As a poet and an educator I am driven by a desire to have poetry viewed as consumer friendly by young people. I want them to enjoy the sheer magic of words the way I do. I want to share my love of language in the hope that they will come to know poetry as one does a friend.
What concerns me is that in too many classrooms the teaching of poetry has been reduced to a clinical examination. The poem as autopsy. The dis-aggregation of wondrous words by teachers who feel little empathy with the poet’s desire just to be shared.
Moira Robinson, my former neighbour, in her book Making My Toenails Twinkle, reminds us that sometimes we miss the point of poetry when she states,
‘If we are going to start defining poetry by the number of times spring daffodils are mentioned, or by measuring its degree of seriousness on some poetic Richter scale, we will finish up with nervous breakdowns.’
If we truly want our students to appreciate poetry to the point that they themselves can gain satisfaction from their own written efforts we need to follow some basic steps in introducing poetry in the classroom.
We should firstly understand that poetry does not deserve to be pigeonholed into a neatly packaged work unit that conveniently coincides with National poetry day. Poetry should be a year long classroom staple, a friend to be valued through out the year and a cause for celebration. Poetry can be used to begin the day, end the day or introduced at a time during when it just feels right to share words of wonder. Poetry should above all move us to feel a range of emotions and should inspire our own writing efforts.
To feel completely at ease with teaching students to write poetry, requires a knowledge that goes beyond understanding what poetry is; it requires a teacher to understand how it is done; created. This knowledge is essential to fully appreciating poetry for its uniqueness as a form of expression. As Jacqueline Woodson writes, ‘Poetry is about joy and urgency in tiny spaces.’
We must avoid asking students to write poetry before they have been fully immersed in a close study of poetry- its range and complexity. -Its potential and possibilities. We need to dunk them in poetry soup! Young writers need this time to get to know poetry and how to react to it. It is critical that they understand how it is different to prose. The one criteria we must set when choosing poems to share with students is to choose poems that have initial appeal. If we as adults don’t enjoy a particular poem, don’t read it to impressionable students. Our distaste, our reservation will be obvious to our reading audience. Never waste valuable classroom time reading poetry, you don’t feel a connection too. We should always practice reading a poem aloud several times before sharing it with an audience of young poetry consumers. Get the feel of the poem –its words and it rhythm. Know it well, so you read it as it feels. Children hear poetry from an early age. They eagerly recite it. The next logical step is to get them reading it and from their discoveries and observations, begin to create their own.
Poetry needs to go beyond stylized Haiku and acrostic poetry using student names. Many teachers limit the possibilities to this narrow framework. Their own trepidation about poetry is on display here. Each year this is the meagre diet students are dished up. Imagine how ‘Li’ feels being asked to write an acrostic poem using her name. She would be envious of her classmate ‘Anastasia’, no doubt. Opportunities abound to expose student writers to much more than this pale poetic portion.
Teaching poetry is not for wimps. It requires the input of brave writers of all ages.
And yet, poetry has for so long been poorly taught in too many classrooms. Words like – abused, ignored, misinterpreted, misunderstood, underutilized come to mind when one considers the history of poetry in schools. At the same time there have been teachers and students who have been enriched by the power and beauty of poetry. In such classes poetry has been presented with energy and verve.- Poetry taught in this way is both wild and wonderful. It possesses the potential to engage the imagination and provide real opportunities for students to more fully engage in authentic learning.
Poetry should be an essential ingredient in our classrooms –not some washed out, half hearted afterthought. There exists in poetry a rich language source that can be made readily accessible to the hearts and minds of students and their teachers. Through poetry teachers have an opportunity to encourage a genuine sense of mindfulness about what is being read, written and shared.
Running alongside this aspirational goal is the fact that when poetry is presented in a gradual and scaffolded manner students discover that poetry is easily accessed. If we set up the best possible conditions for poetry to emerge then it’s more likely to happen. So, as the guardians of poetry we must guide students to a place where poems live and words and ideas abound They might just discover that writing poetry is enjoyable, rewarding and brings with it the opportunity to learn much about themselves. Jane Yolen refers to teachers as the code masters of poetry. Especially when they write poems for children. Poetry is not for wimps…
Go to http://alanjwrightpoetrypizzazz.blogspot.com.au/ for some practical ways to promote poetry with your student writers.