How are you celebrating National Poetry Month?

Carrie Gaffney is the managing editor of The Educational Forum. She spent 12 years as a secondary English teacher and is still active in The National Writing Project and Second Story, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit devoted to bringing creativity to underserved schools. 

It’s National Poetry Month! Teachers, are you busily celebrating this ancient and loved form of communication? Or are you (like me when I was teaching) busily doing anything and everything else because you hate teaching poetry?

Okay, hate is actually a strong word to describe how I felt about teaching poetry. Maybe “fear” is a better descriptor.

Poetry is difficult…difficult to read and difficult to teach. There are too many possible meanings in the reading, and too many clichés in the writing. As a teacher, I worried about exposing my students to poems that went deeper than Shel Silverstein and about encouraging them to extend beyond lone wolf or shining star metaphors.

It took a lot of trial and error, but I eventually put together poetry units that worked for both my students and me.

Here’s a partial list of what I did:

1)      I threw away the textbook. Okay, not really. But I did forgo using it through the unit. The poems in the textbook were classics like “The Road Not Taken,” but, ultimately, I felt like the kids would be more open to multiple interpretations if they read work that wasn’t easily interpreted through the internet or the questions at the end of the selection. Together, we scoured  www.poetryfoundation.org and http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/, among others, to sort through more modern and esoteric works by lesser-known authors.

2)      I allowed all justifiable viewpoints. Let’s say, for instance, one oooey-gooey eighth grader thought a poem was about love, while the kid with anger management issues thought the same poem was about being misunderstood. This divergence in interpretation stems from life experience and outlook and is based on what’s called “reception theory.” At that point, I allowed each learner to delve as deeply into the text as possible to support the individual theory. What I found was that when the kids realized that this dense form of communication could have multiple themes, their desire to read closely increased a lot.

3)      I made them write poems. Lots and Lots of poems.  We wrote sonnets, free verse, haiku, ghazal, narrative, and many other forms of poetry. I really wanted my students to understand poetry’s versatility, and to do so, we had make some connections about what we read and what we wrote. And then we had to write. A lot.

4)      When it was time to revise, I brought in an expert. As a teacher, I subscribe to the Roald Dahl philosophy that “Good writing is rewriting.” But paring down poetry, which is elusive anyway, was hard. To get my students really thinking about what it meant to revise a poem, I asked a friend of mine (who happens to be a poet) to send me two drafts of something she had published. We read the earlier draft and revision, discussing as a class what we noticed that shifted between the drafts, and then we wrote her some questions to ask about her process. Her responses were incredible and really got my students to think about the function of the poems they had drafted.

By the end of the unit, the students had produced enough work for an amazing public reading. In addition to being proud of the efforts they’d made to write, I was thrilled by the depth and sensitivity they expressed in their poems.

So tell me teachers: how are you celebrating?

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