Wednesday, April 9, 2014

#NPM14: Poetry is Important: How to Teach It

Before you commit to reading 2,200 words on how and why to teach poetry, this is way teaching poetry looks in my class:
  • The students sit at their tables to find page with a poem in front of them. 
  • At the bottom of the page, there are a few questions about either form, sound, or image. 
  • I read the poem to them.
  • Then I give them 8 minutes to talk with their group and fill out the answers to the questions.
  • Then they get up and go to another table with a different set of questions and get another 8 minutes to answer questions. 
  • Finally they move to the third set of questions.
  • After they've answered the questions on their own paper we discuss the poem in the light of the questions.
Interested? Read on!

I don't know if you've seen it but there's an impotent article over at The Atlantic titled "Why Teaching Poetry is So Important".

It's impotent because 1) the author doesn't actually teach poetry to high school students (or anyone) and 2) he doesn't give you a bit of an idea how you should go about doing this, though he at least tells you why you should. Let's start there, shall we?
Poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.
This meshes very well with the thoughts of those crazy standardized testers over at The College Board:
Readers of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam continue to believe that close readings of poetry in AP classes--in teachers' presentations, in class discussion, in students' group presentations, in written assignments, and on exams--are the single best preparation for success, not only on Question 1 specifically and the AP Exam generally, but also in college course work.
Philosophically, both Mary Midgely (Science and Poetry) and Iain McGilchrist (The Master and his Emissary) would tell us that poetry exists to help us make sense of our vision of and relationship to the world. Surely children and adults alike need this skill. For a continual updating of the ways that poetry improves us on a mental and physical level, just keep up with Helen Mort's blog: Poetry on the Brain.

So yeah, teaching poetry is important. But most teachers (like Mr. Andrew Simmons) have no clue how to teach poetry. Imma learn y'all:

1) Teach poetry. Decide to teach poetry and teach it. That may sound stupid and obvious but we've got to start somewhere. You're a teacher of literature. Literature is poetry, prose, and drama. Where do you get off neglecting one third of literature? What kind of teacher are you, anyway?

2) Find poetry. Do you have poems you loved once? They're probably on line. Use them. Print them out for the kids. Make them look them up on their smartphones. If you don't know where to start or want to see an example, check out the site I use for my classes here. It's got contemporary (21st century) as well as canonical poetry.

3) Recite poetry. Not a confident reader? I find that hard to believe because you're a teacher but PRACTICE and become one! Even adults enjoy hearing "high language well-spoken." Kids love it. But give them the text so they can read along as you're reciting the lovely words. And make sure you know how to pronounce "concupiscent" when you read them "The Emperor of Ice Cream."

4) Discuss poetry. Here's where folks get terrified. And here's where I'm going to spend the bulk of this post.

Let's get some things straight: poetry is not in need of a secret decoder ring. Everything that you need to know is in the poem. Now, what poetry doesn't have time for that prose always does is context. If there is an allusion to Athena or, Homer help you, Astarte, you're probably going to need to look that up for the kids (or better, have them look it up--they're all carrying the Library of Alexandria in their pockets--make them use it for something more than snapchat and plagiarism). That's okay. Poets are always going around assuming that folks know what they know because what they're trying to do is evoke emotion in the audience. Sometimes you've got to build background knowledge. Poets aren't generally writing for children. But all that means is that, sometimes, to love poems you've got to learn more. Learning is great!

I would caution you, however, from giving too much information. No one needs to know Sylvia Plath and John Berryman committed suicide to understand and love their poems; let the kids find that out later. You're teaching poetry, not The Lives of the Poets. Stick to the words.

Finally, assume that everything the poet did was on purpose and contributes to the meaning of the poem. Students often balk at this. Even poets sometimes do. I prove my point through music. I play the kids a minor chord progression on my guitar and ask them how it sounds. They say sad. Then I play a major chord progression and ask the same. They say happy. I ask them why this is so. They have no idea other than "that's how it sounds." I tell them that poets work in the same way. Words and structures and images "read sad" or "read happy," etc. An excellent poet (and of course, all the poets we teach are excellent poets, aren't they?) either consciously or instinctually uses these constructions to evoke the emotion they intend to in the poem. So even if the poet isn't saying "I'm going to use this image because it is sad" that is what they are doing because they're good at their art. So it is on purpose.  This is an easy and quick lesson to teach and you absolutely must teach it. Tell the students to take each poem on good faith that it is a great poem and something worth studying. That's just a good attitude to have.

So once we're comfortable with the idea that sometimes you've got to look up vocabulary words or allusions in poetry, we can forge ahead with how to discuss poetry in the classroom.

Poetry has three dimensions: Form, Sound, and Image. Discuss poetry in these terms. This is how a discussion can go:

1) You've picked a poem, given it out, and read it to the class, giving them the allusion/vocabulary knowledge they need to understand the poem.

2) Ask them what they think the poem is "about." That is, ask them something along these lines:
What's the theme?
What's the emotion the poet is trying to convey?
Why does the poet want us to read this poem?
What does the poet want us to know or understand?
While there are absolutely wrong answers, there can be more than one "theme" or a variation of said "theme" in a poem. Students might say "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is about the terror of social anxiety or the exhaustion of being around uninteresting people or about the dangers of escaping into fantasy. All of these are good themes for Prufrock. What they say and how they say it isn't nearly important as the fact that they are making statements about the poem and that these statements make sense.

3) Ask them about the form of the poem. I'm not talking about meter. Don't expect them to know the first thing about prosody if you haven't taught it to them. In fact, you probably don't ever need to go into the mechanics of meter unless you're really giving them the full Monty. But if you yourself are uncomfortable with prosody, you can start here.

Ask questions like these, following each one with "how" and "why" and always point the discussion back to your "essential question: how do each of these things add to the experience of the poem (discussed above in point 2):
What does the poem look like on the page? 
That is, is it "skinny and on the left"? Is it a prose poem? Does it look like what it's talking about? For instance: E.E. Cummings' grasshopper poem jumps all over the page; the stanzas of "The Red Wheelbarrow" look like tiny wheelbarrows. "Mending Wall" is itself a wall of text.
Is it in stanzas or strophes?
Stanzas are groups of lines that are consistent in number (couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc.). Strophes are lines separated by spaces that are not consistent in number.
Does it use enjambment?
Enjambment, besides being an awesome word, is the breaking of meaning over more than one line of poetry. Most poems do this and frequently the result is awesome. "The Lifeguard" by James Dickey is a master class in enjambment but all you have to do is see how he breaks the meaning with the broken child in the final two lines to understand why enjambment gets its very own question.
Is it in a fixed or regular structure?
While kids don't necessarily need to know their trochaic trimeters from their iambic hexameters, they should probably be able to recognize sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, ballad stanzas, terza rima, and the like. A great example of why this matters is how Frost uses terza rima to evoke the bleakness of Dante's Inferno in his sonnet "Acquainted With the Night."

4) Ask them about the sound of the poem, using questions like this, following up with how and why, and always returning to a discussion of the overall theme:
Does it use rhyme? 
Internal? End? Slant? Please tell your students about slant rhyme. If you don't know what this means, read "Blackberry Picking" by Seamus Heaney or 428 by Emily Dickinson or "A Whippoorwill in the Woods" by Amy Clampitt or "Here" by Philip Larkin or "Easter" by Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Does it use repetition?
Repetition is for emphasis. Repetition comes in alliteration, both assonance and consonance; the repetition of phonemes (rhyme); the repetition of words, the repetition of phrases, and repetition of repetition. Sylvia Plath is the queen of repetition and "Daddy" is a pile of fun to teach.
Does it sound pretty or ugly?
I use the terms "cacophonic or euphonic" because they are awesome words but the point in asking is to get the students to think about why the poem sounds one way or another and how that reinforces the poem itself.

 5) Ask them about the images in the poem. It should be stated first that, in literature, an image is a concrete representation of a sensory impression, feeling, or idea. It's not just daffodils and pretty girls. Using questions like this, following up with how and why, and always returning to a discussion of the overall theme:
What are the images in the poem?
Again, this may seem like an obvious question, but it gets the students thinking about what's right there on the page. Don't worry about "unpacking" the images yet. Just have them answer what's there and why.
Which image is most meaningful, striking, or important to you? 
While Mr. Keating overstates this by a mile in Dead Poets Society and there absolutely is such a thing as a bad or wrong answer, it is still important that students engage in analysis on a personal level and knowing you're going to ask this question in advance forces the students to do so.

Like I said, this is way teaching poetry looks in my class:

  • The students sit at their tables and there's a poem in front of them. 
  • There are a few questions about form, sound, or image at the bottom of the page. Each table has questions about one of the three. 
  • I read the poem to them.
  • Then I give them 8 minutes to talk with their group and fill out the answers to questions that are very much like the ones above.
  • Then they get up and go to another table with a different set of questions and get another 8 minutes to answer questions. 
  • Finally they move to the third set of questions.
  • After they've answered the questions on their own paper we discuss the poem in the light of the questions.

You don't have to have them get up and move but I find it keeps them thinking about one aspect of the poem at a time.

This method has been incredibly successful. After modeling this method for a few poems, I've had seventeen-year-olds who have I-am-serious-never-before-they-got-to-my-class-analyzed-poetry understand and intelligently talk about Canto 1 from Paradiso and "The Emperor of Ice Cream" and "Morning Song" with little-to-no prompting on my part, other than frontloading some historical information, allusions, and vocabulary.  And with every poem they analyze their reading skills, both analytic and epicurean, markedly improve, even to the point where kids who groaned at the prospect of reading poetry in August look forward by September to reading new poems.

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