Today, the William Blake project began in earnest with my Year 13 classes reading all the poems in groups together. I asked them to read them all at a go, without lingering too long over what they are about. The whole point was that they would get an overview of the poems.
I introduced the poems today by getting the students to sit in my “poetry circle” which some seemed excited about! I talked about how I appeared on Radio London this morning talking about a letter a number of experts have written about the need to raise the formal schooling age to 7. Their remarks tie in a great deal with what William Blake thought: he believed that children learnt through play, that it was through play and being creative that children learnt, that it is not a “bolt-on extra” to learning but absolutely integral to the learning process. I spoke on the Radio London breakfast show defending their approach, saying that if learning is too formal at an early age, then children can become like “robots”, programmed to learn but without creativity.
He wrote in The School Boy:
But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away; Under a cruel eye outworn, The little ones spend the day, In sighing and dismay.
Ah! then at times I drooping sit, And spend many an anxious hour, Nor in my book can I take delight, Nor sit in learnings bower, Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.
How can the bird that is born for joy, Sit in a cage and sing. How can a child when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring.
The task of reading all the poems through in a group without teacher commentary/intervention is not a “traditional”, “upfront” teaching approach; I suppose some teachers would immediately start reading and analysing the poems as a whole class, without giving classes a chance to read the poems for themselves. Or possibly getting them to read them for homework by themselves. Reading them together in a group for the first time is possibly a different approach; one that immediately invites communal discussion.
However, many teachers would do what I am doing; encourage independent reading skills and a sense of independent inquiry.
As I listened to the groups, I could hear a degree of laughter and enjoyment as they read the poems; the lexis is not difficult and the poems have an easy, lilting music. The rhythms of Blake’s words really came through for me. I heard one student saying, “I quite like that one!”.
It was strange listening to the words I know so well mouthed by unfamiliar voices, but also invigorating; it made me see these poems in a new light. They live in the mouths of young people.
Here is one response from a student which is illuminating:
“I found William Blake’s Songs of Innocence thoroughly enjoyable and pleasant when reading them in todays English lesson. The majority of poems in this collection included an obvious rhyming scheme that continued throughout, making the poems easy to read and far more entertaining. A theme throughout all of the poems in Songs of Innocence was religion, whether this was a direct address to religion or a subtle undertone running continuously through the poems. The poems were written in a period of history when religion was a major part of everyone’s lives. The poems contained within Songs of Innocence are all relatively short and sweet, a lot revolving around children – this is due to the fact that children are often associated with innocence.”