Why teach poetry

Teaching poetry is important, yet often neglected, writes teacher Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic.

. . . 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.

“Poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing” by teaching “precise, economical diction,” Simmons writes.

However, discussing a poem can turn into an “in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning,” Simmons concedes.  Teachers are encouraged to teach a “process of demystification” rather than “curating a powerful experience through literature.”

In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” (Billy Collins) writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

Teachers should teach “writing, grammar, and analytical strategies” — and help students  “see that literature should be mystifying,” concludes Simmons. Poetry, which resists easy interpretations, is perfect for this. 

‘Teaching with Heart’

Teaching with Heart, a collection of student poems introduced by teachers, is inspiring, writes John Merrow.

He especially likes Alexis Rotella’s Purple:

In first grade Mrs. Lohr
said my purple teepee
wasn’t realistic enough,
that purple was no color
for a tent,
that purple was a color
for people who died,
that my drawing wasn’t
good enough
to hang with the others.

. . . In second grade Mr. Barta
said draw anything;
he didn’t care what.
I left my paper blank
and when he came around
to my desk
my heart beat like a tom tom.
He touched my head
with his big hand
and in a soft voice said
the snowfall
how clean
and white
and beautiful.

Teaching with Heart

Leatha Fields-Carey, a high school English teacher in Smithfield, North Carolina wrote about the poem: “I first ran across this poem when my enthusiasm for teaching was waning.”

It reminded her “that the most important part of what we do is building and healing human beings, one at a time.”

“So many times students come to us wounded—by parents, by former teachers, by peers, by the system, by life,” she writes.  

After reading the poem, she placed a sign on her desk: “See the snowfall.”

A Common Core lesson gone wrong

In A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong, Diana Senechal looks at a lesson — featured on LearnZillion – on Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. (It’s the one with the daffodils.)

The lesson has “little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem,” writes Senechal. It could apply to any of a thousand poems.

It also gives bad advice: Students are told to read a difficult poem one stanza at a time, restating each stanza in one’s own words and writing the summary on a sticky note.

That takes students “away from the language of the poem,” writes Senechal. “To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, ‘You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine’.”

The teacher tells students the poem uses imagery, which lets readers “see the images playing in their minds like a movie.”

Images can “be puzzling, even confounding,” Senechal writes. “They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone.”

I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.”

Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

The lesson is targeting a standard that calls for attention to specific texts, writes Senechal. It reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.”

However, the standards “are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature,” she writes. Beyond the Core, there’s a tendency for teachers to teach strategies rather than subject matter. 

Teaching Trayvon

Common Core standards drafters want inner-city students to reach high standards, but don’t want teachers to “link literature to our students’ strengths,” writes John Thompson in the Huffington Post. That doesn’t show respect for students, he believes.

If he was back in the classroom, Thompson would be playing Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops you’ll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight

The song always sparked discussion, Thompson writes.

In the first verse, Springsteen wrote from the perspective of the white New York City cops who shot a Nigerian immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 41 times thinking he had a gun, even though it was his wallet. “Forty-one shots, and we’ll take this ride, cross the bloody river, to the other side.”

The second verse was from the perspective of a black mother warning her son in case he was racially profiled. The third verse was from a universal perspective as we are “baptized in each others’ blood,” and a crucial change is made in the chorus, “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it in your heart? Is it in your sight?”

Asked the source of Springsteen’s image of “the river,” a girl replied, “Langston Hughes!”

“Great,” I answered, throwing a copy of Hughes’ poems to her, “Support your answer.”

Kesha read, “I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers….”

When “curriculum alignment became the district’s gospel,” Thompson played the song during orientation to illustrate issues that would be studied in Government and help English teachers teach “repetition, point of view and metaphor.” A high level administrator objected. “Our kids don’t have time for Bruce Springsteen.”

Poetry by heart

Memorizing poetry has gone out of style, writes Brad Leithauser, a professor of writing and literature, in The New Yorker. His students have trouble memorizing a Shakespearean sonnet. They’re not used to memorizing anything. (I took a theater class at the University of Michigan as a 40-year-old journalism fellow. We were given a week to select and memorize a Shakespearean sonnet. I was the only person in the class who could recite the full sonnet.)

Leithauser’s mother paid him a penny a line to memorize poems.

The first one I mastered was Tennyson’s “The Eagle” (“He clasps the crag with crooked hands”), which brought in a haul of six cents. Opportunistically, I moved on to the longer “Casey at the Bat” (“It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day”) and Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (whose title I mispronounced for decades), which netted me fifty-two cents and twenty-four cents respectively. Some Longfellow, some Frost. I straggled through Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and enough of his “The Ancient Mariner” to purchase a couple of candy bars.

In the heyday of memorization (1875 to 1950), there were many rationales for verse recitation, writes  Catherine Robson’s new Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.

. . .  to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth.

She looks at three classics often required of students: Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca”  (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), which Tom Sawyer had to learn; Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and Charles Wolfe’s  “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna.”

“If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat,” writes Robson.

Leithauser adds: “You take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

Here’s The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna.

Old school: Teach word roots, math facts and …

Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots), writes Annie Murphy Paul in Time. New researchsupports the effectiveness of “old school” methods such as “memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation,” she writes.

Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at an Ohio high school was required to teach Latin and Greek word roots, she writes in English Journal, though she abhorred “rote memorization.”

Students learned that “sta” means “put in place or stand,” as in “statue” or “station.”  They learned that “cess” means “to move or withdraw,” which let them understand “recess.”

Her three classes competed against each other to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.)

For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

I learned Latin and Greek word roots in seventh grade. It was lots of fun.

Drilling math facts, like the multiplication table, “is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math,” Paul writes.

Other valuable old-school skills:

 Handwriting. Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age five. . . .

Argumentation. In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. . . .

Reading aloud. Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves.

I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?

The miracle

Michele Kerr wanted her students to hear five sonnets, starting with Shakepeare’s Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day and Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud. Students listened politely to each, wrote responses and discussed them.

Then she played Ian Richardson reading Milton’s Methought I saw my late espoused saint, a “poem drenched in grief, loss, and longing, a poem I’ve loved since adolescence, a poem that I thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t entirely understand.” A miracle happened, she writes on Larry Cuban’s site.

The kids were just sitting there, stunned.

A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”

“Sad,” Sadie finished.

“Devastating,” Melissa added.

“Tragic,” said Kylie.

“Beautiful,” from Narciso.

“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….

“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.

I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”

She told them that Milton was blind.

“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”

“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.

. . . I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.

Some of her students spelled “feel” with an a, “wife” with no e’s, and “grief” with two, she writes. No more than five could have analyzed Milton’s use of metaphor in an essay. And she hadn’t provided a vocabulary list, a pre-reading guide, learning objectives, a writing template or a sonnet by a non-white, non-dead person.

But they got it.

. . . in that moment, all of them understood—some for the first time—that they could understand and empathize with great poetry. They realized intuitively that art could explore themes and ideas using metaphors so powerful that artists return to them time and again over centuries. They learned, too, that this knowledge had value and meaning to them—not because it made them better readers or writers, or got them better grades, but simply because that knowledge led them to a better understanding of beauty….and so, of life.

In the quest to send all students to college, regardless of their ability, “teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question,” knowing many will never really understand the material, Kerr writes. Pushed down the college path, students are “doomed to years of boredom” and failure.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Alasandra’s Homeschool Blog is hosting the gemstone edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling.

Homeschool Bytes writes on poetry my boys loved and my daughter hated.

The wrong word

Poet Robert Pinsky praises memorizing poetry badly.

Learning by heart

Memorization — or “learning by heart” — is underrated, writes Justin Snider on HechingerEd. As an English teacher, he makes students memorize poetry.

First, it’s a challenge, and one in which those who succeed can take pride….

Second, it’s good exercise for your brain….

Third, and most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies.

With multiple readings (or viewings or hearings), “we actually begin to understand, see and hear,” Snider writes.

I memorized Wordworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us in high school English 42 years ago. I still know about half of it. I say it to myself sometimes.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

“Hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn” always gets to me.