers are to use writing to explore the potential meanings of their internal and socially shared worlds, then teachers must solicit, provide time for, trust and take pleasure in children’s writing and literature responses” (In Salvio and Boldt, 2009, 123). Joyce had succeeded in doing just this in her lesson, and the English teacher had also gleaned an excellent idea for using in future lessons.


    Sibongile (not her real name), a Zulu-speaking student, was teaching a Grade 11 class at a large high school in Lenasia. During the apartheid years many Indian people were unceremoniously moved to this area, south of Soweto, from parts of Johannesburg. It has become a large and thriving suburb. Although Lenasia is an Indian area, a high proportion of black learners is evident in most of the schools there. The school where Sibongile was teaching is not without its problems. There are up to 40 learners in some classes, and some learners are struggling with drug or alcohol problems. Sibongile is a quietly spoken and extremely diligent student. Her English is fair. She had decided to teach an anonymous poem, ‘Shantytown’, which is set in the Soweto suburb of Jabavu. Before the lesson she told me that she had chosen the poem because she likes it very much. She also told me that she loves teaching poetry.


    The lesson began with an interesting discussion between the learners and the student teacher. She asked them about their experiences of shanty towns. Although no learners in the class live in a shack, they related stories concerning relatives and friends who do so. They spoke about recurring illnesses of shack inhabitants, and about lack of clean water, jobless adults who lack hope of ever finding work, crime, poorly clad youngsters, poor nutrition and other results of poverty. The learners identified with Sibongile, who also has friends who live in shacks. She mentioned to the class that she lives in Soweto, and that she lives in a small but comfortable house.

    This lively interaction set the scene for introducing the poem. Sibongile handed a copy to each learner, and proceeded to read the poem several times. The text follows.

    High on the veld upon that plain

    And far from streets and lights and cars

    And bare of trees, and bare of grass,

    Jabavu sleeps beneath the stars.


    Jabavu sleeps.

    The children cough.

    Cold creeps up, the hard night cold,

    The earth is tight within its grasp.

    The highveld cold without soft rain,

    Dry as the sand, rough as a rasp,

    The frost-rimmed night invades the shacks

    Through dusty ground

    Through freezing ground the night cold creeps

    In cotton blankets, rags and sacks

    Beneath the stars Jabavu sleeps.


    One day Jabavu will awake

    To greet a new and shining day:

    The sounds of coughing will become

    The children’s laughter as they play

    In parks with flowers where dust now swirls

    In strong-walled homes with warmth and light.

    But or tonight Jabavu sleeps,

    Jabavu sleeps. The stars are bright.


    The learners were completely captivated.  Before Sibongile could begin any discussion about the poem many hands were enthusiastically raised as learners made remarks such as “I said that most people in shacks only have thin blankets”; “I said that many children cough”. Sibongile found it a bit difficult to calm the class and to proceed with the lesson!


    Not only is this poem is written in straightforward, simple English which makes it accessible for second-  and third-language speakers, but it is also an excellent example of a short poem containing much repetition, imagery and other techniques which are used to convey its meaning. By the end of the lesson an eager class had much enjoyed their analysis because they had not found their task too arduous, although it was challenging, and because they identified with the themes expressed. Although first language speakers of English can and do teach this poem well, the fact that a Zulu speaker and a fellow Soweto resident clearly enjoyed and valued the poem, and also knows many shack dwellers, struck a chord with the class. The lesson therefore succeeded in a very special way.


    I find it interesting that two of the four poems chosen for the lessons described above are not South African. I recently designed a questionnaire which I handed to 24 students who had done our curriculum studies course in high school methodology. 15 of these students are second or third language speakers of English. I asked ten questions, including the following


    Name two or more of your favourite poems.

    Do you like teaching poetry?

    Which poem would you most enjoy teaching to a Grade 10 class?

    Give reasons for your choice.

    Which poem would you most enjoy teaching to a Grade 11 or 12 class?

    Give reasons for your choice.

    Briefly describe how you would try to make poetry enjoyable for secondary school learners.


    Three of the 15 students said that they do not enjoy teaching poetry, mainly because they had poor teachers at school, which they felt had influenced their understanding of texts adversely. Two students remarked that they do not have any favourite poems. Six of the remaining thirteen students included South African poems in their list of their favourite poems. Seven students listed only poems by English or American authors.


    High on the lists of favourite poems were Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Donne’s ‘Death be not Proud’, ‘Do not go Gentle into that Good Night’ (by Dylan Thomas), Shakespeare’s sonnet “Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds’, Larkin’s ‘Next Please’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’. Poems chosen for teaching to high school learners were by and large the same as some of the students’ favourite poems.


    Reasons given for the choice of poems to teach included: “Because of the passion in the poem” (‘Death be not Proud’); “Because I understand it and the learners can relate to it” (‘Death be not Proud’); “It is about love and learners like talking about love” (Shakespeare’s sonnet); “Most of the time it relates to things happening presently” (Shakespeare’s sonnet); “It is an intense poem that commemorates the writer and is inspirational for the learners” (‘Still I Rise’).


    Students had good ideas about making poetry enjoyable for their learners. Notably these included encouraging learners to write their own poems, using music when teaching poetry and careful choice of poems with which learners would identify.


    The answers to the questionnaire and my experiences with the four students described above are encouraging. It seems that many of our students enjoy poetry and enjoy teaching it. Language difficulties do complicate students’ and learners’ understanding of poetry from time to time, but the choice of poems above demonstrate that these difficulties are not insurmountable. Students are willing to listen carefully to learners, and encourage them to take part in classroom discussions. The fact that the learners I saw in the schools were thoroughly enjoying reading and analyzing poetry was because the student teachers were well prepared, committed, and enthusiastic. This bodes well for the future of excellent poetry teaching by second-and third-language English speakers in South African schools.



    1.   Cahnmann-Taylor, M. and Preston, D. (2008). What bilingual poets can do: Re-visioning English education for biliteracy. English in Education, 42 (3), 2008.
    2.   Hillis Miller, J. (2002). On literature. New York: Routledge.
    3.   Main, F. and Seng, P. J. (1973). Wadsworth Handbook and anthology.   Belmont,  Calif. From website http:// www. Frsotfriends.org/tone.html, accessed 9 Oct 2009.
    4.    Richards-Kamal, F. (2008). ‘Personal and critical’? Exam criteria, engagement with texts, and real readers’ responses. English in Education, 42 (1), 2008.
    5.   Salvio, P.M. and Boldt, G. M. (2009). ‘A democracy tempered by the rate of exchange’: Audit culture and the sell-out of progressive writing curriculum. English in Education, 43 (2), 113-128, 2009.
    6.   Yandell,  J.  (2005). In Cliff Hodges, G. Creativity in education, English in
          Education, 39 (3), 2005.


    Categories: Volume 3