Most people will remember the familiar and helpful rhyme:
‘Divorced, beheaded, died, Divorced, beheaded, survived.’
However, this just tells us part of the story of Henry the Eighth’s struggle to find marital bliss and secure an heir to the throne. What about the rest of the story? Unfortunately, this is where many of the pupils in schools begin to struggle. Unless their imaginations have been ignited by enthusiastic teachers using exciting methods which engage their audiences, then many pupils will enter the classroom with a feeling of trepidation and a longing for it to be over with.
What’s more, with some classes consisting of thirty or more pupils, even a very enthusiastic teacher will find it difficult to help those who are either struggling with the subject or are just not interested. Professor of psychology Joydeep Bhattacharya, of Goldsmiths University of London, said that memory works by association so learning something new, and retaining that information, is best achieved if linked to emotion, image or experience.
This is where history poetry comes into its own. By taking a specific era from the past and re-telling that era through the medium of poetry, the feelings and emotions of the key players are critically entwined with all those important dates which many find difficult to remember. The tempo of the poem, along with the all-important rhyming, help the reader to begin to retain the information which is presented. It no longer looks like that all forbidding block of text which can put many off even before they begin.
Because the poem is broken down into easily manageable chapters which cover key topics, teachers can then pick and choose which chapter best suits the lesson they are covering, and work from that. The history poem doesn’t have to be read like a book from cover to cover but can be used as an aid to augment the curriculum, to help make the standard storyline that much more interesting and alive.
History teachers can dip in and out of the poem to help reinforce a lesson, whilst at the same time helping those pupils who are struggling to have more of a feeling for history. After all, a poem is like a song without the music in that it has a beat and a rhyme, and if there’s one thing people like it’s a song. And, if the song is a catchy one too, then the words are all the more eagerly remembered and enjoyed as well.
Using in the classroom:
Many students may only know who won the war, not the specifics of how the war started and the various peaks and troughs of how it progressed throughout the six years, so the history poem can give them a better view of the war from both sides. It can also show it was not simply a case of two sides opposing each other over a long period of time and one side won, and that it involved millions of people, just like the reader, in a life and death struggle. The history poem will help increase the reader’s knowledge in a more interesting and thought-provoking way.
Extract: D-Day (June – July 1944)
By June of nineteen forty-four,
After years of costly bloody war,
The Allies knew they’d have to invade,
Fortress Europe which Germany made.
For years the Wehrmacht planned and schemed,
Until the coast with weapons teemed.
With gun emplacements, mines and wire,
The Germans trained to pour down fire.
For four long years France had felt,
The yoke of oppression which had been dealt.
The people watched as invaders swarmed,
Which only a few to their captors warmed.
They were fed each wonderful story,
Of all the Wehrmacht’s might and glory.
They heard the martial music blaring,
Felt first-hand the martial bearing.
Caught in the vice of defeat’s cruel grip,
From humility’s cup they were forced to sip.
Biding their time not daring to hope,
They longed for deliverance and the means to cope.
Several years of being subdued,
Feeling their fate as harsh and rude.
Frenchmen were careful not to speak out loud,
Not to stand out from the silent crowd.
- Step 1) Select period of war, for example D-Day, especially in view of the recent anniversary, it may help to use an anniversary so that other sources of information, such as current newspaper articles can be used in conjunction with the poem.
- Step 2) Each student to write down what they think they know about D-day from what they have heard or read in the past.
- Step 3) Going round the classroom each child reading out aloud a verse of the poem.
- Step 4) From what they have written before, and from what they have heard, to discuss the feel of D-day, what they understand the sequence of events were and what they would like to know more about.
- Step 5) Additional textbooks and online reading to expand on what they have learned including poetry and writings from veterans who were writing of how it felt to be there on those formidable days in June 1944
Session 2: The Tudors
Many students may just think the Tudor period is about Henry VIII, rather than the whole era. The start of the Tudor dynasty was a time that took England from the Medieval era, giving the nation a new King with Welsh heritage, leading England on a path that would make the country renowned throughout the world. It was a time for changes in laws, Kings famous for numbers of wives and the first woman to rule as queen. History poetry brings the era to life and expands the student’s knowledge rather than presenting them with a dry narrative.
Extract: King Henry VIII (r. 1509 – 1547)
Only seventeen when he ascended the throne,
Henry’s court would set the tone,
Of the Renaissance which he held dear,
Giving rise to the love of a new idea.
An intelligent man who was gifted, complex,
Determined to be master of his subjects.
Driven to rule by God’s divine right,
With nothing allowed to challenge his might.
At the end of the long medieval age,
Henry turned the Renaissance page,
Welcoming thoughts that were embracing,
New ideas that seemed worth chasing.
Young Henry and Catherine were soon betrothed,
Both in stately apparel clothed,
Not only for politics, but shortly to find,
Love for each other in body and mind.
With his queen by his side, he would display,
An extravagant court, with a vast array,
Of courtiers and pageant which would impress,
By its dances and feasts which went to excess.
Young and in love, both he and she,
Would entertain, and all would see,
Their happiness and how they spent their time,
Delighting in music and the love poem’s rhyme.
- Step 1) Split class into groups and each select a significant Tudor character – e.g. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I etc.
- Step 2) Students in groups to read part of poem about the character and discuss what they have learned and how it makes them think of that person.
- Step 3) Class discussion between groups on how each group feels what their character has contributed to Tudor times and how it is still used today.
- Step 4) Additional textbooks and online reading to expand on what they have learned.
In each case the students can write their own poem about the era to bring that period to life.
How the poems have worked:
- Teachers have used poems in assemblies in particular for significant anniversaries from the Great War and WW2.
- There has been a link between English language and history departments, encouraging the flow of language, helping to retain historical information and how to use words to bring about a feel of the era. The tempo and rhyme has also helped with literacy in classes.
- Poetry competitions, where pupils write their own poems about specific areas of history that interests them.
Results of the poems:
The history poems are written in such a way that those who may have seemed uninterested to begin with, are now sitting up in class and taking a real interest in the people brought to life before their eyes and these are some quotes from students who have used poetry in the classroom about WW2:
‘I enjoyed the poem as it showed events from a view that is not commonly used’
‘I enjoyed the poem because it shows events from a view that is not commonly used. I don’t fully understand what the French went through when their country was captured by the Germans so this poem helps’
‘The poem is describing a series of events taking place in WW2 specifically describing battles between allies and Germans the mood of troops and how they fought and the enhancement of technology which brought about the end of the war. The poet describes these events in an extremely gruesome and depressing way e.g. ’surprise was lost, and many were killed. Their valiant blood in the sea was spilled’. I believe the poet is trying to convey a teaching or a lesson by using a story from a neutral point of view’
‘The poet portrays events by writing them in short paragraphs/stanzas that rhyme. They are quite snappy about things/events that happen in the war. Personally I really liked the poem; its catchy and the rhyming words make it flow and it makes me want to read on’
For many people, history appears dull, vague images from the past which seem to offer very little to those alive today. History poetry is a new and exciting way to help support the standard teaching curriculum. It brings to life those periods from the past which many pupils would otherwise look upon as old and dead, who would see people from history as no more than lifeless and still images from the pages of a book. By giving history that added emotion and feeling through poetry, pupils are beginning to see that those same lifeless images they see were real people with real feelings and real dreams just like them. Through combining poetry with history, students are beginning to appreciate history for the important subject it is.
Colin Croad, who lives in Hampshire, has spent the last two years liaising with schools to help them broaden the minds of students with regards to specific periods of history, particularly WW1 And WW2. He has written history poetry books on ancient Rome, the Great War, WW2, The Tudors, the History of Britain and the History of the US and is currently starting a new project on the English Civil War. E-books or a paperback version of the history poems can be purchased on Amazon UK under C.S. Croad. Colin can also be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org