Nurturing the Omnivore: Approaches to Teaching Poetry
“And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche”—Geoffrey Chaucer
After the November day when Marco and his group performed “The Raven,” he began bringing books to class, something he hadn’t done before. Now “The Raven” was good, but it was no miracle worker. They weren’t the books he was supposed to bring to my class, but he did have books. They were books of poetry. Later that month, he volunteered to work behind the scenes on a school play. In a matter of weeks, it seemed Marco had gone from being checked out to becoming a student with an academic identity of sorts. His specialty? Poetry explication. After “The Raven,” he felt he was “good at it.” His appetite for literature was awakened during our brief, unrehearsed reader’s theater exercise.
Marco is why I teach poetry. He is also why I think it’s a shame that other teachers sometimes say they don’t teach much poetry. I’ve never heard any English teacher say such things about novels or any other whole genre, but I’ve heard some confess in half-whispers with shrugged shoulders that they don’t feel comfortable dealing with poetry. It’s a shame that something so useful and pleasurable has been written about and talked about in ways that make it seem so difficult, as poetry is one of the most nourishing ways to nurture the omnivorous young reader. I write not as a guru of or even as a champion for poetry, but because my own teaching of the art has improved greatly from plenty of tips I’ve received from other teachers and the student responses I’ve witnessed. Poetry can deepen a person’s experience of literature and life in a class period.
How to teach it? A few years back, when I mentioned to a colleague that I was taking a course in teaching poetry, he asked, “What kind?,” pressing me for a period, a poet, a school, a genre, anything to give boundaries to this formlessness. Only later, as I wondered why my canon-debate radar went off during the brief conversation, did I realize that lurking beneath his questions was the pendulum of our practice. The changing ways in which we approach poetry can be read as a sign of the curricular times.
When the privileged muse of yore swung into the modern classroom, traditional read-write approaches made her look old, even oppressive. Her guardians—on both sides of the back-to-basics debate—growing fearful of a strange fashion of forsaking poetry altogether, began giving her makeovers. At the extremes, poetry was cast as a savior, delivering the canonical content of culture, history, and form; or the liberator, rescuing students from such tedium through the raw material of verse.
Regardless of where one might fall in this debate, everyone must agree that teaching poetry is an opportunity to nurture powerful readers of all genres. There are many valid and valuable ways to go about it, and because many different students sit in every classroom, no matter how homogenously they are grouped, I encourage teachers to experiment with a wide range of strategies. Here are three distinct ways you can make your students better readers and writers, and maybe poetry readers for life.
Read/Write/Discuss: From Comfort to Close Reading
Dr. Janet Allen, the acclaimed reading specialist, believes in beginning every class with a read-aloud. Poetry is delightful to hear. And it’s, well, short! What a wonderful way to greet students. It also allows for plenty of opportunities for authentic responses to literature, the first step in developing a level of comfort that will build confidence for more sophisticated literary analysis later. Offer a recitation (super impressive) or a rehearsed read-aloud; play an audio, video recording, or an animation, or have a student perform. Ask students to use their own voices to intone a text and discover its meanings. As a beginning to class time, poetry out loud can act as a strange new appetizer, introducing a theme for the day (“Much Madness is divinest Sense—” before a Hamlet discussion), giving important background information for another reading (“The Man He Killed” before a piece of The Things They Carried), or leading students straight into a rich experience of working with the text. It doesn’t take much time, and no analysis is required to use poetry to lift and drop a question on a young writer’s plate. I have taught the most astute and the most struggling students, and none of them ever tire of it.
Eliciting initial student response is the best way to begin. Often I simply ask students to mark a question mark, a heart, or an exclamation point next to lines or phrases that strike them (curious, loved it, so true). Having students use these initial markings to generate two or three interpretive questions or one descriptive sentence can ignite a robust discussion of a poem with any group of students, because this approach offers texts as public works of art, not proof of a teacher’s interpretation or the subject of distant, erudite discussions.
Allowing students to generate the discussion is the key. All responses that respect the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts of the text are fair game, even if it means students trash the poem you’ve presented. The way you repeat, affirm, summarize, and connect student responses will model the more sophisticated descriptions of literature we hope our students master, but when they feel empowered to respond authentically, students can spring comfortably from this poetry base to more sophisticated literary analysis across genres.
Of course, there should also be time for close readings and re-readings about the meaning of a text. In her book With Rigor for All, Carol Jago, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, advocates taking “the time in class to show students how to examine a text in minute detail: word by word, sentence by sentence.” Helen Vendler’s book Poems, Poets, Poetry, especially her chapter on “Describing Poems,” is the most valuable source I know for learning how to talk about poetry with more precise and sophisticated language. A teacher’s fluency in Vendler’s work is a great asset for our students, who see us modeling the ways in which great readers experience the pleasures of the text through close reading. Doug Fisher, the literacy superstar, advises varying instructional activities as a helpful way of thinking about how to turn our young apprentices into more masterful readers by first modeling (teacher does it), then whole group practice (we all do it), followed by small group practice (students do it together), and finally individual practice (student does it alone).
First and foremost, this apprenticeship is an oral one. Try these different activities to begin exploring the various lessons that poems offer:
- Have students read poems aloud, hum them, sound only consonants or only vowels.
- Provide plenty of practice with different tools and vocabularies by setting up a variety of purposes for reading.
- Provide highlighters to trace patterns and variations (forms, phrases, words, and sounds). Allow time to copy the poem line by line, to explore interesting plays on syntax, line break, or punctuation.
- Ask students to write—paraphrase, summary, interpretive descriptions, annotations (hyperlinked, handwritten, blogged, etc.), and of course traditional essays.
- Have students create their own artistic artifacts in response to texts, using whatever traditional art or multimedia resources you have available.
- Have students perform recitations, staged readings, or full-blown dramatizations of poems, or respond evaluatively to available performances.
Overall, let the poem’s offerings guide your choice of approach. And the more ways you can bring a poem to life with your students, the better. We owe it to all of our students to find the way to move from comfort to close reading, and poetry is a great workhorse for making students more powerful consumers of all sorts of texts.
Creative Writing: From Close Reading to Writing and Back Again
One day Jose, who was in both my AP Lit and my Creative Writing class, asked why we didn’t recite in AP Lit, adding, “This is a better way to learn about poetry.” He pulled back the curtain on my tweed-jacket-with-elbow-patches approach, reminding me that what was working in my Creative Writing electives would work in literature classes as well.
After all, Shakespeare was a creative writer. And who is a better reader and writer than Shakespeare—a child of the Renaissance who grew up reciting and imitating the work of great poets? My “Sonnet to College Admissions Officers” assignment—in lieu of an essay in AP Lit—required strict adherence to form and yielded a whole new respect for Shakespeare’s ingenious ways of moving an argument from one quatrain to the next.
Aleksandar Hemon, who visited my classroom a number of times, speaks of writing as reading in reverse, confirming that reading is essential to nurturing powerful readers as well as creative writers. In Making My Own Days, Kenneth Koch says knowledge of the language of poetry “will enable them [young readers and writers] to respond to inspiration when it comes and will itself be part of their inspiration.” Triggering models, springboards, whatever you might call them—poets-in-residence in programs across the country offer poems to students who respond in kind, using an idea, a form, or even a line from a poem to begin drafting their own original work. This kind of imitative writing is immensely useful in teaching all sorts of academic and creative literacy skills.
For years I co-taught seminars with a poet-in-residence. We provided students with authentic experiences with literature using a simple, three-step, read-write-share process that I never made enough time for in more academic contexts. First, we selected an accessible poem that appealed to our students and asked them to talk about what they liked or disliked. Poems such as “Roscoe” by Paul B. Janeczko, “Musée de Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden, “Upon Julia’s Clothes” by Robert Herrick, “Mango, Number 61” by Richard Blanco, “The Pardon” by Richard Wilbur, and “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon offered themselves easily to students. Our conversations eventually highlighted the artistry of the poem without spoiling it with English-teacher talk, as I had a tendency to do in my regular classes. The artistry talk was a way of introducing their tasks as writers. These pleasurable yet deceptively rigorous experiences let students do the noticing and eventually put their own words on paper.
One student’s response to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” illustrates a young artist putting such poetic knowledge to use. Writing in memory of a cousin who perished in the World Trade Center bombings, Ashley shaped her freewriting into a villanelle that ended with “Glistening lights upon the Ferris wheel is what she loved / To me, she is the fire that burns inside the dove.” Choosing a traditional form was Ashley’s way of honoring her cousin, about whom she had written in many other ways over the semester.
Other writing prompts called for freewriting, not poems. Asking students to freewrite in response to a random object, a painting or photo, or even two distinctly different genres of instrumental music invites them to create material that they can then shape into poetry. Calling it a freewrite also takes the fire out of the perpetual revision debate. You know the one, where the adolescent poet who hates to kill her darlings resists the idea of revision—not out of laziness or anything of the sort, but out of a genuine love for what she has written. Whether students spring to their own images from a random page in the dictionary, the emblem of a superhero, or a word wall created by the class, creating sensory images in response to various stimuli gives young learners clay to play with, the raw material that can later be sculpted into verse.
The workshop is the last part of a three-step creative writing approach to poetry. During each session, one poet offers a poem to a small “circle of love,” what I call a group of critical friends. The silent writer listens while other writers who have already written three descriptions of the poet’s work and one suggested revision share their ideas. The marvelous feeling of being treated as a writer—having their work read as literature and described in literary terms—helps students become more conscious and more sophisticated readers and writers.
Performance: All the Rigor and All the Fun!
Can you imagine a group of urban teens, including students with autism, taking Canto V of Byron’s Don Juan from the page to the stage? The brilliant, hilarious, and profound epic is ripe with contemporary issues and cross-curricular opportunities for engaged learning. In a semester-long project, our students explored the text. After a close reading, they developed an original script that wove Byron’s text into a reality TV show and performed the piece for an audience of 400 kids who were unfamiliar with Byron and his poem. The audience split their sides laughing at the humor, springing from incongruity. They truly “got” Byron, the hilarity yet profound terror of role reversal, the ingeniously funny way of blending ottava rima and vulgar matter. By far the most fun I’ve ever had with an epic!
Reciting shorter poems is another way of engaging individual students in close reading and a whole school community in the pleasures of poetry. One of the most academically rigorous and creative tasks students can take part in could be Poetry Out Loud, the National Poetry Recitation Competition that has taken this ancient practice and made it new. Offering incredible resources for teaching recitation and a crack at a $20,000 scholarship, the contest is a fine way to give students a poem to savor for as long as their memory serves. Hybrids of dramatizing literature and recitation can include anything from cold reader’s theater exercises to stringing together performances of thematically connected shorter poems and original student works. As Robert Pinsky points out in The Sounds of Poetry, “The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and mouth.” You don’t have to feel guilty that every now and then it is more fun to watch a performance than to grade an essay. The audience and the performer could not be better served.
When a poetry show enters its sixth season on HBO, you know you’ve got an approach worth looking into. Def Poetry is a great resource for exploring the uses of slam in the classroom. Previewing and sharing appropriate performance will set you on your way to bringing the work your students are already doing into the classroom. Inspired by hip-hop artists, YouTube stars, and country singers, students are living in a world of verse. Having classroom and schoolwide poetry slams quickly erases the ancient wall between academia and the worlds of our students. Bringing this kind of authentic work to a stage in your school or the community will affirm, excite, and thrill your students, even those who would prefer to watch quietly in a corner rather than put themselves out on a stage. Plenty of “how-to” resources are available through the Internet and in local libraries, and if you are willing to simply be an adult helper, www.dosomething.org offers great advice for students who want to organize one themselves.
No matter what you teach—literature, creative writing, drama, or history—poetry offers students pleasurable apprenticeships on their way to becoming powerful readers of all genres. In brief periods of our precious class time, we can delight our students while building cultural literacy, teaching them to use their own voices as interpretive instruments, modeling close-reading skills, and asking them to become the closest readers of all: the performers of text. In our classrooms, students who could be moved by each of these approaches sit, waiting for the rebirth of wonder.
Eileen Murphy taught Advanced Placement English Literature and Creative Writing at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago. She has worked as a program associate at Facing History and Ourselves, providing professional development for teachers, and as an editor at McDougal Littell. Her students became the Illinois state finalists...