Wednesday, 18 January 2023

POEM OF THE WEEK : Lightning Strike by John Clegg


Within the culture section of the Guardian there is a poem of the week published with a commentary and analysis. This poem, The Lightning Tree by John Clegg was published in The Guardian on the 9th January and reviewed by  Carol Rumen. 


Lightning Strikes School Tree
No-one saw it but me and I had my eyes shut:
I’d given the class their Thomas Hardy worksheets,
the bell had gone off, hinging our double period,
everybody was scraping their chairs about,
there was an agreed low level of laugh and chat
and doubtless some thought was authentically
bent to the poem, some to the fizzy striplight,
some to the weight of the next forty minutes and some
to the far field out of the window
where – as I say – with my eyes shut
I saw not the flash but the mid-distance lime tree
pulled flat like the loop in a seam
at the fact of a needle: and then when I blinked
I could still see the needle, and I had my eyes shut.

I read the poem. So many issues about teaching and learning immediately came to mind. 
There are lots of things about teachers, teaching, being a learner or pupil and the whole process of learning that just leaps out from this poem. A tree, lightning striking, teaching and learning have so many close interconnections.

The main symbol is a tree. It grows and develops slowly giving out branches, new shoots, buds and fresh leaves in the Spring. It is a habitat and an ecosystem to a multitude of  life and provides sustenance to all living things, including us. A  classroom is the setting of this poem. A classroom where over a year, the personal development and growth of the minds and the development of the pupils tis supposed to take place. A place to nurture lives, just like a tree.

What the teacher intends for the lesson is obviously not happening. The forty minutes are a waste of time. A study of a Thomas Hardy’s poem or rather filling in a work sheet, a tick box exercise, after presumably having read the poem.  Hardy was a rural writer of novels and poems imbued in nature. He would have appreciated the event of a tree being struck by lightning, the visceral moment. He too, like the teacher and students in this poem would have been affected to the core of his being. These pupils in this classroom are not that interested in Hardys poem, presented the way it is being presented, an object, a set of thoughts given to them , apparently,without any context. The teacher has already set the tone of the class, scraping chairs, low laughter and chat are permitted.  That agreement does not include the learning process. Some will focus on the strip lighting flickering on the ceiling, some on the long forty minutes of time, some the lightning struck lime tree falling to the ground. Some may give a thought to Hardys poem but I get a sense that that is a far off lost aim in this lesson.

For the teacher the lightning strike is what truly really affects them and the class. Even with their eyes shut the image of the strike has struck home, through the  retina  along the optic nerve, deep into the  brain. Something they will remember all their lives.

Inspiration can be just like that, a lightning strike that affects a teacher or pupil deeply and everlastingly and change them in some profound way. However being a human or being a tree, change is usually slow and may have its stops, starts and reversals. The illumination of a lightning strike either on a tree or in  personal development happens seldom. We have to grow into change, slowly. I remember reading with my own children when they were at a very young age. We sat cuddled up to each other when they were,  one year of age. Comfort, the pleasure of looking at pictures, talking, listening to the sounds of words I read to them. Often the sounds of the repetition of words and phrases was enjoyable. They have all, in their adulthood, become lovers of reading books. Something about reading to young children is the start of a journey, a long process, not a sudden ,"lightening strike,"of inspiration and change.Providing a pleasurable learning experience is the best we can aim for. The lightning strike might happen once in a lifetime.

 Perhaps the teacher in the poem needs to start a conversation with his or her students about what they themselves are interested in and what has inspired them and  from that discussion, design their  lessons around that approach. Make the lesson fit the pupil and not the other way round.

Maria Montessori had a similar idea about education. She built her theory through her observations on the principles of individual growth and development.  She believed in creating an atmosphere of freedom, interaction with the environment and giving her students a choice. 

If all lessons could provide a pleasurable exploration of the world deep change for each individual would gradually develop. A lightning strike would be nice. We can hope.

The Guardian link: 

Poem of the week: Lightning Strikes School Tree by John Clegg