Poetry can be maddeningly hard to teach and even more difficult to fit into our evolving curricula. Not long ago, I was teaching in another district here in Virginia where they had public noted that the Standards of Learning no longer focused on poetry because, and here is the kicker, there were no poetry questions on the state test. Truly!? So, being me, I taught more poetry. I taught it to freshmen and sophomores. I taught it to standard level students. I taught them Dante's Inferno.
When we abolish poetry, we abolish the soul of our written work.
I found that to be an appropriate selection given my feeling at the time. When we abolish poetry, we abolish the soul of our written work. Essays can speak to us, novels can grip us, but only poetry can make us feel. Reading and reciting Taylor Mali with my students is one of my favorite ways to introduce poetry because of how easily he invites us to feel what he has felt. My go to poem from Mr. Mali, a teacher by-the-way, is "Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior." I read that poem multiple times every year and I still have to keep my voice from breaking as I get to the final lines. I'm a fan of great literature, but Charles Dickens, try as he might, cannot get me to choke up.
The important, and dare I say functional, thing to remember about poetry is that the experiences we inhabit in those lines from our favorite bards do more than fulfill an emotional need. Poetry, as a history teacher colleague of mine used to comment, is just plain hard. We must read into everything. So little guidance is given that we must engage personally with the work and dig meaning from its fertile lines.
I'm a fan of great literature, but Charles Dickens, try as he might, cannot get me to choke up.
At the first NCTE conference I attended, I stayed for a Monday workshop hosted by the Folger Library. Shakespeare came alive for me that day and I have never looked back in teaching Shakespeare work that way. I came back so enthusiastic about teaching Shakespeare that I insinuated a Shakespearean play into my Standard American Lit course. We read the Antonio and Shylock storyline from The Merchant of Venice as a lead in for The Great Gatsby. We read and performed as much of the play as possible in five class meetings, focusing a lot on the relationship between Antonio, Shylock, and Money. Then we hit Gatsby. That is probably the only standard American Lit class I have had that didn't complain about how flowery Fitzgerald's writing is; they even seemed to like it. They had engaged so heavily in the themes of wealth, power, poverty, etc. in Merchant that Gatsby became another perspective to fuel their discussions, a fuel easier to analyze than Shakespearean verse. Poetic thinking had changed their minds; they were open to the ornate and powerful language Fitzgerald employs.
If you love poetry and are looking for ways to have it help you meet the standards needs of your classroom, head over to the NCTE Connected Community and check out Anna Roseboro-Small's unit "ENGAGE NOW! Poetry: Characters and Settings."
Anna Roseboro-Small's ENGAGE NOW unit also uses poetry in the service of multiple ELA skills. In her unit, students read poetry in order to analyze character and develop sharper writing skills. On top of this, students respond to poetry using multimedia, building on those 21st century literacy skills. My favorite portion of the unit has to be the way Roseboro-Small has students develop sharper writing skills in play writing. I can honestly say that I have never thought of combining the reading and comprehension of poetry with the development of young playwrights. If you love poetry and are looking for ways to have it help you meet the standards needs of your classroom, head over to the NCTE Connected Community and check out Anna Roseboro-Small's unit "ENGAGE NOW! Poetry: Characters and Settings."