Monday, April 7, 2014

The Power of Poetry: Teaching Resources

When I was 12, an aunt gave me my first diary as a Christmas gift. I filled its pink pages with descriptions of my day, drawings of outfits, song lyrics, details of my latest crush. That's what a diary is for, at least according to the knowledge I had gathered from 1980's sitcoms.  It was my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Zeinstra, who introduced me to a different type of daily writing.

Just a few of my recent Writer's Notebooks
In our Writer's Notebooks, we created elaborate stories involving our classmates, played with words, and copied down our favorite poems to use as mentors for the pieces we wanted to write. I copied down line after line of Shel Silverstein, admiring his rhyme and humor. But I realized, probably not as quickly as I should have, that I am not good with rhyme. Mrs. Zeinstra gently guided me toward other poets. I discovered blank and free verse poets, the works of Robert Frost, e.e.  cummings, and William Carlos Williams, and in them found my own voice. My seventh grade teacher fostered in me a lifelong love of poetry. She did not tell me what to read or what to write. Instead, she rolled a cart full of poetry books and anthologies into our class and gave us time to read, to explore, to copy and craft. She opened a space for us to find poetry on our own terms.

The Power of Poetry

We hear it in the music of well-written lines. We feel a poem's power in the way its imagery draws us close to a particular moment, a particular time.  We feel it in the beating of our heart, the very life of the poem.  It speaks to our memory, awakens connections. Poetry pulses through the core of what it means to be human. Take for example the first stanza of James Richardson's poem "One of the Evenings":
After so many years, we know them.
This is one of the older Evenings — its patience,
settling in, its warmth that wants nothing in return.
Once on a balcony among trees, once by a slipping river,
so many Augusts sitting out through sunset —
first a dimness in the undergrowth like smoke,
and then like someone you hadn’t noticed
has been in the room a long time. . . .
April is National Poetry Month
Like those "older Evenings", we know the power of poetry, feel its warmth when it settles in.  National Poetry Month calls us to pay closer attention to those poetic voices that we have perhaps let sit a bit too long while we attended to other things. But when we do call up those familiar poets, we realize that their words have been guiding us all along. Their words reverberate throughout our lives.

And yet so many students come think of poetry in the way that former poet laureate of the United States Billy Collins describes it in his piece titled "Introduction to Poetry," as writing that must be beaten and tortured in order to "to find out what it really means." We ask studentsjo to define unfamiliar terms, to circle metaphors and similies, to hunt for symbolism, instead of simply letting students "waterski/ across the surface of a poem."  In an interview with BigThink, Billy Collins reflected on how poetry is approached in school:
"Well the way poetry is taught is with great emphasis on the interpretation.  So we have this thing, the poem, and we want to create this other thing called the interpretation of the poem which then almost begins to compete with the poem – and in the worst cases replaces the poem.  So once we have the interpretation, we can actually discard the poem.  That’s the worst case scenario.  The question, “What does a poem mean?” is a deadening question."
And so National Poetry Month calls us as teachers to reflect on how we are engaging our students with the music, the imagery, and the power of poetry.



Resources for Teaching Poetry

Picture of mosaic ceiling in Washington, DC by Takomabibelot 
In teaching both tenth grade English and Creative Writing students, I infuse my curriculum with poetry.  We use poetry to discuss authorial choices made in a particular work and how those choices impact style, tone, and meaning. Poetry provides an entry for us to reflect on writing as a craft, to think about how the economy of words, how sound and imagery, and how the arrangement of words upon the page impacts us as readers.  Poetry dramatizes the craft of writing for practicing writers.

So, I wanted to share a few of the resources that I use with my students as we read and write poetry:  
  • When I teach poetry, I try to avoid simply teaching a series of forms. Instead, like my seventh grade English teacher, I try to encourage my students to explore a variety of poets, a variety of poems, and to mimic their style for just a while.  We search for the voices that we connect to and reflect on how the poet forges that connection.  Here is a link to my poetry unit.
  • There are a number of writers that have helped shape how I think about poetry as well as how I teach it. I could not teach poetry without Georgia Heard's book Writing Toward Homewhich offers not only writing prompts at the close of each chapter but also lyrically written examples to inspire all sorts of writers. Susan G. Wooldridge's book poemcrazy is specifically about writing poetry, and her ideas translate very well to the high school classroom.  And of course there are the poets themselves.  As we study poetry, I bring in my poetry books and journals, anthologies and photocopied favorites.  My high school students gravitate toward Billy Collins and Robert Frost. As we shift through poetry anthologies, e.e. cummings and Dorothy Parker quickly become new favorites.  I bring in the work of the beat poets to challenge students about what poetry looks and sounds like.  And to help them hear poetry, we watch a number of performance poets, including Shane Koyczan and the Brave New Voices poets.
  • There are of course a number of online resources for teaching poetry, but I only want to share two so as not to overwhelm readers. In fact, I'm only really sharing one resource - Edutopia. There are two recent blog posts on Edutopia that share not only a list of valuable online resources but also serve as a good reminder of why and how to use poetry in the classroom. Check out Joshua Block's post on "(Re)Creating Poets" and Matt Davis's post featuring a great number of online poetry resources.
  • One of the most important moments in our study of poetry is when we invite poets to join us in class.  Students tend to think of poets as a bunch of dead writers.  Having the opportunity to hear a poet read her work and be able to ask questions of the poet has been one of the more memorable experiences of our class.  And, it is not hard to find a published poet to speak with your students.  I started with regional poet laureate programs.  Many communities around the United States have their own poet laureates who are happy to meet with students to talk about the art and craft of poetry.  My students met with Liz Chang, the former poet laureate of Montgomery County in Pennsylvania.  A simple search for your state's poet laureate (most have one) should help you find resources to connect with that writer.  If you live in a more urban area like I do, you may also have regional poet laureates.  In the Philadelphia area, we have a Philadelphia Poet Laureate and a Philly Youth Poet Laureate, in addition to poet laureates for Montgomery and Bucks counties.
  • But if you can't arrange for a poet to come into your classroom in person, there are many ways to bring in poets virtually.  Using Skype or Google Hangouts makes it easy to connect with poets from all over.  In fact, here are just a few of the online connections that you might use to bring poetry into your classroom:
    • Teacher Elissa Malespina hosts a virtual Poetry Summit in May each year where students write and share their work with other students and with published poets using Google Hangouts.  Learn more by visiting her site
    • Find a contemporary poet that you and your students have read and email the writer to find out if they will join your class by Skype or Hangouts.  It can't hurt to ask!  You'll find a list of writers that do these sorts of virtual visits on Skype's education site as well as on author Kate Messner's blog.
    • Join online conversations with other teacher poets.  Start by joining the G+ TeacherPoets Community. If you are involved with the National Writing Project, joining the Digital Is community is another great way to connect with other writing teachers. 
    • Use Twitter to connect with poets.  I love following Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax) online because he shares so much of how he is using poetry with students as well as his own digital poetry creations. And did you know that you'll find the current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on Twitter as @NTrethewey.  Not long ago, Mashable also posted a piece on "38 Gifted Poets on Twitter."  Twitter makes it easy for both teachers and students to connect with poets. So, get tweeting! 

Poetry Publication Opportunities for Students

  • The AA Independent Press Guide is a listing of over 2,000 reputable American literary magazines and their submission guidelines. If you are interested in publishing your poetry or short stories, this is an amazing resource.
  • Teen Ink is an excellent web and print publication written by and about teens from all over the United States. Students can submit essays, reviews, short stories, poetry, and artwork online.
  • Figment is a community where teens can share their writing, connect with other readers, and discover new authors. Whatever teens are into, from sonnets to free verse poetry, they can find it here
  • The River of Words Project sponsors an annual, international, environmental poetry and art contest for children and teens. The contest's grand prize winners, students ages 5-19, receive a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are honored at an awards ceremony and public reading at the Library of Congress. Entry forms and complete rules can be found on their website.
  • The Claremont Review showcases young adult writers and offers resources such as writing tips from famous authors and an annual teen writing contest.
  • Philadelphia Stories Junior publishes the poetry (and other written works) of teens across Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley. 
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