Then and Now: What Matters to Me in Teaching Students About Poetry

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Years ago as a teacher, I loved that my students thought of me as some kind of poetry guru. I used to stand behind my lectern and throw questions at them about poems. When they didn’t “get it,” it wasn’t for my lack of passion or my pedagogical know-how. It was that they needed me to lead them, to model for them how to make meaning the way I did. As a result, I cared about students being able to recall how I led them through individual poems in class. I cared that they, too, if called upon by some personal conviction, should want to go on to toil away and write poems. And if, sometime far into the future, they happened to credit me with being the one who led them to Poetry, I would “humbly” accept their gratitude.

However, I often became frustrated with them and their lack of an ability to see what I saw. I showed them this frustration. They wanted to please me, so they worked harder, soaking up more of me and more of my own reading of poems. They became less like students and more like little Slaby disciples who learned a little about Poetry. Notice how many “I”s I’ve used? A decade ago teaching my students about Poetry was much more about me than it was about my students’ learning.

However, after fifteen years in the classroom, I’m happy to write that today:

  • I care deeply and passionately that all of my students understand what poems are.
  • I care that they develop their abilities to notice what is there on the page.
  • I care that my students can consistently notice the language levels in any poem they encounter, and that they can make ideas about these levels’ relationships with one another.

Overall, I am a better teacher because I care about my students being able to say confidently and competently for themselves, “I notice” Poetry for what it is!

This is why I’ve spent years refining the “I Notice” method/pedagogy so that it works in the classroom and can be shared among educators who also care about helping students become more confident and competent readers of poems.

Here’s what it does:

  • It provides a method of immersing oneself in language.
  • It helps readers practice “noticing” on their own.
  • As a result, it helps readers experience Poetry itself.

So please check it out, and try it for yourself. After doing so, if you’re going to give credit to anyone, give credit to yourself for slowing down, for immersing yourself in language, and for experiencing Poetry. You deserve it!

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On Adapting the “I Notice” Method of Reading Poems

Recently, a colleague of mine has been enjoying my “I Notice” method of reading poems so much that she has decided to adapt it to noticing aspects/levels in multi-modal, nonfiction texts.  Early results from her classroom indicate that her adaptation of the method has been an effective tool to help her students engage with an online multi-modal text. I’ve become an enthusiastic supporter of what she’s doing for her International Baccalaureate students; her purpose is similar to that of mine for my students when reading poems — to help readers engage with aspects/levels of language, to notice the subtle details in written works.

As a former community college composition instructor and an experienced AP Language and AP Literature teacher, I understand the desire to help students authentically engage in noticing how texts work, no matter the genre. As teachers in college and high school, we want our students to pay attention to the nuances of language. If we teach the reading of poems, we want students to immerse themselves in language art itself via Poetry’s four aspects/levels. If we teach the reading of Nonfiction, we want students to notice the subtle ways that language and visual rhetoric work together in traditional or nontraditional argumentative or expository texts. No matter what genre we are teaching, we are always inventing and reinventing our pedagogies to more effectively help our students learn. We reflect on our teaching, revise our lessons, reintroduce them, reflect again, revise again… wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes, we struggle to get our students to notice what we notice. In these most desperate moments, we may even resort to the ineffective “sage-on-the-stage” method of expounding what we see in a text to our students, which does little to help them learn to experience the richness of complex texts for themselves. We desperately want students to see texts for what they are and how they work! How can we get them to see? How? we ask ourselves.

Enter “I Notice.” In reading poems, the method is not merely a way to arrive at illuminating an exposition or an argument; its core purpose is to help readers immerse themselves in the language itself and to understand what poems are and what they offer. In short, the method works because it helps students access poems on the most nuanced language levels. Any meaning-making that may happen becomes authentic in this way.  This is certainly adaptable to Nonfiction as well, primarily since poems can also make arguments or engage in exposition. In fact, the “I Notice” method can be adapted to any genre, since Poetry can do what every other genre can do (e.g. one can notice sounds in Fiction or Drama or Nonfiction as easily as one can notice sounds in Poetry). If students can engage in mindful reading of a wide variety of texts, whether in the genre of Poetry, Fiction, Drama, or Nonfiction, and come to meaning-making authentically, isn’t that our goal as teachers, no matter who or what we teach?

Of course, I want more students to choose to read and experience Poetry. However, if more students become engaged in noticing language in all of its beauty in any genre, and if they learn that their own mindful noticing can enrich their lives as readers, authors, and creative thinkers, then that’s more than enough for me.

Why Poetry

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I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

Those of you who know my professional interests, know that I have wanted to help transform the way students learn how to read poems; this has led me to a career that focuses on high school English/Language Arts pedagogy and curricula. For years I’ve been refining and revisiting my own pedagogical practice in helping students experience poems. However, I’ve long hoped that an acclaimed poet and educator would say with clarity and resolve that many of the ways students are taught to engage with poetry are problematic and that we need to revisit those in order to help others know what poems are and how to engage with them. Enter Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry, a long overdue exploration of how we engage with poems, how we disengage because of poor teaching about poems, and how we can all not only to re-engage but reinvigorate the ways we experience poetry.

Why Poetry is a book that is especially helpful for educators. Zapruder acknowledges, “It’s a hard problem teachers have, to get students to accept a poem’s elusive potentialities for mystery and order and anarchy.” In Why Poetry, not only does Zapruder offer insights into how to create a culture of exploration that allows for such engagement to occur, but he also affirms the reasons why readers often feel intimidated about reading poems, sharing his own understandings and misunderstandings. He does this while reassuring us that it’s perfectly okay to not know what poems mean, but to sit with their questions, to let poems “not mean but be.” It is through immersing oneself in the language within poems that we can access the wondrous questions and connections that poems reveal.

Why Poetry belongs in the hands of every English educator. It opens a door into how anyone can experience poems, and it asserts that we can move beyond some of our traditional approaches in the teaching of reading poems. Buy Why Poetry, read it, discuss it, and debate it with your colleagues. Reflecting on it, you’ll reflect on your own poem-reading habits and practices, and hopefully, if you’re a teacher, you’ll consider making some changes to how you help your students read poems. If enough teachers do this, we’ll be able to effect real change in helping students of all ages develop a lifelong love for reading poems.

 

Let’s Work Together to Nurture Poetry Readers

On July 10, the New York Times published an article by Matthew Zapruder entitled, “Understanding Poetry is More Straightforward Than You Think” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/books/review/understanding-poetry-is-more-straightforward-than-you-think.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1), which led Johannes Göransson to respond to some of Zapruder’s claims, mainly to the idea that poems need to be “straightforward.” While some have indicated that Göransson’s response may be based on a misunderstanding (which I believe it is), he makes some good points about the power of “strange” poems.

However, the real problem in this exchange is that it needs to be refocused. Göransson writes (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/to-vibrebrate-in-defense-of-strangeness):

“It is true, as Zapruder notes, that often in school students are taught that poems are merely messages to interpret, to find a “meaning,” and that this reduces our enjoyment of poetry. This is a good insight. However, Zapruder’s solution to the issue is not to open poetry up to different approaches, but instead to limit what poetry is to a very narrow definition: It’s the “literal,” a reductive idea of ‘everyday language.’”

And Zapruder responds (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/matthew-zapruder-responds):

“Really what I was talking about was the initial encounter with a poem, how vital it is, when reading or writing, to be almost (but not quite!) sacred in relation to the words that appear on the page, and that this attitude of attention is the first step toward all the exciting, troubling, contradictory, gorgeous mysteries of poetry.”

The “different approaches” in Göransson’s critique and the “attitude of attention” in Zapruder’s response are essentially the same thing. Those of us invested in poetry want to help students develop their abilities to notice/pay attention to what makes poetry, well, poetry. There are a myriad of ways to make this happen. However, professors and poets and teachers shouldn’t be practicing them in isolation.

What is sorely needed is a focused and collaborative effort by poets and academics and educators at all levels to not simply engage students with poetry but to teach them what the genre is, what it can do (basically, anything any other genre can do), and how to approach it so they can see it for themselves. It’s true that poems can be riddles, but they don’t have to be. Poems can be stories, but they don’t have to be. Poems can be wildly obscure, or they can be very straightforward. Poetry is big enough for all of these and more. Paraphrasing Lewis Turco in The Book of Forms, poetry can do anything all of the other genres can do. The difference between poetry and the other genres is that the medium of ultimate concern for poetry is the language itself in all of its nuanced aspects. What needs our collaborative intellectual effort is figuring out how all of us can better help people experience the language itself in all of its beautiful unfolding.

How can we engage all stakeholders in a constructive dialogue about what each of us can do or what each one of us is already doing to help more and more people experience the joys of poetry? Maybe we could all start by sharing our best pedagogical practices in the teaching of reading/experiencing poems. I’ll go first. My “I notice” method is one approach (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/lesson/noticing-poetry). It’s not the only one. However, it has worked well for me, and others have adopted it and/or adapted it. To Göransson and Zapruder and anyone else who cares about helping others notice the beauty of poetry — what has worked for you? Let’s discuss so maybe we can help others, too.

Reading Poems = The Mindful Noticing of Language

For some time, I’ve been spreading the word about my Academy of American Poets unit plan on “Noticing Poetry”, which is really more than a unit plan; it’s a shift in pedagogy and methodology, an approach that helps both teachers and students focus on what’s most important in reading poetry — practicing noticing language in all its nuances. That noticing, often slow and thoughtful, is at the core of experiencing poetry.

Reading a poem is a mindful noticing of language. As teachers, we need to make sure we are modeling this. If we, as mindful readers of poems, model how to be present and aware of the language and the way it unfolds, line by line, beginning to end of the poem, students will notice. If we are not comfortable engaging in such reading, our students will most likely not become such readers themselves.

So how does one be mindful when reading a poem? I like to tell my students that they should first approach a poem with an awareness that it may be doing many things simultaneously, and no two poems will have the same combination of language levels. This makes reading poems a challenge, since, to paraphrase Lewis Turco, poems can do everything any other genre can do. We can only control how we engage with the page; we can only get better at noticing what is there. Since all poems are comprised of language, this is our common ground, our starting point for reading any poem.

For more on my method, I hope you’ll check out my unit plan and pedagogy at The Academy of American Poets and my post on “A Letter to Students Before We Start to Read Poems.”

“Noticing Poetry” Unit Plan Published by The Academy of American Poets!

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I’m thrilled to share the news that my unit “Noticing Poetry” has been published by The Academy of American Poets‘ at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/lesson/noticing-poetry! I hope you find it useful; feel free to share!

While you’re on the site, check out the tremendous resources offered by The Academy of American Poets!

All best,

Scot