Refugee Blues – Poetry Activities in ELT

One of the sessions I attended at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow was Keiran Donaghy,  talking about how to use short films to encourage empathy.

My own workshop explored instances of various -isms and -phobias in the classroom and how teachers can deal with prejudice in a careful manner.

Working and living in Turkey, I have noticed some students make rather disparaging comments about Syrians. Turkey has become home to millions of refugees who have left Syria in the last few years, and of course, the arrival of so many people has made an impact.

I thought this particular poem, Refugee Blues, by W.H. Auden, would help to introduce learners to issues about refugees, both from the past as well as relating to today. The poem contains quite vivid imagery and really gives the reader an insight into the reality of every day life for a refugee trying to make his or her way in a new country.

I’ve come up with a collection of activities based around the poem, read here by the actress Sheila Hancock.

Refugee Blues

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
‘If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead’;
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.


Soulthe part of a person that is not their body
Blossom: If a tree blossoms, it produces flowers
Committee: A group of people who make decisions

Thunder + Rumble: Sound clip of Thunder


Atlas  a book of maps
Consul  someone whose job is to work in another country, taking care of the people from their own country who are there
Mansion  a very large house
Churchyard  the land around a church (often where people are buried)
Yew  a type of tree
Poodle  a type of dog
Harbour  an area of water near the coast where ships are kept
Quay  a platform next to water
Plain  a large area of flat land
Hole  An empty space in something

Match with pictures
Atlas / Consul / Mansion / Churchyard / Yew / Poodle / Harbour / Quay / Plain



Pre-teach the vocabulary, depending on the level of your class. You can use the pictures, the sound file for thunder and rumble, the definitions, or these gap fill sentences.

1) Where there’s lightning, there’s ….
2) You can find maps from all countries in a world …..
3) If I won the lottery, I’d buy a huge …………
4) A ………. works at a consulate
5) I love Spring, because it’s so lovely when the trees …………
6) She goes to the …………… every week to visit her husband’s grave.
7) There’s a ……. in my t-shirt – I need to change it.

Answers: 1) Thunder 2) Atlas 3) Mansion 4) Consul 5) Blossom 6) Churchyard 7) Hole

Then, show your learners the following Word Art: Poemwordle
Ask them to predict what the poem will be about.

Then show them this Word Art, and tell them it’s the same poem. poem2
Do they still think the poem will be about the same topic?

Write some of the class’s ideas onto the board.

Play the video all the way through, then allow the students some time to talk to a partner and discuss what they think the poem is about.

Play it again, and stop at 0:26
(after “we cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now”)
Project/write/ask the following questions:

  1. Who is telling the poem?
  2. Who is “my dear”?
  3. Why can’t they go to their country?

Have students discuss in pairs/small groups.

  • Match photos with parts of the poem

Hand out paper copies of the following images (print them quite small and cut them up):

Give students the words to the poem RefugeeBlueshandout and get them to label the poem with the images in the appropriate places.

Also ask them to caption the photos. Then ask them to choose two more parts of the poem to illustrate in any way they like.

You may wish to provide A3 paper for this.

Re-write the poem to make it about Refugees in your country

I have created a document with highlighted parts of the poem that could easily be changed RefugeeBlueshighlight

Encourage your learners to bring the poem up to date by changing the highlighted parts and putting the topic into a local context, using local place names and current issues. For instance, in my context, teaching in Turkey, a churchyard is far less meaningful than a tea garden or a mosque courtyard.

This could be done as a group or individual activity, and could be followed up by recording.

Students create their own Images or Video to accompany the poem

Almost all students these days have smartphones. Once they understand what the poem is about, you could assign them a project to take their own photos or create a video to illustrate/accompany the poem.

Do stress that these can be symbolic/artistic images and encourage creativity. This could be made into a competition – which group made the best video?

Use the words in the poem to create brand new poems

You could use the Word Art (above), or select random sets of words from the poem, eg:

Poem1 Poemz

and ask students to create their own new poems, which may or may not be related to the original poem.

Get students to record their own version

One of the reasons I chose the Sheila Hancock video is that she expresses so much with her voice and eyes. Perhaps she will help inspire your learners to talk with passion and take care with their intonation and rhythm.

Poems provide us with rich, authentic material full of interesting vocabulary and allow us to play with language in a way that grammar exercises never do.

Pronunciation work

In class, you can do a lot of work on pronunciation with this poem – take some time to do drilling, focus on word and sentence stress and features of connected speech. Dividing the poem up and allocating each student a line or two may work better. Memorising and being able to recite even a short stretch of language can be very rewarding!

Get your students to practice and record themselves saying their own poems.

(Follow up lessons/activities could incorporate Slam Poetry – which is competitive and spoken poetry. There are some great examples available online that could really inspire you and your learners)


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