Are violent poems acceptable in school?

Like most concerned parents, Mrs Ethel Lee asked her daughter how her literature exam went after she sat for it last Tuesday.

But the reply from her 13-year-old daughter left her shocked.

"My daughter (said), 'Mummy, I'm only in Secondary 1. Why are they showing me such a horrible poem?'" said the 33-year-old trading manager, who requested that her daughter not be named.

The poem her daughter, who is from Dunearn Secondary School, was referring to was The Lesson, by English poet Roger McGough. (Far right.)

It describes, in graphic detail, a teacher slashing, strangling and shooting his students in school.

Students had to answer questions based on the poem as part of the school's mid-year literature exam.

Mrs Lee told The New Paper she could hardly believe it when she looked up the poem online.

"It's totally unacceptable. I don't even let my kids watch gory movies at home. But my daughter had to analyse the poem closely and visualise it."

She added that the poem might teach students the wrong lesson of condoning violence.

"It reminds me of all the school shootings in the US.

"Such poems might create an environment of violence over time and students may think that it's okay to be violent," she said.

When TNP approached another parent with a 12-year-old son and asked her to read the poem, she expressed similar concerns.

Said accountant Andrea Tan, 36, whose son is in Sec 1: "I felt uneasy about the poem's violent content.

She told TNP after reading the poem: "If it makes me uncomfortable, I can't imagine how my kid would feel."

Mr Boo Hian Kok, principal of Dunearn Secondary School, told TNP that The Lesson was selected for its literary value.

He said: "Through analysing the poem, the students had the opportunity to appreciate how the overall comedic effect and humorous tone (which) were created through the use of poetic techniques.

"During literature lessons, our teachers do not avoid discussions on themes such as violence and tragedy.

"Instead, they guide students to make clear distinctions between real-world situations and make-belief fantasy."


Associate professor of English literature at Nanyang Technological University Terence Richard Dawson pointed out that violent themes are not absent from children's literature and brought up the children's classic Alice in Wonderland as an example.

He said: "The real question is how well will it be taught?

"In short, will (teachers) be able to help them read it with both pleasure and understanding?"

A Ministry of Education spokesman told TNP that the study of literature is aimed at developing students' critical thinking.

"Through analysing literature texts critically, students cultivate a questioning mind, explore personal and social issues, and manage ambiguities and multiple perspectives."

The spokesman added that schools have the freedom to select their own literature texts for their students.

"For school-based assessments, schools have the autonomy to design tasks that assess students' analytical skills based on texts studied in class or unseen texts."

Two other parents TNP spoke to did not share Mrs Lee's concerns.

Madam Phoebe Lim, 38, who has two daughters, aged 14 and 15, said: "There's violence everywhere now. At least in school, they can be exposed to it in a controlled environment."

Mr Alan Ng, 40, whose son is in Sec 1 at Pasir Ris Secondary School, also did not find the poem objectionable.

"The arts is supposed to be liberal, anyway."

Such poems might create an environment of violence over time and students may think that it's ok to be violent.

- Mrs Ethel Lee expressing her concern about the poem above which was included in her daughter's literature exam


Chaos ruled OK in the classroom

as bravely the teacher walked in

the nooligans ignored him

his voice was lost in the din

"The theme for today is violence

and homework will be set

I'm going to teach you a lesson

one that you'll never forget"

He picked on a boy who was shouting

and throttled him then and there

then garrotted the girl behind him

(the one with grotty hair)

Then sword in hand he hacked his way

between the chattering rows

"First come, first severed" he declared

"fingers, feet or toes"

He threw the sword at a latecomer

it struck with deadly aim

then pulling out a shotgun

he continued with his game

The first blast cleared the backrow

(where those who skive hang out)

they collapsed like rubber dinghies

when the plug's pulled out

"Please may I leave the room sir?"

a trembling vandal enquired

This article was first published on May 25, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.