Every Friday, we start my English class by playing around with a poem.
The study of poetry in English class is often devoted to seriously pursuing theme, searching for literary devices, and supporting ideas with textual evidence: all worthy endeavors, but not conducive to experiencing the enjoyment so many of us get from reading a poem that truly touches us. This is equivalent to being forced to write an essay on every single book you read for fun; it misses the point of why we read in the first place. I want my students to have the opportunity to enjoy poetry the way I do.
Here are three reasons Poetry Fridays can change the way your students feel about poetry:
- Students come in to your class with very little real poetry analysis experience
As I mentioned in an earlier blog on how to approach poetry analysis in the classroom, when my students start my English class, most of them have never actually tried analyzing poetry. They’ve done some creative writing activities: some haikus, villanelles, and free-form poems, and they’ve had teachers explain what some poetry “means,” but very rarely have they personally dived into the depths of possibility that is poetry interpretation.
Consequently, they approach poetry with some trepidation – reactions range from grudging acceptance to active hate, with a few enthusiastic risk takers sprinkled in. It’s a challenge, to say the least, and devoting Fridays to poetry has been a successful way to show students that poetry is relevant and real, empowering students, not the teacher, to make meaning.
- Students will experience the pleasure of poetry
I start by posting a more accessible poem (often contemporary) on the SmartBoard, and read it aloud to the class. Occasionally, students will do the read-aloud of the poem, and I’ll sometimes use video or audio of the poets themselves. There are some great slam poets out there such as Sarah Kay, Taylor Mali, Marshall Jones and many more. Definitely preview the poems before showing them to your classes, but the humor and truth these poets communicate really resonate with students.
Next, students discuss their responses to the poem informally without worrying about English conventions for analysis. Some comments on a recent poem Touchscreen by Marshall Jones, an excellent slam poet, were, “Wow, that was intense!” “Why is he acting like a robot?” “I love that line: ‘to x out where our hearts once were – click!’” “Can we watch it again? I missed some of it!”
Teacher direction is at a minimum here, limited to questions like: “What do you think?” and “What do you notice?” “That is interesting – why do you think he did that?” You’re just trying to prompt any sort of response, more to keep the conversation moving than to guide it in any particular direction. The key here is to keep it student-driven. That could mean a conversation lasts anywhere from a few minutes to ten.
Don’t worry if the poem doesn’t take off with students one week; another might be a better fit the following week. You don’t always love every poem you hear, so don’t take it personally if they don’t fall in love with your selection.
Later in the year, students bring in their own “fun” poems to discuss with the class and this just adds to their feelings of ownership with poetry. A wonderful result of this activity is, despite the relative informality and brevity of the conversation, you’ll hear some very insightful analysis as the semester progresses. Students learn from each other’s ideas and gain confidence in their ability to make meaning for themselves that translates to the more formal analysis we do during the rest of class. For some suggestions on poems that have worked with classes in the past, see our Poetry Friday page.
A sample of the weekly poetry assignment my students use to uncover meaning in more challenging poetry is offered below. It is adapted from an assignment that Barbara Swovelin shared a few years back at the AP By the Sea summer institute.
- Student will learn that poetry is not a puzzle, but an opportunity.
The fact is, there are people out there who read poems that haven’t been assigned to them and that is because poetry says something essential about life, about being a human being.
By letting students experience the pleasure of playing with a poem’s ideas and helping them develop a language for discussing those ideas, we help them discover that, not only are they capable of finding meaning in poetry, but that poetry is a powerful way to make more sense of their world.