This piece first appeared on Usable Knowledge, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In an English Language Arts classroom’s scramble to cover all requirements — novels and short stories, grammar and vocabulary, expository and creative writing — poetry can get pushed to the sidelines. Teachers and students alike can assume poetry is dense, bewildering, and unnecessary.
But engaging young people with poetry today may be easier than it seems. “This generation understands poetry. They’re writing poetry,” says Professor Elisa New, whose ambitious Poetry in America project aims to bring poetry 'into classrooms and living rooms around the world'.
The cultural dominance of hip hop — from mainstream radio to spoken-word slams and viral rap battles to the Broadway hit Hamilton — means that students are primed to appreciate intricate, concise language, sometimes more intuitively than their parents could. “Hip hop has rediscovered one of the oldest technologies in the poets’ toolkit, which is rhyme,” says New. “That form has become newly inspiring and challenging.”
When teachers tap into that inspiration, studying poetry can become an engaging and wholly contemporary activity that offers students new ways of reading the world.
Poetry and problem solving
“A poem provides an opportunity for a lot of complex, analytic work that you can do with your students on the spot,” says New, who teaches courses across Harvard University. “There’s much to be said for reading something that plunges you into a problem-solving mindset and may transport you to a world with which you are less familiar.”
When students examine poetry, they are figuring out how the various elements of form — vocabulary, rhyme, syntax, punctuation, rhythm — all work together to create meaning. At the same time, students can be learning about places, people, historical periods, and ideas very different from their own.
For many students, reading poetry is a valuable lesson in uncertainty. So many poems are intentionally ambiguous, so students have to learn to be confident in their own interpretations, even if those are different from their peers’.
And the simplest reason poetry can be a rich academic exercise? “Poems are often short,” says New. “If you bring in a poem that sits on one page, it doesn’t matter whether your students have done their homework or not.” Reading a novel can consume class time when teachers need to quiz students on their reading from the night before or recount the plot to make sure everyone is up to speed. With a poem, there’s often less to remember and prepare. Teachers can spend five minutes reading and devote the rest of class to experiencing the poem in the moment, and discussing.
With Poetry in America for Teachers, a new offshoot of the larger project, New is creating a series of online courses that help educators develop their own mastery as readers and teachers of poetry. The first of these online offerings, “The City from Whitman to Hip Hop,” will launch this January, in a partnership between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Division of Continuing Education.
Making the most of a poetry lesson
Among the pedagogical strategies she shares in Poetry in America for Teachers, New asks teachers to model the following techniques (and many more) in real-time discussions with their classes:
1. Choose poems that allow students to tap into their own experience — but also to stretch beyond that experience. Rita Dove’s “My Mother Enters the Workforce” is a good example of such a poem. Students may relate to parts of it, but they will likely find some of its vocabulary and historical references puzzling. They'll have to do research to understand the references, and the collective work of closing holes can make the learning active, collaborative, and challenging.
2. Instead of asking, “What does this poem mean?” ask, “What is the first word or phrase that slows you down or stops you? Why? Which other words and phrases have the same effect?” By focusing on one striking element in a poem and seeking others like it, students will begin to discover patterns in the language. They can then use that language to make meaning of the poem, rather than looking for the meaning first. In Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” for instance, the word “too” in the first line is one that might strike students as interesting. What does that "too" predict about the rest of the poem? Let them find echoes of "too" throughout the poem.
3. Teach formal technical aspects of a poem only when needed, letting students create a glossary of terms they need to express observations about poetry. As students read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” for instance, they'll notice there are long sentences that break through the ends of lines (the lines are enjambed rather than end-stopped). As they read Walt Whitman's “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” they'll notice that the initial word of each line often repeats (anaphora). We have language for these poetic occurrences, but it can be overwhelming — and alienating — for students to learn this jargon all at once.
4. Pair poems with similar themes and formal features. Give students a chance to build their experience. After a class discussion on one poem, let students respond to a poem with similar elements either in small groups or in a freewriting exercise.
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