Ben, our guest blogger, describes a framework for teaching poetry and then asks probing questions about pedagogy.
Bridging English, ch. 6
Using "Celebrate Poetry" as the title of Chapter 6 was a conscious choice by the authors instead of using the words "instructing" or "teaching" poetry mainly because of their recognition of the unique power that something as simple as a few lines of poetry can have on willing readers, and how our main goal as teachers of poetry will be to close the gap between students and this form of language that seems largely foreign to them, rather than an accessible, alternate way to communicate.
There are four initial teaching strategies presented: finding poetry that is in the everyday world, forging poetry to practice creating the form, discerning poetry to approach it for its experience, and probing poetry to approach it without "the teacher's analytic mediation."
Finding poetry is concerned with defining and identifying poetry that students can relate to. This is where we will try to expand students' conceptual understanding of what poetry is, what it can be, how it is different from prose, and what its features and distinctions are.
To begin this explanatory process, poetry found in everyday lives should be identified which includes non-literary prose, music, advertising, bumper stickers, and other less expected places. Music is perhaps the easiest bridge to grasp students' attention, especially with the rhythmic metering and lyrical emphasis in hip-hop (and of course in other genres). As the authors note, "Discussing songs draw on students' interest and confidence. If the songs under discussion are their songs, they will have an expertise to share with their peers and their teacher," and this kind of self-motivation is at the very heart of celebrating poetry. Examples in advertising lend itself to the instruction of radiant images, figurative language, and compressed language due to their emphasis on short blurbs. This elaborates on the importance of allusion, using imagery, the power of suggestion and metonymy, and being concise.
Personally, I think the found poetry examples of how to connect poetry to real life and then examine those connections on 169-70 and Table 6-3 on 179 are very effective for getting students engaged because they concretely show where poetry comes from and how it is another form for explaining ideas that are usually expressed in other, perhaps more familiar ways.
Forging poetry is the next level of the scaffold, and this is where teachers should encourage students to experiment, play with language, and choose what they want to write about. This is accomplished with diminished levels of formal structure: templates, fixed forms, open forms, and wild cards. Templates could include a pattern that each line should adhere to, or something less rigid like thematic templates such as a biographical poem where students write about the life of an existing person. Fixed forms refers to the common types of poetry we might be more used to such as limericks and haikus. Open forms are the more "modern" free verse examples like the found poems or news examples previously mentioned. Finally, wild card poetry is more or less capturing the fun involved in magnetic poetry like a game of "one man scrabble." By having students explore these forms, we hope they will identify and connect with, and maybe even learn to love poetry.
Discerning poetry is focused on "welcoming students into poetry by tapping their perceptual, sensory, and intuitive understanding" with six strategies: definition, choice, personal response, enactment, visualization, and synthesis. Definition re-examines the questions of what is poetry using their new experiences with different forms from forging (of which the "rule-breaking" e.e. cummings is a fitting example). Choice again is important to allow students to find their preferences as a reader in order to better hone their own poetic voice as a result of these decisions. Personal response furthers this concept by having them express their own search for meaning without worrying about giving the response the teacher wants to hear. Enactment connects texts to drama and theater, and, therefore, conversation and dialogue - the back and forth that most poetry is lacking. Visualization provides an entry point to poetry that may be helpful for English Language Learners, and connects visual arts and advertising again with the elements of poetry like imagery or concision. Finally, students are expected to synthesize these concepts across a grouping of poetry using their knowledge of poetic elements to find similarities.
Probing poetry is the final step for having students respond to poetry "in ways that traditional close reading of individual poems does not." This can be accomplished by employing a teaching model that breaks away from typical teacher analysis and student regurgitation. The teacher must create a positive environment that encourages students to grow as independent readers, make informed decisions about what poetic selections they should include, pay attention to the nuance in rhythm and content, use effective discussion models such as small group activities, and integrate these synergistic elements like music or visual art that "delivers a knockout punch" for the lesson plan.
The main goal is to de-mystify poetry for students and help them gain access to join the celebration.
I think one of the most important rhetorical elements is getting students to ask questions about texts and more importantly questions that don't necessarily have answers because that in itself is a jump-off point for even more poetry because it’s precisely the kind of analytical thinking that goes into philosophical poesy.
One of the most daunting aspects is being able to accurately lead your students to make effective choices of text to read, or if you are bound by an administration, the best related works in pop-culture, etc. that help triangulate the importance in a relate-able way. Overall, this chapter provides a solid, relevant framework for designing effective lessons.
What elements of teaching poetry seem easy or difficult for you?
What experiences do you have with it, and what are your weaknesses regarding instructing poetry?