Making Room for Poetry
In the past year I've talked about poetry with a few hundred classroom teachers and heard one overwhelmingly common complaint. Given the demands of required texts and standardized tests, there just isn't enough time for poetry.
One teacher drew the analogy of designing a curriculum and furnishing a house: "You start with the big pieces -- the sofa, the coffee table," she told me, "not with the accent pieces." Novels and plays are the serious works, she suggested -- actual books that serve a vital function, substantial texts that might really require some heavy lifting. Poetry, by implication, is regarded as wall art, something exotic rather than essential -- not something to plan a room (or a unit) around.
Perhaps this is why so many teachers told me that, while they thought poetry was important, they saved their poetry units for April and National Poetry Month. (And, as the literary magazine at every school where I've taught, I can't tell you the number of times I've gone trolling for submissions only to have colleagues say, "I don't have anything now, but I'll have some creative pieces in April.") This, too, carries the clear implication that poetry is an after-thought.
When and where poetry is taught is an expression of our values. If poetry is truly something we value, it should be kept in the foreground. For my part, I start every school year with a simple poetry writing exercise that the ReadWriteThink website called The ABC's of Poetry. Tom Romano, an Education professor in Ohio, tells me he starts every class he teaches with a poem. Foregrounding poetry not only asserts the value of poetry, it also keeps us alert to the ways in which poetry can enrich our daily classes and our daily lives.
John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...