Using film to teach poetry

18 Mar 2021 BY Grace Eardley in Using Film to Teach...

5 mins
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople

While film has clear benefits when it comes to teaching English and Literature, the links between teaching poetry using film may be a little less obvious. In support of World Poetry Day, which falls on 21 March every year, and our ongoing Language Theme for this term, teacher Grace Eardley suggests some ways of bringing the two together in ways that can make the sometimes daunting prospect of poetry seem more accessible to young people.

Whenever I introduce the topic of poetry I have to start by quashing a few inevitable misconceptions. "It's boring, Miss!", "It's too difficult" and "It doesn't make sense" are repeated echoes that I hear year upon year. I would confidently predict that if given film as a new topic, I would not be greeted with such responses. In this article I will offer some tried and tested ideas linking poetry and film.

First, I think it's vital to define what is meant by the term poetry and how the form is distinct from other forms of artistic expression. The definition I use is as follows: poetry is a form of written artistic expression that often includes an abundance of language and structural technique used to evoke an emotional response from a reader. With a firm definition, universally understood, the rest of the lesson is used to challenge the common misconceptions about poetry being boring and hard!

I often begin by watching the work of stop motion animator Norman McLaren. A good starting point is his film Dots. Classes are fascinated by his process - McLaren painstakingly drew directly on to strips of film to create abstract stop motion films like Dots. Before watching a clip, I ask students to note down how this clip is comparable to poetry while they watch. Responses are varied; some students may note that the sounds used are like sounds in poetry, whereas others may comment on how it gives them an emotional response like poetry. The next activity (still linked to McLaren) is introducing and using common poetic devices like simile, metaphor, personification or onomatopoeia to describe the films.

Over the past term I have taught poetry across the age ranges, including 'Other Cultures poetry' with year 9, as well as revising GCSE set poems and unseen poetry. Studying poems from other cultures is a superb way to explore SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) and offers the opportunity to link in some great films. 

The poems we have studied are united by themes of cultural identity and have focused on the writers own experiences of life across more than one culture. Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan by Moniza Alvi, for example, explores the poet's struggles with experiencing British and traditional Pakistani culture, and in Search for my Tongue the poet Sujata Bhatt explores her fears about the loss of her native language. 

A great partner film for these texts - either in its entirety or through use of short, key sequences - is Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham (12). This British comedy focuses on the main character's search to balance her traditional Indian/Sikh family's expectations with her desire to play football for a British team. The film opens up a wealth of opportunities to draw comparisons between how Chadha uses the language of film and how poets use the written word to explore themes of cultural identity.

The traditional Japanese form the haiku is an effective and simple way to introduce syllables and metre within poetry, and an accessible form to build confidence amongst learners. Typically, haikus consist of three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Teachers may want to use the engaging Hunt for the Wilderpeople (12) to show examples of haiku, as here the troubled teen, Ricky Baker, is taught to use the form to express his emotions to hilarious effect - although be mindful of the age rating!

One successful activity that links haikus and film requires chopsticks, a filming device and some small objects - I used jellybeans. Ask students to attempt to pick up as many beans as they can using the chopsticks in 20 seconds, and whilst doing this, record words that come to mind on a whiteboard or post-it note. Introduce simple filmmaking and watching by recording the process, or give students context by watching how the characters use chopsticks in any of the Studio Ghibli films - one notable scene from Ponyo sees the children joyously eating a bowl of ramen. Why not use Into Film's fun Kung Fu Panda 3 Chopstick Challenge resource, which will provide all the support you'll need for this enjoyable activity. 

After students have recorded their thoughts about using the chopsticks, they can then count up the syllables in each word and then convert these into haikus. Another fun film approach is seeing if students can summarise their favourite films within a haiku. 

I hope some of these approaches will give you inspiration for utilising the magnificent power of film to teach poetry. 

Grace Eardly - Congleton High School

Grace Eardley

Grace Eardley was previously a subject leader for Film and Media and an English teacher at a secondary school where she ran 2 successful Into Film Clubs. Her commitments to film, innovative teaching and extra curricula activities were recognised in a nomination at the 2014 Tes Awards. She is one of Into Film’s longest running Educational Ambassadors and is currently undertaking a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research is funded by ESRC and explores using film to develop inclusive pedagogies for Neurodiverse learners specifically those with ADHD. As well her Doctoral studies, she continues to work as a specialist tutor working alongside young people with additional needs.

This Article is part of: Using Film to Teach...

A series of articles that highlight how the medium of film can be used to teach a wide variety of subjects and themes.

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