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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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

The Courage to Live Their Dreams

Here at Shanghai American School, part of our mission statement reads:

Shanghai American School inspires in all students:


上海美国学校激励并培养所有的学生:


[…] the courage to live their dreams

追求梦想的勇气 

In “My Letter to Teachers Who Still Yearn To Be Writers” I wrote that teachers who want to live writing lives need to believe that they can do it. This takes courage. In order for me to inspire my students, it is necessary that I, too, model the “courage to live [my] dreams.” However, I didn’t always have this courage. Where did I get it?

When I was a high school freshman, I was lost in my education. I had fallen out of love with reading and learning and was in a school district with a less-than-challenging curriculum. My parents wanted to reinvigorate my love for learning, but we couldn’t move since my father’s work kept him close to home.  I wanted to go away to school, too, mostly because I wanted a new opportunity to learn and a chance to start over. My parents and I decided that going away to a private school was the solution.

In my sophomore year at my boarding, co-educational private school, I met a young teacher named Rob. Rob was eleven years my senior, and he was a poet and writer. He would go to poetry readings, write poems, publish poems, read poems aloud, and generally support poetry and literature. He had a Masters degree in English, and he had studied with famous poets. He made his life in a community of others who loved literature, too. He had met his wife, Nancy, a teacher, in graduate school at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and they married during my first year at the private school. Rob introduced me to the Transcendentalists, whom he loved, and he formed a school club called, “The Writers’ Forum,” which I excitedly joined. I was one of Rob’s very first students, and he was the first real live poet that I’d ever met. He encouraged me to submit my work to literary presses, and he loaned me his copies of The Writer’s Market and The Poet’s Market, reference guides with the contact information on where to submit and how. I often went over to their apartment for coffee, for discussions about literature, or just for a chat. He and Nancy still like to say they had “adopted” me during those three years. Rob nurtured my love for literature, writing, and poetry, and he and Nancy became good friends, and still are to this day. Nice story, eh? But there’s much more.

Only recently did I realize that Rob just being a writer and a teacher wasn’t what impacted me. However, what changed my life was that he shared his “courage to live [his] dreams,” bringing me into his world of working on his craft, attending the Bread Loaf School of English, and publishing his work in newspapers and literary magazines; he was open about his writing life as part of his teaching life and vice versa. He didn’t hide his writing life one bit. To reference my last post, he allowed himself a degree of vulnerability, living authentically as both writer and teacher.

Not many of my classmates went on to write poems and teach. But I did. I kept at it, and I still do. Whenever I doubt my own abilities as a writer and a teacher, I think of Rob, still writing and teaching and inspiring young people. My life has been enriched beyond measure because Rob modeled his own “courage to live [his] dreams” for me.

As a teacher, I know I can make a positive difference in the lives of my students by also living as a writer and sharing my writing life with them. However, this doesn’t apply only to me, or only to teachers who still yearn to be writers; all teachers who have “the courage to live their dreams” and who live them openly are automatically paying it forward to their students. This includes art teachers, science teachers, math teachers, and more. No matter what dreams you pursue, by pursuing them openly you are sharing your courage, inspiring your students to follow their own passions.

So when was the last time as a teacher you modeled your own courage to your students? When was the last time they saw you living your dreams?