“what matters is he knows/and it was me, his father, who told him/you write poems about what/you feel deepest and hardest.”(Alden Nowlan)
Over 40 years ago, when I was in university, the most popular English professor there was a man called Charles Haines. He was a larger than life character who taught Shakespeare from a unique and personal perspective. He would read the speech in HenryIV, Part 2 of Hal rejecting Falstaff and then read a similar speech of Christopher Robin saying good-bye to Winnie-the-Pooh. Many of the 19 year-old, baby boom generation hippies in the room would be in tears.
In 1976, when I was at Queen’s, a well-known education professor would jump up on the desk, eat a piece of watermelon and read Eve Merriam’s “How to eat a poem”.
My own English/Ed professor had us list impression words from Lord of the Flies, get together in groups, then write poems with the words,which we would then perform.
Around 1990, the wonderful James Barry, a teacher and editor of Themes on the Journey and Destinations, gave a PD presentation to English teachers in the OBE about how to teach poetry and make kids love it. He had Top Ten lists, booklets of poems that the students wrote, and contemporary songs. He emphasized experiencing poems, using read-alouds and writing poems.
These examples all point to the importance of experiencing literature and appreciating poetry on a gut level. I love analyzing poems but students see it as a chore. The majority of students will tell you that: Poetry is boring, it’s too hard to understand, how does the teacher know what the poet meant. Whenever I ask my grade 10 students to pick out a poem that they like and would like to share with the class, half of them will choose “In Flanders Fields”. Really? I have concluded that they choose it because they are familiar with it, they are sure of its meaning and they don’t have to think. The surest way to kill an appreciation of poetry is to reduce it to questions like: What is the meaning of the title, pick out the figurative language, what is the poet trying to say and how does the language suggest this etc. Not only is this method soul-destroying but it is also not in the spirit of the Ontario curriculum. Kudos to those creative and thoughtful teachers who allow poetry to be relevant and experiential rather than an intellectual exercise.
So how should it be taught so that kids don’t hate it?
-Make it an experience. You have to love it for them to love it.
-Let them read widely without directions. Use multiple poetry anthologies and poetry websites.
-Let them choose poems that they like to write about,to perform, to create media or to discuss
-Let them write poetry. Give them forms they can handle but also let them choose their own styles as well
-Let them perform and see others perform
-Do some analysis but don’t make it the focus of your unit. If you ask a student to tell you how “The Road not Taken” relates to her life, she’ll tell you what she thinks you want to hear. If you let her choose her own poem, she’ll tell you what she wants you to hear.
These websites are excellent places to start for either writing poetry or for performing it.
A year ago, I met a former student whom I didn’t remember until she told me her name. It had been about 20 years since she was in grade 10 and what she said to me was ” I loved your class because you let me write poetry and most of my English classes hadn’t been like that”. I’ve never had a student come up to me and say they loved “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” although I’ve certainly taught it enough times. Like everything we teach, it should be about relevance to today’s student. “Famous” is one of my favorite poems.
By Naomi Shihab Nyeb. 1952