First featured in the New York Times Learning Network.
Idea: A teacher in Scotland invites his students to play with poetic language in the style and spirit of Robert Burns, the national poet.
Teacher: Alan Gillespie
Grade Level and School: 12 to 14-year-olds at the Fernhill School in Glasgow, Scotland
Why We Chose It: With the use of just one Times article, this teacher reworks the customary Robert Burns school assignment (“rote-learning poems about mice and lice”) and, instead, has his students revel in language new and old, making the famous “Burns Stanza” their own.
What Mr Gillespie Did, and Why:
Every January pupils across Scotland are besieged with lessons and assemblies about Robert Burns, our national poet, in honor of Burns Night.
It’s a legitimate and important landmark that young people should be aware of and celebrate, but I’ve always been a little uncertain about how we, as teachers, go about it. I was never sure what exactly students were meant to be getting out of all these recitals and Tartan Days.
Why are they rote-learning poems about mice and lice? Are they just celebrating Burns for the sake of celebration itself? What skills are they actually learning and developing that they can relate to and build upon?
Well, over 200 years since Burns’s death, the rich Scots language that he used can be pretty intimidating to decipher. A lot of pupils can indeed recite whole chunks from his Greatest Hits — “To a Mouse,” “Tam o’ Shanter,” “Auld Lang Syne” — but I doubt they could tell you what all the words actually mean. What is a syne anyway? I wanted to try and do something a little more relatable with my class, to try and teach them a few things that they might be able to put to use in future lessons or in later life.
To do this I needed a stimulus, and this fabulous piece of travel writing from 2014 was perfect: “In Scotland, Guts, Glory and Haggis.”
It focuses on one of Burns’s most celebrated topics — the mysterious and elusive haggis — and gives pupils a modern insight, written in an engaging style. I used this article as the launch pad and inspiration for these lessons.
To simply read, memorize and recite Burns’s poems felt pretty one-dimensional to me. I thought it was far more useful for students to play about with the language that he used, and the structure of his poetry, but also to write in their own register — which could be described as a pretty standard form of English with a smattering of regional colloquialisms.
Why write exclusively in the language of Burns when students have their own evolving, intricate modern Scots instead? I wanted to make use of both, and to do this I provided a glossary of 10 fabulously expressive Scots words used today (bauchle, blether, dreich, fankle, gallus, mooch, pockle, slitter, wabbit, wheescht), but also spoke to the class about how they spoke and what regional phrases they had in their armory.
Below, the lesson sequence. Notes to students are in italics, followed by my own notes on what happened in class.
● To understand how haggis is made
● To learn about the Burns Stanza
● To become familiar with new Scots words
Working with a partner, discuss what a haggis is. What is it made of? How is it made? Where does it come from? Write down a description that you could give to a tourist. Be prepared to share these descriptions with the class.
It became clear from this that students didn’t have a great awareness of what constituted a haggis to begin with. There were lots of answers skirting around the idea of sheep, but these were a bit wooly (forgive the pun). They had loads of vague knowledge about Burns Suppers and turnips, but nothing specific. Hence, the reading task that came next.
Read the article explaining how a haggis is made.
Using highlighter pens, pick out key phrases.
You should look for:
● Descriptive phrases and adjectives
● Key verbs and actions
● Key nouns, facts and items
● Writing features such as simile, alliteration, etc.
During this phase of the lesson, it became clear that the language of the article was perfect for engaging the pupils, who had, in all honesty, not been hugely enthused by the idea of a lesson on Burns.
The writer uses fantastically gritty and descriptive language to help the reader visualize, smell and feel the preparation of the haggis: yanking veins from lungs; picking lumps of meaty gruel from her fingernails; the glorious stench of the sheep’s stomach. It’s wonderful, and made the whole class sit up and take notice, as they highlighted their favorite bits.
While Burns is often lauded for his use of wit and humor, I feel that in schools we often overlook the craft and technical expertise evident in his work. I used the first verse of the immortal “Address to a Haggis” to illustrate the tight rhythm and rhyme scheme which he popularized — what became known as the Burns Stanza, as closely associated with him as sonnets are with Shakespeare. This was a key piece of information and I did not move on from this until I felt confident that the whole class understood the format.
The Burns Stanza:
● Six lines long
● Follows an A-A-A-B-A-B rhyme scheme
● Lines are always the same length: 8–8–8–4–8–4
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, A 8
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race! A 8
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place, A 8
Painch, tripe, or thairm: B 4
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace A 8
As lang’s my airm. B 4
● Write instructions for preparing and cooking haggis, according to the New York Times article about the George Cockburn & Son butchery.
● This should be in the form of a Burns Stanza poem — follow the same rhyme scheme and length.
● You should write at least three stanzas, and make use of at least six Scots words — use the glossary and include ones of your own.
● You should include key words and phrases from the article and the glossary. Tick these off the list as you use them.
I was really pleased with the response and enthusiasm shown by pupils when writing their poems. They had clearly understood the method for making haggis from the article, which they referred to frequently, and they grappled with the rigidity of the Burns Stanza until they found themselves able to tweak phrasing and expression to fit the lines and create strong rhymes.
They used some of the traditional words from the Burns glossary, but many also included modern Scots that they knew and used themselves. The paired work allowed for plenty of discussion, meaning that the lessons incorporated the four key strands of English: reading, writing, talking and listening. All that remained was for me to help with rhyming ideas and check their understanding.
How did I know that they had learned what I wanted them to? They emailed me their poems, which were finished as homework. Take a look.
I laid my hauns on the livers,
Cut up into tiny slivers,
Giving me horrible shivers,
Lambs blood flowing like a river,
And greetin weans.
The Butcher wis awfy swankie,
Even though his hauns were manky,
“Gies ma pudding! Here’s a hanky.”
“Don’t git donsie.”
“Aye, when am I ever cranky?”
“Aye, you’re sonsie.”
What a treat, a glorious pud,
This gorgeous sight uplifts my mood,
Not to praise it would just be rude,
It’s in my mouth,
I am gawsie, its just too good!
I’m really fouth.
This feast is a ball made of meat,
It’s a gawsie good thing to eat,
And it’s anything but petite!
Comes from a sheep,
Please come dive into your great treat
In a fouth heap.
The wee classic Scottish puddin,
Sheep’s insides need a good thumpin,
With a churning and a thuddin,
With much cantie
When it comes hearts will be pumpin;
Meal time, auntie!
Get a table with your neighbour,
Tear right in, it’s full of flavour!
Eat your dinner, quit your haver.
Lies on a tray,
Vegetarians will waiver -
We won’t delay!
Haggis is a great meaty meal,
With a warm and rubbery feel,
This puddin can be a great deal,
And if you try
To eat it all then you will reel,
So go and buy!
Haggis is such a gawsie treat,
When it’s made it has to be neat,
The butcher is swanky, but sweet,
When he makes it,
The oven grows tae a great heat,
Let’s hae a bit!
Wee rubbery bits, lamb and lung.
Want some haggis but need a bung,
And ma da wouldny gee me some.
Whit a scunner!
But after he heard ma song sung.
A got hunners!
Then a went doon tae the main-street.
We’re gonna get a smashing treat.
Doon at the butchers, we’ll all meet.
Dug stole a bone -
Ma nearly choked right in the street.
Let’s just go home!