Cherry tree poem gave pupils’ insight a chance to blossom

In the playground of my last school stands a cherry tree.  It stood there before the school was built but being close to the building line it was cut and pruned over the years.  In winter therefore, leafless, its branches pointing in one direction, away from the building, it resembles nothing less than a bent old crone; it is not pretty.

In spring however it is transformed.  Leaves and blossom hide its misshapen aspect and it stands out sharply against tarmacadam and grey concrete.  Last spring I used it.  I was teaching an Int 2 English class.  The lesson was A. E. Houseman’s Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now.

 

‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.’

 

I distributed copies of the poem.  I read it once and sent the class to the playground with one instruction: look at the playground, observe and come back and tell me what you saw.

They did and they saw that tree.  Despite its having been in that playground for longer than they had, some of them saw it for the first time.  The poem gave them eyes to see the tree and the tree, in its Easter finery, illustrated the poem.  They grasped, or at least most of them grasped, meanings and metaphors: time’s relentless movement, the seasons and the changes they bring in us and in nature, the transitory nature of youth, the capacity of beauty to transform the ordinary into the wonderful, the joy of observing beauty and of seeing it for a first time.

I doubt if that brief experience made any of them a more successful learner, confident individual, responsible citizen or effective contributor.  There was no cross-curricular aspect to the lesson or the learning.  I’m certain it added nothing to their employability.  In terms of hard outcomes, the best it may have done (and even here I am uncertain) is added a mark or two for those who revised that particular poem for the exam.

Yet, with due modesty, I am certain that that lesson summed up what is at the core of good English teaching.  ‘It is only with the heart,’ Antoine de Saint Exupery tells us, ‘that one can see rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye.’   Our purpose as English teachers is to nurture and develop emotional and intellectual honesty and insight and the ability to see with the heart; to provide the linguistic tools for that purpose; and to prepare learners for such integrity by offering them access to the wide range of human experiences encapsulated in literature.  These are supremely worthy purposes which English teachers should defend against the reductionist philistines who seek to dominate contemporary educational thinking.  We should ask however, which, if any, of these purposes merits any significant mention in the much-vaunted Experiences and Outcomes?

 

The above article was first published, with minor typographical differences, in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 2 March 2012: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6187436

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