Teachers often use poetry only to discuss literary elements, styles of writing, or universal themes, rather than asking how a poem makes students feel. When we do this, we’re missing an opportunity: Our students should be discussing personal connections to poems, especially recently written poems, and using those connections to start conversations about important personal issues and also societal issues such as racism, gender and class inequities, and power structures.
Recently I asked my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class to read a contemporary poem, “Moana Means Home: A Contrapuntal,” by Terisa Siagatonu. I purposely assigned this poem without a set of “answers” about it, and I felt vulnerable reading it for only the second time as my class read it for the first time. When we finished, I asked them what they thought. The room was silent except for the buzzing of the air-conditioning units. Most of my students were looking down at their desks, feet, hands—anything to avoid eye contact. After an uncomfortable silence, one of them spoke up.
“It was really different,” he said.
“Can you expand on that?”
“It about things that are happening now,” he explained.
Once we had discussed how this poem was different from others they’d read, I asked students what questions they had about the poem, and we did some research to figure out what the lines “someone will / always want / my skin” might mean. We were horrified to learn that “some ethnologists from early last century had managed to collect the preserved, tattooed skin of Pacific people who had died.”
In a Socratic seminar, we discussed what this meant and how we felt about it, how Pacific people are portrayed in the media, and what stereotypes of Pacific people could be found at our school. One thing all students agreed upon was that stereotyping people is wrong, but that we all do it. We dug further into what stereotypes are and why they exist.
The next class period, we made personal connections to the poem. For example, many students related to the image of being “lost at sea” and “floating above myself”—they agreed that the ocean played an essential role in their lives.
We contemplated how the poem might be read multiple ways: left to right, down and then up—some students maintained that it could be read backwards. And finally, students created their own contrapuntal poem inspired by the ideas and feelings that arose from this poem. The consensus of the class was that in this poem they could see themselves.
Reading contemporary poetry can be scary—there’s no guide to teach it. But Craig Santos Perez, a professor of English and award-winning poet, says that teachers shouldn’t be worried about misinterpreting poems: “Every poem will have different entry points for interpretation, so the most important thing is exploring which entry points might be most relevant and interesting to the students.”
Reading and analyzing poetry helps students have culturally responsive discussions because there’s usually no single correct answer to a poem’s meaning—since students will have many different points of view about an issue, poetry can give rise to riveting discussions.
Poetry is also an excellent segue into social and emotional learning, giving access to core competencies of self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills. For example, some of my students didn’t realize how they were stereotyping others until we discussed what a stereotype is. And some students became aware of how they had internalized some of the stereotypes we discussed in class.
My students felt a deeper sense of connection to each other as they realized they all related to the poem on some level. Hunting for meaning for themselves on their own—answering their own questions instead of mine—strengthened their relationships with one another.
Whenever I teach poetry this way, there’s a different mood as we consider that we have more commonalities than differences.
Tips for Beginning Culturally Relevant Discussions Using Poetry
Assign a poem that deals with current societal and political issues. Try to read it just a few times before assigning it, so you don’t populate your mind with answers about it. In class, read the poem several times with your students.
Students should not feel a need to find to the answer of the poem. Rather, pose questions such as:
- To what do you relate?
- Where do you see this in popular culture?
- Where do you see this in our school? In our community?
- How did this poem make you feel? Why do you think you feel this way?
Ask students to ask their own questions about the poem, and be willing to be a learner alongside them. They shouldn’t look to you for answers.
Write the group’s connections and thoughts together for all to see as the discussion moves forward. Using a format like Socratic seminar works well for culturally relevant discussions.
Suggested Contemporary Poems
- “Charlottesville Curriculum” by Sarah Gambito
- “Hate Is a Strong Word” by Cortney Lamar Charleston
- “Will” and “Massacre Song Foundation” by Trevino L. Brings Plenty
- “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander
- “Portrait With Smeared Centuries” by Michael Wasson
- “Rings of Fire, 2016” by Craig Santos Perez
- “One Today” by Richard Blanco
- “Atlas” by Terisa Siagatonu
- “For the Dogs Who Barked at Me on the Sidewalks in Connecticut” by Hanif Abdurraqib
- “Outbound” and “Staying Quiet” by Hieu Minh Nguyen
- “What Women Are Made Of” by Bianca Lynne Spriggs
- “A sestina for a black girl who does not know how to braid hair” by Raych Jackson
- “Mansplaining” by Jennifer Militello
- “A Billion Things in One” by Kristen Renee Miller
Sources for Contemporary Poems
- Poetry Magazine
- The American Poetry Review
- The New Yorker
- Academy of American Poets
- Poets & Writers: Small Presses
The main takeaway is to be open to trying poetry in your class even if you don’t know where it will lead you. Students are longing for the truth, and most poetry has that in abundance.