I have the good fortune to be the associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching which means I spend a week in June talking about poetry and about strategies for teaching poetry with a group of dedicated, enthusiastic teachers. One of those teachers is Jean Kanzinger, whose enthusiasm, generosity, and energy seem boundless. Her commitment to the teaching of poetry goes way beyond her own classroom. For example, in an effort to help her fellow teachers, Jean has created “The Importance of Poetry Instruction,” an online “binder” of information—articles, statistics, suggestions—that runs the gamut from “Poetry and the Reading Standards” to “Poetry and the Brain.” What a pleasure and an honor it is to have Jean as a blogger for CavanKerry Press.
-Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
Permission to Teach Poetry
by Jean Kanzinger
While English teachers find themselves increasingly defending the use of poetry in their classrooms, we accept without question the presence of poetry at weddings or funerals or other places where people come together for ceremony. Our desire to make words stand for experiences is universal. It’s what we do.
It is astonishing, then, to hear how uncomfortable some secondary English teachers have become about teaching poetry. Confusion about the role of poetry in the today’s classroom and within the new standards has undermined our confidence about something so central to our mission. Why do we question the importance of poetry in our English classes?
Primary teachers routinely use poetry to improve reading fluency among young readers. Students in grades K-3 routinely memorize the galloping, rhyming poetry of Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein while learning to read the words in their poems. Upper-elementary and middle school teachers often teach students to write various form poems. This is sometimes coupled with grammar instruction. By high school, however, neither of those instructional uses of poetry readies students for poems they will encounter in American, British and World Literature classes. Knowing how to write a diamante, which poet Michael Salinger recently called a form that “does not exist in the wild,” does little to prepare students for the challenges of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, or Frost’s Mending Wall. For students who ultimately take AP Literature in high school, the exam features poetry in half of the multiple choice questions and one of the three essays. By the end of their K-12 journey, poetry is serious business for students not merely because of potential exam questions, but because of the power poetry has in developing advanced reading, writing, and language skills.
The reasons we have become uncomfortable with poetry are almost too numerous to fathom. Many teachers have told me that they are not supported by administration when they include poetry in the classroom. It is seen as fluff and filler. It is accused of being mere art. More importantly, they report they do not know how to defend poetry instruction in the face of having to prepare students for tests that will ultimately reflect on their own performance. It appears, ironically, that the thing English teachers are most looking for in terms of poetry instruction is permission.
We have embraced poetry for so long as an aesthetic that we have forgotten how it challenges thought. Yes, poetry is art, but it is exactly the kind of complex text with multiple layers of meaning that the new standards encourage students to master. The bottom line is this: poets are wordsmiths. Every word matters. Poets do not play fast and loose with the rules of language on a whim. Students who examine poetry even for something simple like word choice gain powerful insight into how to improve their own word choice – whether writing poetry or not. In addition, because poetry does have layers of meaning, a short poem could provide sufficient raw material for numerous lessons focused on reading, reading, speaking, listening and language. Understanding how to think about text is an essential skill. Just as great reading and writing instruction is ultimately about teaching students how to think about reading and writing, it is important to teach students how to think about poetry and how to defend arguments about word choice or meaning or tone or theme or point of view.
How do we teach poetry? We ask students to think. We also resist the temptation to swoop in with our own carefully cultivated response. We ask for thinking, we model it, and then we wait for it and praise its appearance.
I taught William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” in the spring. I used dictation just as Wormser and Cappella describe in A Surge of Language. Afterwards, students shared things they noticed about the words in this short poem. Among the things all 8 classes noticed was the odd placement of what looked like half the word wheelbarrow. I asked, “Do you think it’s accidental?” There was a strong temptation to believe it was intentional, but they didn’t seem sure. At least one student in each class suggested that maybe there could be a meaning for the word barrow that we needed to know. Indeed. We tested that theory and found an old definition of the word “barrow” in the OED. A barrow is a mound of dirt built over a grave in ancient times. “Oh,” one student announced, “that’s what depends on the wheelbarrow. Burying the dead. Wow.” Learning to both question and appreciate word choice enhances reading and writing skills. Inspiring a curiosity about language, developing an ear for the music of words, and simplifying the complex are all skills students will re-employ in many areas of life as well as across their academic subjects.
And don’t just ask questions about the meaning of words. Let the words of a poem speak for themselves. Each year I get invited to do a three-week poetry unit with a teacher my daughter had a few years ago. Students get to hear the words of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” read aloud several times in class before we ask them comment on it. Sometimes students can identify an idea first and then find evidence to support it afterwards. Such was the case when a student observed that the words in Frost’s poem were quiet and peaceful “just like the woods at night.” We asked which of the words made the poem seem quiet and many students offered up “easy wind and downy flake.” Resist the temptation to tell students about the poem and instead let the poem be heard.
I realize these student observations may seem trivial for high school students. Did I mention that the insight about the word “barrow” was made by a fifth grader? And, that child who thought Frost chose quiet words for his snowy woods poem? A kindergartener. The first time I taught those poems at those grade levels, I had no idea what the kids would think. I did, however, believe we could make kids think and support their thinking. We were not disappointed. Students of all grade levels will rise to the challenges of poetry when presented with them.
Late in 2012, I began collecting scholarly evidence to support poetry instruction. By 2013, I had assembled a variety of those scholarly and popular articles on the benefits of poetry instruction in a LiveBinder resource that I made available to teachers both at the NWP conference at Kent State University and also to attendees of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching. There are currently more than 30 articles posted. In a Harvard Business Review column about the value of poetry for professionals, John Coleman explains how “poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity” and the value of that skill for business leaders. In yet another column, Edutopia’s Elena Aguilar explains how poetry “opens venues for speaking and listening.” If you’re looking for evidence that poetry supports the development of reading, writing, speaking, listening and language skills, you will find it among the many fabulous arguments for poetry instruction. Each is a permission slip to engage your students in the rigors of poetry.
The full and ever-growing resource is here. Use it well.
Jean Kanzinger has taught high school English and communications in both public and private schools in northeast Ohio. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction with an emphasis on literacy. She is a consultant to The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant. Jean enjoys teaching poetry to students of all ages.
Reblogged this on Lines & Loops and commented:
“Permission to Teach Poetry” originally posted on the CavanKerry Press website.