Why students hate poetry (I’m sorry but it’s your fault)

“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.

30 Days of Poetry

http://www.youngpoets.ca/

http://www.poetryoutloud.org/

http://www.poetryinvoice.com/teachers/useful-links

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

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
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12 Responses to Why students hate poetry (I’m sorry but it’s your fault)

  1. pbh says:

    Great blog Miss Haley! As a former teacher (two courses of ESL in 2000 AD), I appreciate only too well the teacher as performer. But then, I quit.

    I have two dilemmas though (among billions). One is whether or not to teach the classics to kids as a base, or not teach them and just try to turn them on to poetry through something more relatable. And the other is the reader versus the writer: I’ve always written but I’ve not always read (as much as I do now), likely because I can’t remember a single teacher who was able to turn me on to reading anything, but I could write on my own to clear my mind of sadness and open my mind to joy. It’s probably just as creative, and enjoyable, to be a critical thinking writer as to be a critical thinking reader, and one enhances the other surely. Hope that doesn’t take away a lifelong dilemma of mine, I cling to them.

  2. Dave Hawkins says:

    This is really good. Poetry can be the best part of an English course, but it is a skill in itself.

  3. Pingback: 10 tips on how to teach writing | goodbyteaching

  4. Katrina Lay says:

    I’m really enjoying your blog so far and have already passed the link around to a few people. It may make it into my annual learning plan as PD.

  5. Thank you, Katrina. That’s quite a compliment. I’m retiring on January 31st, so I have to write about these things before I leave and forget them.

  6. Lucerito says:

    This is my first year teaching and I’ve found that teaching poetry is among the hardest things there is to teach. I love poetry and I hope my kids learn to love it too. Your blog definitely helped!

    • Lulu says:

      I am struggling too, I have tried using rap songs they like ( the few that don’t have cuss words of course) to try and make it “real” for them…. alas, they still hate it.

      • Lulu, thanks for replying. If poetry is about analysis, you will never succeed. It has to be about experience. Give them poems that cross a broad spectrum-humour,pain, drama etc.
        That Education professor that I knew in 1976 who ate watermelon was dead on-you have to sell it as experience and you ( the teacher) have to love what you are selling. Try showing the odd music video with a song that you like and has some poetic value. The visual/musical really enhances the poetry. And, as I said in the blog-let them read widely and choose poems that they like.

  7. AlishaSmith says:

    Dear Cathy,
    I agree with you that poetry should be approached from multiple angles. One of my teachers in high school used to get us to write 100 poems in a week. The whole point was to write. He hoped that a few would be good. It was awesome – both in grade 10 and 12. I loved it.
    That said, I got to university with a fear of analysing poetry and few tools to approach it. I wasn’t in a creative writing program, I was in I found it challenging to analyse poetry. Since at university, tools are expected not usually taught (other than modelled), I think we would be remiss not to provide tools. It’s important to remember that some of us need structure as well as freedom.
    Thanks again for your thoughts,
    A.

    • Thanks for replying, Alisha. I’m flattered that you read them and replied, most people don’t bother. You’re right, students do need to be shown how to do things. It was never my intention to suggest that you shouldn’t analyze poetry but to do it in a way that doesn’t take the soul out of it. I just finished a 3 week unit in Grade 10. We talked about different poems every day ( there was analysis involved in this) , they wrote 10 different styles of poem and they had to memorize a poem and recite it without notes to the class. Afterwards they had to write a reflection about the whole unit. Amazingly, they liked the recitation a lot even though it was stressful and they enjoyed the class discussions about the various poems. I think I achieved my goal of teaching poetry and making it a positive experience at the same time.
      You were lucky to have had a teacher who wanted you to write. You may have not had much confidence about poetry but I’m sure you learned a lot from the process. When I went to university, I thought I was pretty well-read but everyone seemed to know so much more about things like mythology than I did. I think this is a pretty common experience for most students.
      Thanks, again.

  8. Sophie says:

    I am taking an Intro to Lit and we just started on Poetry. And I can unequivocally say I hate it. The teacher’s attempt and enthusiasm to make us like it isn’t working and I can honestly care less about what the poet was trying to say. Reading words strung together that make absolutely no sense is torture because we have writing response assignments to it. I had been thinking of being an English major but I know I am going to avoid poetry classes like the plague if I can avoid it and still get my degree.

    • I’m sorry to hear that the experience has been so negative. When I did my degree in English ( back in 1969), poetry was part of many of the courses since the history of English lit involves more poetry than anything else. Shakespeare is almost all poetry. I can’t say that I enjoyed all of it or that I even read all of it but it did shape my view of literature. I think most people need to start with poems that appeal to them then work upwards.

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