Teacher to Teacher: Welcome to Poetry Month!
By Janice Ewing
As we ease into April, also known as “Poetry Month,” we are thrilled to welcome a pair of poetry ambassadors to our blog – Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger. This duo has been writing and performing poetry around the world for many years, as well as inspiring others to find their own identities as poets. In our Teacher-to-Teacher spot this month, Sara and Michael dispel some common misconceptions about poetry, and then go on to make a convincing case for how it fits into and enriches any curriculum. We hope you enjoy this ‘visit’ with Sara and Michael, and we invite you to share your connections to this post, as well as your experiences with reading/listening to, writing, and teaching poetry.
by Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger
The list of arguments not to teach poetry writing is long.
Confusing. Not rigorous enough. Not for the boys. Not aligned to the standards. Not non-fiction. And, what can I put in that grade book yawning open on the desktop? Is it fair to put a grade on kids’ feelings?
The list of reasons to lock poetry up in permanent confinement in those dangling weeks in the spring after everything else is done is even longer. School has requirements after all, assessments to be recorded, evaluations to be made. What does poetry have to do with 21st century literacy?
Poetry has it all.
Want students to produce more detailed fiction and non-fiction? Help develop their poet’s eye through list poems. Trot them down to the library or cafeteria and ask them to make a list of what they see. In the words of Joe Friday, just the facts, man. No opinions. Stack the details like Legos and watch a word picture emerge.
Want students to get a firm handle on how to take a point of view? Back to the cafeteria. Have them write a poem, “If I were a cafeteria table,” imagining what it would see or hear. Combine this lesson with a science lesson enabling writers to evidence their understanding of content learning…If I were a city mayor, a coral reef, a pioneer.
Want students to evidence understanding of figurative language? Not sure how else to do that except through writing a poem. And this better happen before the tests in the spring or everybody’s going to be in hot soup.
If you have been shying away from poetry because you are unsure how to assess it, that may be because you have been treating the genre differently. In fact, poetry lesson goals look a lot like goals for other text types.
“For poems are not as people think, simply emotions, (one has emotions
early enough) they are experiences.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke
First, accept Rilke’s philosophy that poetry is not about feelings, it is about experience. Or at least try it on for size. Think about your favorite poems, weren’t they about real events? Something recognizable that caused you to make a connection?
Good start. Now lose that workbook on poetic forms. Seriously, weren’t you looking for a fire starter during these waning days of cold weather? Don’t you need a doorstop? Not a metaphorical one, a real one, you know, one that holds the door open to let new ideas in. Teaching poetry by form (hint: diamantes do not exist in the wild) is a five-ton boulder blocking students searching to find their own voices. Let it go.
Start here instead: Establish a few goals for your poetry writing assignment, such as:
- Demonstrates an ability to use figurative language.
- Demonstrates an ability to use sensory detail.
- Demonstrates an ability to use visual language (you see where this is going here, establish your writing assessment goals prior to the lesson.
Add a content area lesson:
- Demonstrates knowledge of photosynthesis
- Demonstrates knowledge of pyramids
- Demonstrates knowledge of (this list is endless and this article has a word limit). You get the picture.
Guide your students to write about the world around them. Explain that a poem that only expresses the writer’s feelings is only half done. A poem needs to evoke feeling in the reader.
If student writers can get good at that, they have come a long way in developing communication skills that will buoy them through the tests and beyond.
Poetry isn’t the icing on the end-of-the-year cupcakes. It’s the flour and water of literacy lessons.
About the Authors
Sara Holbrook is a full-time educator, and author/poet of more than a dozen books for children, adults, and teachers. Her latest book, The Enemy: Detroit, 1954, a stunning historical novel of character, tells the story of a young girl’s struggles and triumphs in the aftermath of World War II.
Michael Salinger has been writing and performing poetry and fiction for over 20 years. In this time he has become a fixture in the performance poetry and education community performing and teaching in over 200 cities in 35 countries. His latest collection – A Bear in the Kitchen – was published by Red Giant books in 2013. He has co-authored three professional books with author Sara Holbrook.