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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Poetry Can Change a Student's Life

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Day after day, Alone on a hill,
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him,
They can see that he's just a fool,
And he never gives an answer,

But the fool on the hill,
Sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head,
See the world spinning 'round
--The Beatles

This poem was on the blackboard when I walked into Mr. Cooper's fifth grade classroom in 1975. Soon we were listening to the Beatles sing the Fool on the Hill and interpreting the poem as a class. This brief introduction to contemporary poets was the hook for a project that transformed my future: the Personal Poetry Book Project.

Over the next few weeks my classmates and I studied different genres of poetry and began writing our own poetry. We paid close attention because we knew that we would be compiling the best of our poems into a homemade book that we would present to our parents at an afternoon poetry reading.

We revised and revised our poems and selected poems by theme -- I chose seasons as my theme. When we had our collection of poems we crafted a homemade book from our favorite wrapping paper, cardboard, construction paper and Elmer's white glue. At Mr. Cooper's urging we paid special attention to detail and craftsmanship. With our blank books completed, we transcribed our poems in our best penmanship, as these books would be shared with our parent audience.

When the day of our poetry reading came, we transformed our classroom to a café with tea, sandwiches without crust, and small cookies; we felt so sophisticated!

Many years later, I was a seventh grade humanities teacher in the North Beach of San Francisco and faced with the challenge of teaching my first poetry unit. It was a no brainer -- I revived the Personal Poetry Book Project, but with a local twist. The students knew from the beginning that we would be inviting a local North Beach poet from City Lights bookstore to join us to read her poetry too. My students not only felt sophisticated they felt like they were part of the Beat Generation -- 30 years later.

When people ask me how I learned about project-based learning or how I decided to become a teacher, I tell them about Mr. Cooper. As teacher, I used several of his amazing projects that I experienced as a student. I can only hope that my students who have become teachers and parents carry on Mr. Cooper's legacy.

I still have my book of poems from Mr. Cooper's class and Mr. Cooper's spirit permeates my life as an educator everyday as I try to recreate the same transformational experience for as many children as possible.




Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Thank you so much for sharing. I wrote a blog called "Five Poems to Soothe Kids' Toxic Stress," and shared a personal experience also. It was about how old Tennyson can still comfort a child's broken heart. As a teacher, I am always impressed with the depth of kid's understanding of poetry and how they climb right up Bloom's Taxonomy when we expose them to reading poems. And the profound poems they write! Plus, I completely agree about the Beatles!

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
Blogger

Thanks - it would be great if more people woud post stories of inspiration through poetry in the comments.

steven Bell's picture
steven Bell
Instructional Coach

Nice post. Reminds me of the poetry unit I taught to my students at an International school in China. We did a reading at the local coffee hangout at our school and the parents came to watch as well. The students, who were mostly Korean, wrote some very insightful poems. One of my American students, who is now in school in the UAE is writing an illustrated poem about his experiences in China. He plans to publish soon. The student wrote to thank me for getting him to write.
We need more English teachers to share their own writings as a way to inspire students.
Thanks for telling your story.

Jesse Bean's picture
Jesse Bean
Graduate Student/Harvard Graduate School of Education

Hi Bob! It was great speaking with you the other day. Thanks for sharing your story about Mr. Cooper's powerful impact on your life as a poet and as an educator - it really resonated with me. Every year, at the conclusion of our study of existentialism and Beat Poetry, my seniors would organize an "open mic"-style coffeehouse in our classroom and invite their peers and teachers. Some would sing original songs, others would read heartbreakingly beautiful poetry (often their own, sometimes Ginsberg, Dove, or Neruda) about life, loss, and love...others would bring a personal artifact that bore great symbolic value to them and invite us into the story behind the object. A few of my most significant learnings from those years were: first, when kids write and share their own poetry, they are invariably struck by the power of their own voices (and this is, I believe, the truly life-changing dimension of our work as educators); next, that these kinds of forums always surface a "poet-in-hiding," a masterful young lyricist who may have seemed the most unlikely of sources, but who has nonetheless been waiting for a moment like this to introduce herself to the world (I recall fondly a very shy boy named Ryan who was planning to go to Penn State to become an actuary...he read three of his poems to us at the coffeehouse...not a dry eye in the room!...he has since published two books of poetry and a science fiction novel...and yes, he is indeed a very happy and successful actuary :-). Finally, each and every one of my students and I experienced the power of poetry to transform a "room of people" into a real community, a "family" of sorts that had, in some cases for the very first time, come into full contact with the stark humanity of their classmates and peers, and in some way come to know themselves differently, and perhaps more fully. I don't think you're overstating it at all, Bob, to suggest that poetry changes lives; poetry is, for many of our children, all that's keeping them alive in school.

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