Monday, June 19, 2017
The Power of Poetry in the Classroom
When I was younger I didn't like poetry. I take that back, when I was younger, I didn't think I could write poetry. I did enjoy reading poetry. In elementary school my copies of Shel Silverstein's books were worn thin. I read them over and over and over again. In junior high when we had to recite a poem, or a song in front of the class, I chose "Lucy Gray" by William Wordsworth. I was fascinated by the poem of a child lost in a snowstorm who disappeared forever. I stood before my 7th grade classroom reciting Wordsworth's eloquent words while the majority of my class recited the lyrics to popular songs like "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns and Roses. "Sweet Child of Mine" does have some nice similes in its lyrics, and believe it or not, was received a slightly more receptive audience in jurnior high than Wordsworth.
Throughout my schooling whenever the topic of poetry was introduced to the class by a teacher it was with an eye roll, or with the assurance that we wouldn't focus on the topic very long. My teacher would give an annoyed sigh to let us know that she didn't enjoy poetry either but that poetry was required by the state. We would read a poem. The teacher would ask us what we thought it meant. Most of the time we didn't know, and it seemed like the teacher didn't know either. Then we would write a poem that was required to rhyme, and it would be over. It almost seemed that it was just common knowledge that everyone believed poetry was tedious and just plain difficult to understand. It was never taught with any passion or excitement. There was no wonder when we read.
In graduate school, I applied for a job at the Writing Collaborative in Missoula, MT. I already had my teaching degree and was working on an M.F.A. in fiction writing. The job brought writers into the local school to teach a writing lesson and share the student's work. My only pause was that I was supposed to teach the students poetry, and I wasn't a poet. At my interview I expressed that I did enjoy poetry, and had read lots of Shel Silverstein as a child. The interviewer stopped me right then and there. No, they didn't teach children's poetry they used real adult poems like Wallace Stevens, Keats, Frost, and Wordsworth in their classes. This puzzled me a bit, but I was intrigued with the idea. The point the Writing Collaborative was trying to make was that poetry didn't need to be dumbed down for children to understand it and write it. Shel Silverstein and other "children's" poets weren't any less poems, but they did give the impression that poetry had to be silly and it had to rhyme.
The director, Sheryl Noethe, then explained to me that poetry had saved her life. She had grown up in a home full of chaos and abuse. She was floundering in school, and didn't care about much of anything until a poet came into her classroom and saved her. Poetry saved her. I liked this idea most of all, that writing and expression could save someone, even if it was just one student in all of the classes that I taught.
The Writing Collaborative taught me how to teach poetry. The format was pretty simple. I came into classes for an hour once a week. The first 20 minutes I introduced a topic. We wrote a sample poem as a class, and I shared my example and student examples. I always wrote whatever poem the students were going to write. The next 20 minutes the students wrote, and I went around and conferenced with all of the students to give feedback during the writing process. Then the last 20 minutes students shared their poetry with the class.
Teaching poetry as a Poet in the Schools was one of my best teaching experiences. The students were hesitant to write at first, but when they saw that there was no pressure of a grade, nothing but positive comments written on their poems, and that their work was celebrated in the classroom, or on the entry bulletin board at their school they became eager for the "poet" to visit every week. I told them not to worry about spelling, or rhyming, or even how they decided to set their words up on the paper. Poetry has this amazing freedom that not all genres of writing contain. At the end of class, the students could either choose to share their poems out loud, or put them in an anonymous pile that I would read without revealing their names. The results were pure magic.
I will always remember a little girl named Courtney in my first, 3rd grade poetry class. Courtney sat in the corner of the room with her desk surrounded by a circle of bright, red adhesive tape. I was told not to expect much writing from her. Courtney was below grade level, and had social/emotional, boundary issues. This was the reason for the tape. I was not to go inside the tape, and she was not to go outside the tape without permission. She ended up being one of the best poets in the entire class. Once the restrictions of spelling, grades, grammar rules were lifted from her, the ideas flooded out. I remember she had an amazing knack for synesthesia in her poetry. Synesthesia is the combining more than one sense for instance, The green laughter wafted through the breeze. When we were writing Should/Should Not poems, these are poems about things you should do in life and things you shouldn't do in life, Courtney wrote that everyone, "Should see the icy stars chattering their teeth in the night sky above the mountains." I love the idea of stars chattering their teeth. Courtney ended up sharing the most poems at our end of the year poetry reading. She was a fantastic writer.
Now that I teach in my own classroom, I always start the year teaching poetry. It is a wonderful way to get to know your students, establish trust in your classroom, and make students feel empowered by writing. I still teach with the same basic format that I did when I taught as a poet in the schools. Everyone tosses rules about spelling and grammar aside, we do our best, but if we make a mistake it is fine. The students receive nothing, but positive comments on their poetry, and students get to decide what they will share with the whole classroom. I write all of the poems that my students write, and I share my writing and my process with the class. I've learned that not only do I love reading poetry, but I also love writing, and teaching poetry to my students.
Love amplifies everything in our lives. It slows down time. It makes our hearts pound in our chests. It takes our breath away. That is w...