(Re)Creating Poets: How to Teach Poetry in the Classroom
The wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye first introduced me to William Stafford's idea that no one becomes a poet. She says that we are all born poets, and it's just that some of us choose to keep up the habit.
At times, all of us inevitably get stuck viewing ourselves in static and limiting ways. When I tell students that we will be studying poetry there are always some students who mutter, "I can't write poems."
A poetry unit and Poetry Month are opportunities for encouraging students to write in new, creative and different ways. Bill Moyers reminds us, "Fooling with words is the play of poetry." Studying poetry should be fun and challenging for all students, regardless of the personal narrative they have about themselves as poets and writers.
When studying poetry, the first thing I ask students to do is define poetry. They must come up with their own definition (no dictionaries or devices allowed), and then they work with a group to agree upon a common definition. After we share different group definitions, I project a piece of visual art and ask whether it should be considered poetry. I then play a song that is certain to provoke different responses and ask students to reexamine and clarify their definitions (my most recent choice was "Ice Ice Baby").
As we discuss and debate what should be considered poetry, my goal is to challenge students to think broadly about poetry and creativity. I want them to be ready to create work that has meaning to them and not be preoccupied with rules or conventions.
As the unit continues, here are four strategies and a number of resources that I've found helpful.
1. Establish a Culture of Individual and Communal Observation and Exploration
I intentionally use poems about poetry early in the unit. Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" can get a class thinking and talking about the acts of reading, experiencing and analyzing a poem. This first poem is an opportunity to introduce students to the idea of marking up poems. They use colored pencils and work with others to color code a poem using a key they've created that refers to form and content. They can mark shifts in tone, repetition, perspective, figurative language, or any other features they've designated important. We then share our findings in a way that's inclusive of the varied experiences of different readers. My goals are for students to be active readers who notice details and engage with the work on their own terms.
2. Read Poems Aloud and Encourage Students to Respond Creatively
The experience of a poem is much different when hearing it read rather than reading it silently. Each time we look at a new poem as a class, we hear it read out loud twice by students before we start to look at it more closely. After the first or second reading, students give an initial response in the form of a one-minute sketch or sharing of a word or a phrase that stands out. As the unit progresses, I encourage students to bring in poems that resonate with them to share at the beginning of class. Last year a student introduced the class to "Tamara's Opus," this powerful poem by Joshua Bennett:
3. Use a Range of Model Poems to Introduce New Forms
During the unit students read and then write poems in these forms, among others:
- Memory poems
- I was raised by . . . poems
- Found poems
- Poems in forms of their own choosing
In order to push them toward fresh, new writing, my rules are simple: no rhyming, use sensory imagery, and cut and condense. Murphy's Style Sheet from Bill Moyers' website is a helpful guide for student revisions. Poem a Day from the Library of Congress, the Dodge Poetry Festival video on Bill Moyers' site, Poetry Out Loud, and Ten Poems I Love to Teach from the Poetry Foundation are all great resources.
4. Poetry Portfolios and a Celebration of Poetry
Poetry portfolios are an excellent way for students to collect their work, complete detailed studies of poets, and focus on revising for a polished final product. I have used wikis for portfolios because they allow students to easily see and peer-edit each others' work, and they can be shared with an outside audience. (Here is an example.) I write along with the students to share the challenge and excitement of the work. Closing the unit with a Celebration of Poetry, where everyone recites a memorized poem he or she has written, is an affirming way to use the power of performance to recognize student accomplishments.
Helping students to (re)discover their poetic voices is powerful, vital and invigorating. Equally powerful is the opportunity for students to deeply connect with the experiences and words of others. In her speech "The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action," Audre Lorde reminds us of the inherent human need for expression:
How do you explore poetry with your students?