We have to stop apologizing for poetry.
It’s tempting to do. I get it. So often when I ask students about poetry, they reply (loudly) in disgust proclaiming how much they hate it: Poetry is for kids and old romantic people, it’s too hard to understand, it doesn’t make any sense, and the list goes on.
And so, when we go to share a poem, we feel compelled to apologize for it in a way that we don’t apologize for novels we share or movies we love.
Yet, what I have come to discover is that as teachers, we might have the wrong idea about what it means to “teach” poetry.
I think so many of us see poetry only as a means to teach figurative language and analytical skills to students, as a means for students to make gifts and booklets, and as a means for students to read the poems that we love or that we were taught, that we unwittingly strip the poetry of its worth and meaning. In “schoolifying” poetry, and in only presenting it in this way, we deprive our kids of the opportunity to find themselves in the poems. We deprive them of the opportunity to linger in “the mist” that “becomes central to [their] existence” as Juan Felipe Herrera mentions in his poem “Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings”. And we discount a genre that in its brevity and intentionality is perhaps one of the best writing teachers out there.
All of this gives me pause to wonder.
Why do we spend so much time talking about the importance of choice in a kid’s reading life if we are going to mandate the poems that they have access to? If, as the teacher in the room, we are the only ones with control over what poetry gets read, how can we ensure that our kids will be able to find themselves in the text? Are we really helping them create a robust, well-rounded reading life or just one that includes books?
I realized a couple of years ago, that my tenth grade students were hating every poem I brought to the classroom. After some research and help from colleagues, I realized that my students weren’t really resisting the form, they were resisting my need to control their interaction with it. So, I set them free…with some parameters…to seek the poems that meant something to them, to write those poems into a “poetry notebook”, and to, from time to time, share their selections with the rest of the class. I never anticipated what happened next.
Students took ownership and became engaged. They found poems the resonated with them and poets that they loved. They found word choice, imagery, language patterns and punctuation placement that deepened meaning–even when they weren’t required to analyze. Their notebooks became a precious space and reflected their individuality as the contents of this notebook were entirely up to them. They selected the poems and chose how they would respond to them; they wrote their own poems in their own voice after uncovering their own inspiration rather than one that was assigned; they made lists of poets they were excited to seek out; some even translated poetry into and from other languages. Each notebook was as different as each kid in the room and it was amazing. (For real, kids were coming to school exhausted because they were up late working in their notebooks and because they were annotating on https://genius.com )
When those students became seniors, they returned to my class. As I watched them work in their writer’s notebooks, I was left in awe. No particular genre was required in these entries, yet so often many of them freely opted to write in poetry. It had become part of who they were as writers. These same kids also populated my poetry elective course that year because they just wanted more time with the genre before they graduated. And I can’t lie. I was glad to have them. I learned more from these kids than I am pretty sure they ever learned from me. And because of my students, and their sharing of poems, I discovered poets I might never have met—poets like Jennifer Grotz (“Poppies”) and Amit Majmudar as well as Jude Nutter whose poem “The Insect Collector’s Demise” is now one that I return to frequently.
I also owe to them credit for some beginning of the year moments from this school year. They have all graduated and gone off to college and other endeavors but their legacy lives on through the opportunities my current students are now granted.
Part of my summer reading requirement is for my students to seek out at least 5 poems they are unfamiliar with and that they absolutely love. I offer them websites like https://www.poetryfoundation.org, https://www.poets.org, http://www.poetryoutloud.org and many more to use while finding these poems. Many poetry websites and apps will even send the kids a poem a day-which is a nice reminder, especially over the summer! They do not have to do anything with the poems except be willing to share one with the class upon our return in August. When the school year begins, and it is time to share poems, we do not all share on the same day. Rather, three students a day will share until everyone has gone, and we can continue the rotation after that as long as they are enjoying and finding meaning in it. In this way, the kids can really take in a few poems each class and pay attention to each classmate and the poem they selected to present. Finally, after the student reads the poem aloud, they explain why they chose it and then the rest of the class has the opportunity to discuss it as well.
This year, my students have taken full advantage of this opportunity. Their response has simply been phenomenal—kids sought out funny poems, political poems, poems that reminded them of places they have been… kids who have never liked poetry before were begging to share the poems they found.
And then there was this: Today, a student came to me and said that she was starting poetry sessions with her parents because they weren’t sure they even liked poetry and couldn’t remember reading any since college. She mandated that they seek out poems that they like and bring them to dinner the next night. So, tonight at their house, there will be a fantasy football draft, nachos, and poetry. (melt my whole heart!)
Poetry deserves our attention and not our apologies for its inclusion in our classroom. When given the right opportunities to linger with poems they have chosen, students begin to better understand not only themselves and the world at large, but the moves writers make and they begin to work with an intentionality that heightens the quality of their writing in all forms. They find themselves understanding that a dash can be a breath on the page and that dashes are different from parentheses (and they didn’t need a worksheet to tell them this—they just needed a poet applying punctuation meaningfully).
I’m going to close with the words of one of my students who wrote a letter to me before leaving for college: “Sophomore year, I had no real appreciation for reading and writing. Yeah, I would read a book or write an essay…however, there was no critical thinking which meant nothing there really connected me with it. If I went back and told my sophomore or freshman self that I now had a love for both reading and writing poetry, I would’ve laughed in my face. [Poetry has] opened up a completely new world for me and it’s a nice world to escape to every now and then.”
Every kid deserves this chance. Every kid deserves to find him/herself in a poem. All it takes is handing them the choice and trusting in them. They will do the rest themselves.