A new initiative which aims to give English teachers the confidence and skills to use more Caribbean poetry in lessons has been launched by an international team of academics, educationalists and poets.

This is a way of promoting poetry across the board. The best of someone like Derek Walcott is the best poetry there is, regardless of genre.

Morag Styles

The Caribbean Poetry Project, which is backed by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, involves specialists from both the University of Cambridge and the University of West Indies. It seeks to revive the study of luminaries of the genre - writers such as Derek Walcott and Kamau Braithwaite - in secondary schools, as well as introducing pupils to new and lesser known Caribbean poetry. It is being run both in Britain and in the Caribbean itself.

In Cambridge, a pilot training course involving 17 teachers, many of whom work in ethnically diverse parts of London, has just been completed. Further courses are being developed in both Britain and the West Indies for 2012, and application details will soon be available at the project website:

The Project also has a research arm, focusing both on the literature, and on how Caribbean Poetry can best be taught in schools. A major international conference will be hosted by Cambridge's Faculty of Education next year. Researchers have also linked up with a specialist publisher (Peepal Tree Press) to produce a new anthology of Caribbean poetry.

The long-term ambition is not to spark the enthusiasm of young readers for Caribbean Poetry alone, but to use it as a point of access for 11 to 18-year-olds that might inspire them to study more poetry overall. Organisers have warned that poetry remains a Cinderella subject in many British schools, and that children sometimes do not get the opportunity to enjoy poetry at its best under a system too concerned with the mechanistic process of passing exams. An OFSTED report on the subject in 2007 reached similar conclusions.

Morag Styles, Professor of Children's Poetry at the University of Cambridge and the academic leading the project, said: "Many teachers are not particularly confident using poetry in the classroom and Caribbean poetry adds the challenge of using dialect, leading to concerns about whether they should read it aloud a certain way."

Old and new GCSE and A-Level English syllabi offer limited opportunities for teaching Caribbean poetry. Styles added: “We wish to promote those opportunities and encourage teachers to engage with the exciting range and varied possibilities of this appealing oral, as well as written, literature, which has so many links with popular music and performance.

"We're trying to make teachers feel more confident about using poetry in the classroom in general. Although our particular content is Caribbean, what they learn from this training course can be adapted to the use of poetry in a more general sense as well. This is a way of promoting poetry across the board and the content should be seen that way. After all, the best of someone like Derek Walcott is the best poetry there is, regardless of genre."

Several eminent poets have agreed to be advisors for the Project, including Carol Ann Duffy, who is its patron. Others include John Agard, Edward Baugh, Kamau Braithwaite, Mervyn Morris, Sir Andrew Motion, Olive Senior and Benjamin Zephaniah. In a number of cases their work also features on the course.

The participants study the history and theory behind Caribbean poetry, the role of Nation Language, and different forms of expression - stretching from the work of established writers through to the music of Bob Marley. Attention is also given to the concerns that provoked the course's development in the first place; the causes behind the "fear" of teaching this poetry in schools perceived by the academics involved, and techniques that can make the experience of learning Caribbean poetry more exciting and rewarding for students.

Teachers take part in a few days of intensive study, coupled with a wider programme of distance learning. Some of the institutions involved in the Caribbean are also offering the course as components of teacher training courses and ongoing professional development schemes.

The UK pilot phase of the project, which ran earlier this year, focused heavily on London, with schools from Haringey, Barnet and Islington all taking part, along with some from Cambridgeshire and Worcestershire. Organisers say the anecdotal feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, although it will be some time before they can assess whether or not the course has succeeded in getting more teachers to use more poetry in lessons.

In the meantime they hope to extent it further - in particular to other major cities in Britain. In the West Indies, courses are being lined up for 2012 in Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados.

Full details about the Caribbean Poetry Project can be found at:

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