The mention of poetry elicits strong reactions from students. Past experiences in well-meaning classrooms often taint their “poetry palate”. Just like remembering a batch of cookies in which the cook forgot the sugar, I get that “look” from too many students every single year.
I can remember when teaching poetry scared me more than “doing the highs” at the ROPES course. The fear was three-fold:
1. Would I screw them up even more than they already were regarding their “taste” for poetry?
2. Would they say things that would hurt my poetry feelings? I love poetry, and it often feels like a personal affront when students hate it.
3. How could I, mere mortal that I am, possibly teach this beautiful form of literature?
The rest of this post will go through the beginning processes I’ve honed throughout the years to teach poetry in a practically pain-free way.
First, I like getting a baseline of sorts from my students. It’s simple, but it’s tried and true: ask each student to reflect on what they know, believe, and feel about poetry. Because so many students have such disdain for poetry, I simply ask the students to write 1/2 to 3/4 page. Of course, I explain to them that there’s no right and no wrong about this. I just want to know where their heads and hearts are regarding poetry.
Then, on the following day, you can bet about 90% of the students have forgotten their reflection, so poetry isn’t on their radar anymore. I can pull a “fast one,” thanks to the internet, Slam! Poetry, and Daniel Beaty. If you’ve never seen this poem performed, click here:
The students react accordingly:
- Transfixed throughout the performance;
- Pulled into silence immediately afterwards; and, then,
- Compelled to question Daniel’s technique, his life, the words, the story, the poetic elements, and on and on.
At this point it’s difficult to contain even the most resistant student. The questions come at me like rapid-fire. They argue with each other about what Beaty is saying. And, finally, someone says, “Can we watch it again?”
“You bet!” I enthuse. Inside, I’m doing my best super-villian Bwhahahaha! laugh, because, you see, now each and every student from the resistant to the poetry fanatic is ensnared in the magic.
“But,” I continue, “This time I have the printed words from Beaty’s poem. As you listen the second time, mark up those lines you love, put a question mark next to words or phrases that baffle you, star the brilliance when you find it, write your thoughts to the side. Do what you need to do to make this poem yours.”
We listen and watch again. I give them four or five minutes to mark up their copies. Next, we talk.
What do we talk about? We clarify what Beaty’s words could mean. We look at how he cleverly switches up words in a line, “Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen” from “How to dribble a ball” in a previous line.
“But wait!” a student in the back blurts out. “That’s alliteration, isn’t it?”
“Oooooo….cool!” several students intone.
The conversation goes on in much the same manner, with students pulling bits and pieces from the poem, tasting it, rolling it around in their mouths, and resetting their poetry palates for the new discoveries to come.
Oh, and before I close, I must explain the title. On Wednesday, I read through the students’ reflections about poetry. Here are just a few tidbits I gleaned from their writings:
- a way to get the girls
- hard to get at first
- re-read it like 500 times, you’ll get it
- I think they should stop writing poetry
- it is pointless
- I still don’t get how the guy with the guitar can steal my girlfriend just ‘cuz he writes poetry.
- your life settled on a page
Then, I came across a student’s reflection. This is a student with dyslexia. Reading is difficult for him. Writing is painful for him. I’m certain that poetry hasn’t been his best friend in the past, but he wrote:
It’s hard, but it’s beautiful.
Yes, I thought. That’s it. Poetry IS hard, but poetry IS beautiful. As a teacher, I feel the same. TEACHING poetry is hard, but TEACHING poetry is so beautiful.
Next week, I’ll share some other strategies for teaching poetry.