Category Archives: Poetry

“How to Enjoy Poetry” by James Dickey: Timeless Advice from 1982

One of my colleagues was deep-cleaning her room this summer, and left this gem in my mailbox:

It’s a two-page article from 1982, written by the late James Dickey–you may know him as the guy who wrote Deliverance. At the time that this article was printed, he was also the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. While I’m sure that Mrs. F’s motivation for sharing this piece of paper with me was partially the humor of the quaint title and the very pensive portrait of Dickey even so far pre-Instagram, I did take the time to read it seriously, and it is seriously so good!

In the world of Internet everything, sometimes it feels like we’re trying to re-invent all of our material and approaches all the time, but reading “How to Enjoy Poetry” made me remember that such things are not always necessary. Poetry is as eternal as the human experience, and Dickey’s way of explaining it is incredibly accessible and accurate. Before you throw all your paper-based binders away, make sure to mine them for gold!

I’m definitely going to use this piece with my classes this year, and I’ve scanned it into a digital copy so that you can too. I’ll put a link to the .pdf at the end of the post. But first, I want to share some of my favorite moments from the article.

“The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun–everybody’s sun; yours, too–you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.”

Find and fall in love with the full article here, and enjoy your own pursuit of the path! How to Enjoy Poetry


Book Celebration and Review – Teaching With Heart

I got very excited a couple days ago when I saw this brand new book arrive in my mailbox. It’s called Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach (S.M. Intrator and M. Scribner, editors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).


I had known it would be coming for quite a while–about a year and a half ago, I submitted a contribution to the editors because I was inspired by the mission of the book, which is to pair poetry with real teacher anecdotes, reflecting important ideas about the life and work of teachers. I was lucky enough to become a contributor. (In fact, my anecdote is the one that closes the collection–you’ll have to turn to page 198 to find it!)


As I paged through Teaching with Heart, I was touched by the power of the voices gathered here. There are contributors with big names that many teachers will recognize–Parker J. Palmer, Taylor Mali, and Sarah Brown Wessling. But there are also stories from nearly a hundred different teachers from across the country woven into this collection, which is as rich with a variety of emotions and perspectives as is the act of teaching itself. Paired with poetry that has stood the test of time, the reflections of these educators remind me of the sheer volume of good people–strong people–that share this profession. In an era where teachers are sometimes devalued by society, it is important to let these strong voices anchor us, to help us refuse to be swept away by a current of negativity. This book does that. It’s an anchor, and a beautiful one at that.

The best way, I think, to read a book like this is in small doses, here and there, when inspiration is needed; and then reading a little, a lot, chronological, or not. I’m going to share my copy of Teaching with Heart with my department colleagues. The book will live in our office, to be opened and contemplated whenever it’s needed. I’ll start you off here, with a small selection from my own anecdote about the poem “The Real Work” by Wendell Berry. May it inspire you to head over to Amazon and check out the other voices in this fiery, courageous compilation.

 “The Real Work” brings with it a simple, ringing truth that echoes my experience: hardship inspires innovation, honesty, and a desire to persevere enough to fight through. It is when we reach a dead end that multitudes of previously unseen paths open up to meet us. Thinking back on my own teaching paths, I realize that I am my career’s cartographer, drafting a map rich with color and experience.

The poem also makes me think of my students, many who shoulder unthinkable burdens, yet still manage to employ their minds and spirit in the journey of learning. Students show bravery every time they put their own voice to a page, despite the uncertainty that can come from all directions without and within.

So much of teaching is doing the work of standing back up—knowing with profound certainty that our “baffled minds” are meant to do this “real work” of journeying together, to teach our students and ourselves that the struggles we overcome help strengthen the voice of our song.

 Consider picking up a copy for your favorite teacher friend, mentor, or mentee. Royalties from Teaching with Heart support the Center for Courage & Renewal, a resource network dedicated to renewing and sustaining those in the career areas of education, health care, ministry, and other positions that positively impact communities.

Crucial Creativity: Addressing State Standards While Fostering Creative Student Authorship

In this post, I’ve attached the materials from my July 8th teacher inquiry workshop at UW-Milwaukee. Teachers, please feel free to cite my PowerPoint as you plan your writing curriculum to rationalize your teaching of creative writing while still maintaining alignment with the Common Core State Standards. If you are interested in or have questions about this workshop, please contact me through the Universe as Text Facebook page. (See link on navigation bar at the top of the screen.) 🙂




Presentation preview: crucialcreativityworkshop


A Creative Writing Rap

As the research saga for my writing project inquiry unfolds, it is producing several unexpected cool things. For one, I got to talk in person with Kelly Gallagher at a wonderful workshop based on his book Write Like This, hosted at Port Washington High School on June 28th, and got a lot of unexpected insight on my research topic in the process! [P.s. If you don’t already, you should probably be following Kelly Gallagher on Twitter. He retweets a lot of amazing resources, and he himself is an amazing resource. Buy his books–they are immediately useful in your writing classroom.]

Another cool thing, which happened today, is that I had a breakthrough associated with the way I want to facilitate the interactive part of my Writing Project workshop on day one of the summer institute. Since it will deal in part with writing rap lyrics for informational and argumentative purposes, I wrote one of my own as a model. The lyrics, and a link to the actual track, are below. (Yes, that’s me rapping as well.) Why not take risks? As Gallagher says, “I go, you go.” Enjoy! 🙂

Young teacher, just comin’ up: stand up, say your name, get attendance done
I had a class of kids who trusted in me to show them things about the world that they never had seen
I taught writing, putting ideas on paper and screen, how to make what you say match up what you mean
I saw young women tell stories, young men discover poetry—saw words sing like winds that
brush the leaves of birch trees.
And it would overcome me, the importance of that career choice
Even a child without a house can find a home in his voice, you know?
The power of art, resilient truth of the heart,creative visions strong enough to tear self-doubt apart:
These things are vital. They fulfill a human need—to say, “Hey, these thoughts? They come from within me.”
Wielding fiction to become an intellectual force. It means more than simply analyzing a source.
To really know how to write, you need to know how to fight—cause a motion, emotion, make words take flight.
And you would know that, if you spent time in a high school every day.
The room is filled with secret poets who have something unique to say.
After I taught for a few years more, the state adopted this idea called the Common Core,
where certain standards are set, skills that students should learn, and teachers must abide if they
expect to earn.
Looking through, I wondered where creativity went; the amount of literary writing dropped to twenty
percent, and Poetry no longer is ever required. This country’s writing curriculum is being rewired.
The guy who wrote it actually gave as his reasoning: “No one gives a shit about how you feel.”
He said that writing stories won’t lead to jobs that are real.
So what are we to do about a poverty of fiction? Trying to uphold the right to use imagination?
Discuss and debate, knowing students need to create, backing up our techniques with research done by big names.
And what’s more, we can’t be scared of what the core offers; it’s our job to skillfully train our young authors.
There are notes in the standards about teacher discretion, and it’s there where we can find the space to
alter our lessons to preserve the tradition of creating rhymes, and storytelling just like Homer in the ancient times, because words unfurled are the way to connect with the world. You know?
Informational writers might one day work at Wikipedia, but it’s the storytellers who create the new media.
A writer who makes us see through his mind’s eye is gonna be the “check out my Pulitzer Prize” guy
But even those who put literature aside after high school are smarter knowing how to use narrative as a
tool: Sell me a boat, or convince me to vote, inform my health and my views, help me relate to the news.
You need stories to do that, to touch the cares of people, to define cultural ideals about good and evil.
Listen, turn the page, press play, that’s how the themes of our era were made.
I want to put a notebook in every kid’s hand with a cover that says “make us understand.”
Using writing rich in metaphor, real life knocking down the door, getting yourself unstuck, whatever you
can drum up. Show me love or heroism, show me visions of the future.
Uncap the joy of sunlight or the pain of ripping out a suture.
Create an image, tied to a message, tied to life.
I give you freedom to actually learn how to write, where what’s real and imagined combine.
Make possibilities that you are the one to define.
You are the one to define


Listen by clicking here: Creative Writing

Beats provided by The Passion HiFi ~ Thank you!

Sophomores and the Amazing Technicolor Literary Analysis

Writing in a fluent, thoughful way is such a crucial thing to teach students. Teaching writing is my favorite thing to do as a teacher–I just love watching students work through their own ideas, seeing them put an assertion down on paper that is theirs and theirs alone. Literary analysis is one form of writing that I focus on with my sophomores in particular, as they realize the potential of fiction and poetry to state underlying truths through symbolism and figurative language. It is an awesome thing, but that does not mean it’s an easy thing. Weeks need to be spent building scaffolding that helps students learn to interpret, extract themes, and form opinions about texts on their own. All along the way, I have them continually write short analyses. Of course, my expectations for the very first one are extra simple (the student went beyond mere summary and used some type of textual evidence–great!), and continue to become more extensive as time goes on (for their final assignment, they are expected to do a double analysis and comparison piece on a classical poem and lyrics from a contemporary song, and are expected to have developed insights as well as the ability to explicate examples of figurative language and the rhetorical effects upon the reader… Whew!). On the earlier assignments, I give students a lot of descriptive feedback to help them learn which steps of this new thinking task they need to develop.

There’s just a couple problems with feedback, though–   A. Sometimes, students merely gloss over it and/or don’t understand it.    B. It. Takes. FOREVER! I have four classes of sophomores. That’s a lot of essays. If I take just five minutes (which I’ve learned is fairly impossible) on each student’s assignment, it still amounts to a total  of seven and a half HOURS to give feedback on a single paper. While I’m willing to devote that time at the outset, when students are still floundering around in a sea of new expectations, I just can’t sacrifice that type of time once my students start gaining independence in their knowledge of how to analyze. At that point, it becomes their job as well to keep track of how they are progressing toward mastery. So how do I make sure I’m giving adequate formative assessment, my students know what they need to do to reach their learning objectives, and I don’t need to be committed to an insane asylum after days and days of reading beginner literary analyses? The answer is colors!

I got this fantastic idea from a very wise co-worker of mine, Ms. J. Last year during this unit, she created a step-by-step chart that asked students to outline various required features of an essay using specific colors to indicate specific things. I modified it slightly to fit a new assignment, and turned it into a PowerPoint that I had my students follow step by step. (You can see/download that very PowerPoint by clicking this: [analysisfeaturingcolors].) This activity–essentially a self-evalutation workshop–is wonderful for many reasons, which I’ll here expound:

-This kind of thing is deceptively fun. Once colored pencils/markers are involved, happy kindergarten memories come back and students feel at ease rather than intimidated by the complicated thinking they’re being asked to do. Also, they actually take deliberate time to search for each element so that they can color as much as possible.

-Colors make things as clear as day. Ask a student “Did you identify any literary devices?” and they may say, “Uhhhhhhhh….” However, after they’ve been given time to look for and color code the spots where they’ve identified literary devices, it’s easy to ask and definitively answer, “Do you have any green on that paper? Where? How much?”

-At a glance, students can see how different elements of writing, such as context, a thesis statement, and textual evidence go together. It’s no longer a big glom of words on the page–it’s a transparent, intentional thought process on paper. Also, when it comes time for grading, the teacher can also see instantaneously if the patterns are looking good or not so good. Grading of each paper has been reduced to half a minute rather than five-ten minutes.

-Students are assessing themselves. They are looking at each individual requirement/expectation/goal that pertains to the task and are asking themselves “Did I reach this goal? If so, where? If not, what do I need to do to get there?” I required a short written reflection along with this activity–it sets up self-reflection perfectly.

-Colors are not for analysis writing alone. Just match up each category of your rubric with its own color and shazam! You’ve got an activity that is engaging, useful for formative assessment/self-assessment, makes kids think, saves you time, and makes the world a little more colorful. What’s not to love?

It’s continually astonishing to me how the power of visual elements in teaching can spur excellent thinking, reading, and writing. Try out this method in your own classroom, and post how it goes over. Also, if you can think of any additional modifications, please share them as well! (P.s. Write yourself a Post-It right now to add colored pencils to next year’s required supply list.)

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!

Lyric Poetry

Lyrics can be a kid’s key to poetry, to interpretation, even to learning that literature can be an emotional experience as well as a mental exercise. Whenever I teach literary interpretation, I start with lyrics. (Then, I slowly reveal to the students that they’ve been hoodwinked into studying poetry… by the time they realize it, they’re too hooked to resist.) For me, music is life. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my love of literature began at age 4 when I started incessantly asking my parents “What is this song about?” Every time a new track popped up on the radio or CD player, I wanted to be clued in to the secret. Sometimes the explanation was easy, other times my parents would talk circles around themselves, exploring possibilities while I pondered them. I try to bring this lifelong love into the classroom whenever possible, whether it’s comparing The Bravery‘s “Believe” to Odysseus’ point of view in Homer’s Odyssey or decoding Miller’s Death of a Salesman with the help of “New Low” by Middle Class Rut. It’s really cool to take what’s on the radio and say, “Hey, it’s practically like this song was written as part of the soundtrack for this unit!” But sometimes, especially if one wants to teach the mysterious art of literary analysis, it’s neccessary to find a fresh song. And teachers, I’ve got just the guy to help you out.

American folksinger David Wilcox is a singer/songwriter who sang/songwrote his way deep into my heart back in those days when I was first figuring out that songs could be “about” something. Wilcox albums were always on repeat in the house–my dad was already his biggest fan back in the 90’s. I grew up with Wilcox’s warm, wise voice echoing around me, and I still look to his music when I’m seeking solace, philosophy, or some key to my own emotions. One of many awesome things about David Wilcox’s music is that his lyrics are masterfully crafted. He creates songs that always contain some element of mystery, irony, or prophecy. This makes his work especially rewarding to people who view themselves as thinkers, questioners, and poetic souls. Luckily for me and my career, his music is also the ultimate literary analysis canvas. Because the lyrics are so multilayered, they offer a world of possibilities to curious students who are learning the satisfaction of peeling back layers, making sense of smudges, and defending an interpretation of a literary work. Listening to the music in class has always been very successful for me as well–it’s so different from the mainstream that students just sort of stop and cock their heads, truly listening.

If you’re looking to dive into some potentially analysis-ready Wilcox lyrics, I strongly suggest starting with a trio of early albums: Big Horizon, How Did You Find Me Here, and Home Again.  While you’ll likely find your own perfect piece, I can recommend “Jamie’s Secret” (from How Did You Find Me Here) as a track that my students have really responded to, on visceral as well as intellectual levels. If you like what you hear, or you’re just curious about more recent work, I recommend progressing to Turning Point, Underneath, and Vista.  You can listen to tracks, find lyrics, and even read blog posts on David Wilcox’s website.

Having seen him in concert, I can attest to the fact that this troubadour has a very gentle, smart, and thoughtful presence. Try letting his presence into your classroom through music and lyrics–you might be surprised at your students’ reactions. With Wilcox’s spell, literary analysis warms into something cozy, enigmatic, and profound.

Thanks, David.

Roll of Thunder, Hear Our Cry

I’ve been teaching a unit with my seventh graders based on Mildred D. Taylor’s novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As I previewed the book, I found myself recoiling from the harsh depictions of racist violence, which are very true to what really went on in Mississippi in the 1930’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s. I wondered if my classroom–a racially disparate group of 12 year-olds–would be able to handle it. I’m not sure what I was so afraid of… I guess I felt like reading about those events really hurt me, and so perhaps it would hurt them, especially if they didn’t have the maturity to understand it. I was feeling similar to a group of parents who wanted to censor the book back in 2004, saying the content was too mature and disturbing for middle schoolers to be exposed to.

But then a little bell rang in my head. Why was I trying to shield these kids from the truth of what happened in history? If I did so, wasn’t I just playing accomplice to the thousands of sugared-over history textbook editions that have lain, guilty, in classrooms across the nation for decades? If I was nervous to talk so directly about racism in my classroom, with black kids and white kids, Latinos and Hmong, wasn’t that my own little contribution to racial tension in our own society? After this mental tug-of-war, I convinced myself that I would tackle it, and after an introductory explanation about the need for grown-up behavior, sensitivity, and reverence, we plunged in headfirst.

Best move ever. The responses from studying this novel have been the most heartfelt, complex, and complete responses I’ve gotten from my seventh grade. Not that it’s been without pain–for instance, when I was explaining how tar-and-feathering was a humiliating and excruciating “punishment” that whites inflicted on blacks for the most minor offenses, I was interrupted mid-sentence by a cocoa-faced, curly-haired girl with watery eyes: “But why would someone do that? Why would anybody ever think that was ok? What made them think that wasn’t wrong? It’s wrong!”  The only answer I could give her was, “I wish I knew the answer myself. To be honest, I really don’t know where racism or hate of any kind comes from. But it’s bad, bad, news and it’s really hurtful, isn’t it?”

One of the most interesting  lessons we did involved using poetry to talk about how race interactions were more complicated than simply pitting whites against blacks. For this activity, we analyzed Jeremy’s friendship with the Logan children by connecting it with Countee Cullen’s “Tableau,” which I’ll post here–


Locked arm in arm they cross the way/The black boy and the white

The golden splendor of the day/The sable pride of night

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare/And here the fair folk talk

Indignant that the two should dare/In unison to walk

Oblivious to look and word/They pass, and see no wonder

That lightning brilliant as a sword/Should blaze the path of thunder.


Here are a few of my favorite student responses to the poem:

I say what happened in the poem was two kids (black and white) fighting against racism. They were signaling out that skin color does not effect a person’s feelings. And when the lightning struck and cut through the segregation, it burned all thoughts of hatred and led people to think. If God made different races for a reason of hope, why was it used as a reason for bad individuality, segregation, and downputting of someone of another skin type or race? All races form the reason of life. People, living, and being are the cause of the new age. In Roll of Thunder, segregation was at full cruelty. But every action has its own special consequence.

I love this poem because I think it is so true about white kids and black kids becoming friends, without anybody having the right to say anything. Countee Cullen is impressing with this poem. He’s awesome!!

I see hope in the poem where they don’t care what people are thinking about them. I think that it would be unfair if we couldn’t hang out with someone because of their race or their religion. It’s unfair to judge people because of the color of their skin and it’s rude and cruel.

I think the poem is trying to say “don’t care about what people think.” If you think or know what you are doing, have trust in yourself and go for it. They are trying to tell us even when it is hard, don’t give up because we’ve come a long, long way just to give up. In the book, the blacks are going through hard times. A couple nice white people are trying to help them go through that and say something like, “What is the difference between us?” but without words.

I’ll end this post with the wisdom of Mildred D. Taylor herself, in her response to the attempted censorship of her novel. Here’s a quote from her, courtesy of the National Coalition Against Censorship website:

“As a parent, I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words,” Taylor wrote. “But also as a parent I do not understand trying to prevent a child from learning about a history that is part of America… I must be true to the stories told.”

Thank you, Ms. Taylor, for reminding us that we have to look the world straight in the eye in order to form our own opinions of it. Even if we’re twelve years old.

P.s. Every day, I am greeted at the door by a different child that whispers to me, “Ms. H, can I read first today?”  🙂

Poetry Progress Report

Mr. Keating enters the room and, in a no-nonsense fashion, requests a student to read from the distinguished introduction of the class text on poetry. The room is silent but for a few rustling sounds as the boy reads, outlining a technique for evaluating poetry through graphical analysis of the poem’s application of devices and its “importance.” Keating waits until the student finishes, then softly says, “Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. Now, I want you to rip out that page. Go on. Rip it out. Rip it out! RIP!”

The students sit still, in disbelief, then eventually start to rip out the beginnings of their textbooks. Keating delightedly grabs the wastebasket, all the while shouting “RIP!” and “BEGONE Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!” Keating proclaims that poetry is not about quantitative data, but about thinking and feeling for oneself. After all the students have ripped the pages, Keating beckons them to huddle around him. In the middle, he kneels and says:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Keating’s character is one of my heroes, but that’s not the only reason I showed this clip to my class. I showed this five-minute clip from Dead Poet’s Society (Peter Weir, 1989) to spark discussion on two ways to view poetry: (1) as a demonstration of a mastery of form and (2) as a vehicle to portray the human experience. Structuralism vs. Reader Response. Logic vs. Emotion.

So, I asked my class what they thought about this clip. Who did they agree with–the book or the teacher? I got a wide variety of responses. Many students agreed with Keating, expressing a desire to “speak from the heart,” to “throw out the rules and focus on what we feel,” and to “make poetry our own.” This group was excited about the chance to express themselves and to use poetry to get across what they felt was important. Other students opted to agree with the textbook view, feeling a security and accountability that results from the perfect execution of form and the knowledge of patterns of rhyme and rhythm, because that’s “what poetry really is.” That’s “how you write poetry and what makes it different from other writing.”

This discussion got to the bottom of what I really wanted to say over the course of this unit, which I shared with them as the discussion wrapped up: “Even literary scholars today are having this same debate. Some people say that poetry is about devices and terms and patterns and how you use them. To these people, a poem’s perfection comes from their mastery of these things. But others are more focused on what a poem makes us feel. To these people, poetry is about life, and feeling, and love, and passion. It’s about where we are in this human experience we all share, and why it matters. And it’s ok to feel either of these ways, or even both. That’s what we’ve been doing in this unit all along–we’ve looked at standard poetry devices and figured out what they are and how they work. We saw examples from famous poets. But then, we experimented with these devices in our own words and used them to tell our own emotions and stories. We wrote some of our own verses. And that’s something I hope you guys came away with: that studying poetry is really about both of these things…”

At this point, I had to quell my fervor. My supervisor was in the room and I had a review game to get rolling. My students performed beautifully, too–I hardly had a single wrong answer during the review, and later in the week test scores would prove to be very decent overall. I also had them submit a revised poem as part of their assessment grade, and many of them blew me away with the creativity, spirit, and truth that they weaved into their poetry. Especially since their classrooms have been very regimented and worksheet-heavy up until now, their achievements were spectacular to me. My students represent so many races, languages, cultures, economic backgrounds, and personalities–they each have amazing stories to tell. And their form wasn’t bad, either.

I can’t believe this unit is already over.

I’m very proud of my classes, and I can’t wait to see what else they can do. I hope Mr. Keating would be proud, too.

(Nothing says “English teacher” like being so attached to a fictional character!)

Finding Poetry

My dreams are loud.

That’s something nobody told me would happen when I became a teacher. My brain is humming, constantly, with ideas: How can I present this material? How do I make it interesting? How do I make it interactive? How will I assess it? How will my students respond? How would I revise, mid-lesson, if this fails? Does this really serve my students in regards to the standards? Does it serve them as human beings? On and on, the questions and ruminations run through my mind. And the reason for this, I’m finding, is that I care. I care a great deal about my students–I see them coming down the hall and I can’t help but smile. It is my job to give them the absolute best education that I can. I am commited to that. I am determined not to waste a minute of their time in the classroom.

Starting this coming week, I will be starting to transition into the leadership role of the primary teacher in my classroom. As this begins, so does our unit on poetry. This is exciting to me, because I think that poetry, often sold short (and drab, and impenetrable, and lofty, and overly flowery), is one of the most exciting literary forms. It’s also one of the most personal, intense, and creative. These are things that I know my students will be able to relate to, if only I can get them to tap into it. Figuring out how to do that, though, is producing much of the aforementioned brain humming, through sleeping and waking hours alike. Once I actually get my disorganized, frenetic ideas to settle into something intelligible, I am excited to create some poetry lessons and activities.

This is what I know so far:

*Poetry offers freedom from strict, standard academic grammatical and syntactical rules, yet it also offers a platform for teaching about them in a playful, low pressure way.

*Poetry gives us a chance to use words to describe something that, without it, would be beyond words.

*Poetry = image
*Poetry = music . . . . . Things everyone understands, deep down.
*Poetry = rhythm

*Poetry is not impossible to interpret, but it is impossible to limit to a single, complete literal meaning.

*Some of the greatest literature ever written has been poetry.

*Poetry occur in all cultures. We all have poems inside us.