They are just not getting it, he says
Head shaking, heart sagging.
The seniors were struggling, grappling
With the grave forces of gravity, inertia, momentum.
The subtle combination of math and movement
Buried them under mounds of complex theory.
"Maybe I can help," I intoned in a voice
far from the Superman crowd,
"Maybe I can unlock their interest with poetry."
His look more than withered.
If his eyes could have spoken, they might have said,
"What's wrong with you boy, are you out of your head?
There is no way that your verse and your line,
Can help my students to get and define
The topics of physics, you must be quite wrong,
What could a science student learn from a song."
So, I paused and I waited, while his eyes said their peace
And, thankfully, he didn't voice these thoughts.
Instead he said "Sure, that might be fun,
I will try anything to bring these students back
To the topics and ideas of this great science."
So, I assigned three different topics
Based on the physics teacher's
Suggestions. The students were to choose
One of these topics and craft a poem,
Formal or not,
To describe the physics concepts embodied by each.
And lo and behold what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a sleigh full of verse about forces and motion.
In the end, the physics teacher allowed that
Poetic adaptation is not the worst of all tricks
To get students to learn the science of physics.
So, bad poetry aside, what the heck am I talking about? How can we possibly ask science, math, and history teachers to judge poetry? How can we ask the teachers to assign poetry? Should we?
My friend and colleague, Chris Spencer, does something he calls Friday poems. The basic idea is not necessarily original or innovative (students write poems and present them in class at the end of the week), but I think Chris has managed to make it his own. In Chris's class, students write poems every week. About what ever they want. They spend time at the beginning of the week generating three topics for the week. Chris does not generate these, but he mediates the process. And surprise...they love it. Seriously. When I taught at Chris's school, all of the students in his class would find him at lunch, after school, on e-mail over the weekend, seeking his expertise as the most knowledgable writer in the room.
Writing in class does not have to be just journals and essays. Poetry is a tool that can be used to unlock those stubborn barriers to understanding in other disciplines. I recently had sophomores writing poems based on the ideas about genetics they were discussing in Biology class. I had freshmen writing poems about mathematical topics like point-slope equations. Each time, my colleagues said they noticed a positive change in the students' understanding of the topics. Poetry, like all writing, is inherently generative; therefore, in writing these poems, these students generated new understandings of subjects they struggled with before.
Is it foolproof? Most certainly not. Not every topic works this way for every student; but, ask yourself this: how often do you get your mind blown by a poem about physics?