Secret Poets

A weird thing started happening earlier this semester with a handful of my senior students. They started bringing me poetry. It was completely random, and the students were in no way aware of one another. It was just a set of isolated poetic energy surges, I suppose… an academic anomaly. Whatever the reason behind their poetry, each student had the same attributes while approaching me: head down, sideways glance, hand extended with a poem or two, and the mumbled phrase “Uh, would you… maybe… like, take a look at these or something?” This would only happen undercover, after most students had filtered out of the room. They wanted me to know they were poets, but they didn’t want their classmates to know. Of course, I did read the poems, and duly delivered them back on the sly, packed with comments and encouragement. Psyched that I had taken their work seriously, my secret poets shuffled off into the hallway crowd.

Then I got to thinking. Secret poets. My next senior unit practically fell into my lap. I could create a poetry writing workshop, I thought, my heart already fluttering with joy. While students are often asked to analyze poetry in literature classes, they are rarely given the chance to write poetry at all—much less experiment with, revise, and polish this creative form of writing. It could be great, I thought. But there was just one problem. Even my secret poets, when in a group with their peers, were afraid to claim their work. They dismissed the genre as “a waste of time,” “too emotional,” and simply not for them. I knew my kids were natural poets; if I could only get them to set aside their assumptions, I hoped they would realize it, too.

I decided to use my students’ uneasiness about poetry to my advantage by creating a unit where anonymity was part of the deal. Each student was required to create a pseudonym to sign their poetry with. If I shared a successful poem in front of the class, I could attribute it to the pseudonym. Recognition without embarrassment. Perfect, I thought.

I used this PowerPoint presentation [Becoming a Poet] to introduce the unit, address preconceptions, and start to sell the idea of poetry to my students. While they liked creating pen names, they still groaned at the thought of poetry. One student bellowed, “No! Ms. H… this unit is gonna be the limp in my graduation walk.” I chuckled at him. I was determined to turn my whole class into secret poets.

I checked out every poetry book in the school library. I brought in some Mos Def to teach metaphor and selections from Elizabeth Bishop to teach imagery. We met so many poets, and tried to do what they do. T.S. Eliot, Gary Soto, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda. We tried everything from sonnets to dada to odes to free verse. We wrote every day. I brought in my own poems in all different stages of completion, and talked through my own thought process as a writer. I celebrated my own poet identity and slowly, slowly, I felt the tides turning and the students’ poems flowing, too. Fast, tight rhymes, tactile images, and resonating sounds seeped up through raggedy looseleaf. Poems were coming from every direction: about basketball games in the park, grandfathers’ funerals, the hard brown clay of the racing track, the mystique of the universe, and the damp, cool sand of Lake Michigan’s shore.

Another important feature of this unit was peer critique. My goal here was to create a true community of writers who were able to provide feedback and help one another to continuously re-envision their work. I wrote this guide [A Brief Guide to Critiquing Poetry] to help them with the peer review process, which is influenced by Atwell’s workshop model, writing center praxis, and my own experiences in successful writing communities. This forced students to at least peek out of their shells as they shared and discussed poetry with each other. It was exciting to hear these students, who have known each other most of their lives, talk about something they never had (poetry!) in a way they never had (as poets!). Listening in on critique, when it was going well, was one of the most fulfilling parts of the unit for me as a teacher.

At the end of the unit, my students put together a poetry portfolio of their revised work, along with a letter to the reader that explained the personal journey they took throughout their study of poetry and described their own personal style and inspiration as a poet. As I had expected all along, the students’ poems were beautiful, moving, quirky, and just plain fantastic in their final state. Even to their own surprise, my classes were sad to see poetry go. Every single senior turned in a poetry portfolio, signed with their own true name on the front. The secret is out!

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