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How I Teach the GCSE Poetry Anthology

I really dislike the given AQA Poetry Anthology, not the poems, but the actual physical anthology. My students do too. In fact, I dislike it so much that I set about creating an alternative, that, whilst of course biased, I feel is far superior. This post is about what is included in this alternative and how I use it to teach the GCSE Poetry Anthology. The link to the full revamped anthology can be found at the end of the post. But, first, what’s wrong with the one I already have?

Why I Don’t Teach Using the AQA Anthology

There are a couple of reasons the allocated anthology doesn’t really do it for me:

  1. Students have to write really, really, really small in order to make sufficient annotations. There is very little room in the anthology for students to actually do what they need with it, make notes. Each year I hear the same complaint roll across the room, usually half way through the lesson: ‘I’ve ran out of room!’ or ‘Please no more, I don’t have room!’ These limitations in space not only make the notes disorganised and difficult to read, but discourage students from jotting down additional points.
  2. There’s only one copy of the poem. This may not be an issue for most, but I always like students to have a first draft of the poem where they can make notes, scribble ideas, jot down first impressions. This is a really important part of the reading process. But, they are, understandably, reticent to make such scribbles in the allocated anthology, given it is their only copy. So, historically I have brought with me another copy of the poem, but wouldn’t it be great to have an additional copy right there in the anthology?! This will also allow them to return to their original impressions at a later date as well as reminding them reading a poem is an accumulative interpretative process.
  3. The sequence is random. As far as I can tell, the official anthology isn’t really sequenced in any particular way. I think it’s a really good idea to order them in a way that helps to foster links, encouraging comparison. This helps students to think of the anthology as a cluster, rather than a disparate list of texts.
  4. It’s just the poems. Ok, this is not really at all a problem with AQA, but alongside the poems I like to have other useful features like a key quotation bank, thematic link grid, model response, key themes, big questions. I don’t really want to provide these additionally as that gets messy. I want it right there, next to the poems.

Now, I’d like to say none of this is really the fault of AQA and indeed many teachers are probably very happy with the anthology as it is. However, all of these caused issues for me and so I sought to solve them. Here’s how.

My Solutions

So, my first major issue was that the anthology didn’t allow much space in which to make notes. I attempted to solve this in two ways: 1) Placing the poem in the centre of the page so that students could make notes more easily around the poem; 2) Making the poem double-spaced so that marginal annotation need not be quite so bunched up. This is what is looks like:

So, now students have far more space in which to write and make notes. Placing the poem in the centre of the page is such a small and easy change, but makes a massive difference.

My second problem was that the anthology only includes one copy of the poem, which might inhibit or make more difficult that initial stage of scribbling down first impressions. So, easy enough to fix, I included two copies of each poem, with the first expressly designed for students to scribble down their immediate thoughts. I also included some questions to guide and scaffold this initial exploration, as below:

The double-spaced version of the poem becomes the ‘final’ poem onto which students write points made during class discussion.

My third grievance was that the poems aren’t really sequenced in a way that will encourage thinking about the poems as a cluster as opposed to just separate poems. Personally, I like to think about the poems as two thematic clusters and have reorganised the anthology to reflect this:

My fourth problem was that the anthology doesn’t allow opportunity for wider thinking or include other useful features. Again, an easy fix. So, in my revamped anthology I have included, just as a couple of examples and amongst other features, the below:

A list of themes they can expect to see across the anthology as well as Big Questions we’ll return to again and again
A list of QR coded links to Massolit lectures. Each one takes the student to a relevant lecture on the given poem.
A recall grid for each poem. List four essential quotations from each poem, cover it up and self quiz
A thematic grid for the cluster. Colour code which poems relate to which theme
At the end of the booklet I’ve included an essay structure and model essay for students to think about and annotate as well as a slow essay for us to write together step by step

How Do I Teach the Anthology Using the Booklet?

So, once I’ve handed out the anthology and we’re ready to begin I’ll go through some of the preliminary material located at the start of the booklet, including timeline, big picture of literature and why poetry is important, big ideas and big questions. All of this takes place before we look at a specific poem.

We then tend to look at one poem per lesson, depending on the poem and other factors. Each lesson looks broadly the same in terms of sequence and structure:

  1. I read the poem once
  2. I then introduce the Big Question for that poem (taken from the bank of Big Questions at the start of the anthology) and explain the plot of the poem
  3. I then read it again, asking them to pay attention to any images that stand out now that they have the Big Question and a clear sense of the plot
  4. At this point, I might ask a few cold call questions to establish whether they are clear on the plot
  5. I then give them roughly 10 minutes to read/annotate/think about the poem on their own terms and in silence. They use the first copy of the poem in the booklet to do this as well as the prompts to help
  6. We then shift to the double spaced poem, which can be used for annotation during class discussion
  7. I use my visualiser to annotate along with them when we’re discussing the poem. The double-spaces help me too!

So, there we have it — a revamped and in my very biased opinion a far, far superior poetry anthology. Here’s the link:


4 thoughts on “How I Teach the GCSE Poetry Anthology

Add yours

    1. I’m afraid not! I’ve only ever taught L and R but hopefully wouldn’t be too much hassle to rearrange for P and C. Really glad you like it👍


      1. If you don’t mind, I might use yours as a template and make a P+C version for next academic year. Frustratingly, we already taught poetry because we thought lockdown was likely going to happen in term 1 and poems would be easier for remote lessons. Now, we have to teach Macbeth online…


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