Friday, May 29, 2009

Teaching Poetry

Just returned from a wildly successful stint as a guest poetry teacher at my former high school and college, where I got to meet some of the minds of tomorrow and assist them in interpreting some of the greatest contemporary poems out there. I wish I had someone like me when I was in school--who was interested in contemporary poetry, and not the dull and/or seemingly intentionally convoluted type of poetry that so often dominates the high school poetic landscape. Here's one poem by a famous poet who died before this school was built--read their poem and pick out what the themes are. Well, poets today still use many of the same themes, but happen to say things in what high schoolers nowadays would interpret to be 'a much clearer way.'

I'll definitely incorporate as much contemporary poetry and fiction as I can into my classroom, taking a lot of materials that should otherwise never be considered and bringing them to the forefront of discussion, and allowing some of the stereotypical or cliched works that dominate our classrooms to fall (sometimes) by the wayside, which, in and of itself, might not be the most horrible thing in the world. Our ultimate intentions are comprehension, elicitation and interpretation, right? Not mere appreciation? (And I would argue appreciation falls more each year with more and more students saying "why do we have to know/read this?"

I taught some Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Bob Hicok, Kim Addonizio, Natasha Trethewey and Bruce Weigl--a very eclectic mix to say the least. I shared a few heavily metaphorical poems and spent quite an amount of time painstaking assisting them in interpreting and analyzing them, but overall they did very well. I also used some purely imagistic pieces with metaphors that are more easy to recognize than a sale at (insert your favorite clothing/merchandise store here). We read some love poems, some hate poems, some beautiful poems and some ugly poems...we ran the gamut from sex to war to young to old to killing to birth.

I'm happy to announce that some of the kids were much more sprightly than they were in other courses (according to their teacher), while I did see some others begin to doze. I suppose that's a trade-off.

But it's also a very interesting phenomenon. If there are certain students who, even sometimes unbeknownst to them, have a strong positive feeling toward poetry and are intuitively aware of the powers and presence within poetry, shouldn't that be encouraged? I believe it should be...especially if they are reluctant in other areas of study or are much more difficult to get through to in a daily basis. Maybe poetry is a key for many students, and a lot of students you wouldn't expect.

I suppose that's one of the inherent powers of poetry: that it can reach a totally separate audience or bridge gaps in a way that nothing else can. It's an amazing thing to know that certain students can respond so well to poetry, and that you, as a teacher, never thought they would. I think that's the greatest gift of the process of teaching and discovery, for both teacher and student.

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