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. 

Core in the classroom: Write and cite


Common Core has students writing and citing “textual evidence,” reports Sarah Carr for the Hechinger Report.

BELLE CHASSE, La. — In the early elementary school grades, Zachary Davis and his classmates at Belle Chasse Primary School in  suburban New Orleans wrote almost entirely from personal experience: describing their ideal vacation, trying to convince readers that a longer school year would be a good (or bad) idea, penning a letter about their adventures during summer break.

This year, as a fourth-grader, Zachary writes persuasive essays using “evidence” from nonfiction reading. For example, students “read a description of Louisiana’s Avery Island followed by one of a bayou swamp tour, and then wrote about which destination they would prefer to visit based on examples in the passages.” 

Proponents of the change say an increased emphasis on analytical, evidence-based assignments will better prepare students for the kind of writing they will face in college and the workforce, where few will be asked to describe family vacations or write poems, but they could very well be asked to summarize a research paper or defend a project proposal. Others worry that if schools veer too far in the direction of analytical writing at too young an age, they risk stifling children’s creativity and discouraging students who aren’t strong readers.

The “intense focus on text-based analysis is new,” said Shelley Ritz, principal of Belle Chasse Primary.

The school still teaches creative and narrative writing, but teachers expect new core-aligned tests will require students to write essays based on multiple reading passages. (The state’s transitional exam did just that.)

In keeping with the new standards, Belle Chasse teachers have gone to a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction readings. “Kindergarteners might read a non-fiction book about the life cycle of butterflies and moths paired with a fictional one featuring those insects as characters,” writes Carr.

In Zachary’s class, students practiced writing essays for the state exam, but protested when they learned they’d be doing more writing in social studies and science. 

The class had just finished a citizenship unit where they learned how citizens of all ages can contribute ideas to improve their communities. So the students said they wanted to write a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal protesting all the writing required in Louisiana’s public schools these days.

Teacher Mary Beth Newchurch agreed. After all, it was another chance to practice writing.

Teach grammar through writing

The best way to teach grammar is to teach writing, argues Michelle Navarre Cleary in The Atlantic. Teaching the rules of grammar, parts of speech and diagramming sentences alienates students from elementary school through college, she writes.

For example, one well-regarded study followed three groups of students from 9th to 11th grade where one group had traditional rule-bound lessons, a second received an alternative approach to grammar instruction, and a third received no grammar lessons at all, just more literature and creative writing. The result: No significant differences among the three groups—except that both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.

Cleary taught writing for eight years at an urban community college where 80 percent of students tested into remedial writing classes. Grammar came first. Students could spend a year in developmental writing “before being asked to write more than a paragraph.” 

Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write. Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”

Colleges such as Arizona State and Community College of Baltimore are raising pass rates in freshman composition by having remedial students tackle writing college essays immediately, Cleary writes.

English teachers, does just-in-time grammar instruction work?

Robert Pondiscio isn’t impressed, pointing out that “kids haven’t diagrammed sentences since the Johnson Administration.” I diagrammed sentences in seventh grade! Which was . . . the Johnson administration.

Here are the opening sentence of classic novels diagrammed.

“Traditional grammar” is superficial, writes linguist Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. What works are “exercises in sentence construction” requiring “a much deeper and more interactive engagement with grammar and syntax.”

Thank God I wasn’t college material

Thank God I wasn’t college material, writes Matt Walsh.

He hated high school.

I dreaded every class, every assignment, every test, every worksheet, every mound of busywork, every shallow and forced interaction with peers I couldn’t relate to or connect with or understand; every moment, every second, every part, every inch of every aspect of my public educational experience.”

One day in detention, the teacher asked what he wanted to do with his life. He thought maybe he could be a writer. Writing was the only thing that came naturally.

 That’s when she dropped the bombshell: “Well, that sounds like an amazing goal, Matt. Get those grades up and go to college for a degree in creative writing!”

. . . I have to go to college to do the one thing I’m kind of halfway good at doing? I have to finish high school and then go through FOUR MORE YEARS OF THIS? Impossible. I’m not college material. I’m not even high school material.

And I have to get a DEGREE in CREATIVITY? Wait, WHAT? Your creativity comes from your own mind and your own heart — you can’t learn how to be creative. If I can write things, and people want to read the things that I write, shouldn’t I be able to market that ability, regardless of my college experience?

Walsh never went to college. That means he didn’t “amass a gigantic debt” or “miss out on four or five years” developing his skills.  He supports his family of four as a writer. 

College makes sense for future doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like, Walsh writes. But it’s a scam for most students.

Something has to change. Listen to me on this one. Something HAS to change. This can’t continue. It is not a sustainable model. There are millions of kids with no assets, no plans, and no purpose, taking out enormous loans to purchase a piece of paper they’ll likely never use. It can’t go on this way.

. . . Total student debt has gone up by 275 percent in the last decade. How far will it climb, how many more kids will be thrown to the wolves, before we change direction? Since I was born, college tuition rates have gone up by 500 percent. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT. Why do we send guys like Bernie Madoff to prison while the academic elite get away with gouging an entire generation to death?

Don’t send your kids to college” unless they’re pursuing a career that requires a degree, he writes. 

Writers can demonstrate their skills by writing. In many other fields, it’s harder to prove competence. But certifications, digital badges and such like could help young adults show what they know.

My thesis in one sentence

On LOL My Thesis, college students — mostly undergrads – summarize their theses in a single sentence.

For example:

Putting colored mud on something and moving it around can end up looking pretty, and I can look cool while doing this.
MFA- Painting, New York Academy of Art

Students who write papers using Google translate typically do worse than if they had just copied from the textbook
French, University of North Texas

There is a maximum temperature at which ants can survive.
Biology, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

The Internet kind of sucks.
College of Social Studies, Wesleyan University.

I spent 372 pages describing what Kafka meant by everything he didn’t write.
Humanities, University of Louisville

Can’t we all just get along? Get along my way, that is, not everyone else’s wrong way.
Political Science, Reed College

Canadian diamonds are hella old.
Geology, University of Alberta

Looking continuously at nothing but a 2 foot wide square piece of soundproofing board for a couple of hours straight with an EEG strapped to your head reveals very little about visual attention.
Psychology, University of New England

I stared at kids playing videogames to prove that kids like playing videogames.
Psychology, University of Denver

When stars blow up, they make lots of different shapes; turns out this is for lots of different reasons.
Astrophysics, The University of Sydney

Using the word “discourse” makes you sound really sophisticated.
Communication and Culture, York University

 I scared rats with a fire alarm and measured how high they jumped.
M.A. Experimental Psychology, The University of Toledo

A McGill physiology major writes: “Well, I basically cured Cystic Fibrosis.” Really?

Beyond the book report

Middle schoolers can analyze texts without writing book reports or essays, writes Beth Holland on Edutopia. Holland suggests programs that help students create trailers, podcasts, interactive e-books and “augmented reality author studies.” (I don’t really know what the last one means.)

She includes this wonderful look at how students approach book reports from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Fog writing

Prof: Don’t require college essays

Stop requiring college students to write essays, argues an adjunct who’s sick of grading poorly written and plagiarized papers.

This is the “Anyway Argument,” also used to justify dropping college algebra requirements, writes a community college dean. Most students won’t use it anyway, so why bother?

Are core tests written for robo-readers?

Sacramento teacher Alice Mercer questions the Common Core tests her students will be taking.  A sample essay prompt by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium gives students a list of arguments to use.
sbac1.jpg

The new standards are supposed to promote higher-order thinking. So why not let students think up their own arguments? Evaluating students’ writing is time-consuming and expensive — unless it can be automated, Mercer points out. Listing the arguments seems designed for the convenience of a robo-reader.

Robo-readers have limitations, she observes. It’s hard for computers to score open-ended questions.

Basically, the programs can judge grammar and usage errors (although I suspect it will lead to a very stilted form of writing that only a computer could love), but it’s not in the position to judge the facts and assertions, or content in an essay.  The only way to do that is to limit students to what “facts” they are using by giving them a list.

Computer grading could explain Common Core’s hostility to background knowledge, Mercer adds.

Computer-scored tests train children to think like the computer,  writes Anthony Cody in Ed Week. “If we are sacrificing intelligence, creativity and critical thinking for the sake of the efficiency and standardization provided by a computer, this seems a very poor trade.”

Novelists: ‘Symbol-hunting is absurd’

My daughter didn’t much like Lord of the Flies when she read it for English class, but it had one redeeming feature: It was easy to spot the symbolism.

In 1963, 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class, reports Mental Floss. He mailed a  four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their writing. Half responded. (Copies of the survey responses can be found at the Paris Review.)

He asked: “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated…No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action…Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation—in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”

“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ray Bradbury:
 Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”

Joseph Heller: “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.”

John Updike: “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

McAllister became an English professor and science-fiction writer known for his short stories.