Poetry Magic: Teaching Teens Poetry

I don’t often discuss my life as a high school English teacher.  I separate my life as a writer from my life as a high school teacher.  There are many reasons I do that. I will probably say more about teaching and public school when I retire (and that should give you a hint about my opinions on public school education.) But every year, when I dust off my poetry unit, I see the magic that happens when teens are exposed to meaningful poetry and I feel the compulsion to explain again to the public why poetry is so vital to education.

The school I teach at now, does not do a stand-alone poetry until. As far as I can tell, if poetry is taught at all, it is as a drive-by lesson. Poetry is not in my curriculum at all this year. I found myself with about a week and a half of time between my last unit and the next. I didn’t want to start my new unit a week before the Christmas break. I decided to do a week and a half of poetry. It isn’t how I like to teach poetry, but it was clearly better than nothing.

On Friday the 13th, I taught an eighty-minute poetry lesson. It opened with a discussion of what poetry is and why students seem to dislike it so much. I did not define poetry for them, I simply wrote their definitions on a large piece of poster paper. Neither did I try to dissuade them of their opinions on poetry. The next thing we did, was watched poets read their work. I always choose a wide range of poetry; traditional, spoken word, slam, experimental, etc. I try as best I can in one twenty-minute segment to include poets of all sexes, races and age groups. I offer no comments except to ask which one they liked and why. The last thing we do is write. I ask the students to write a one-sentence poem. Yep, that’s it. The instructions are to write one pithy sentence, play around with it until it “looks” like a poem and then add a title that is the topic or extends the meaning. I have examples of one sentence poems, such as William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” That’s the whole lesson. It doesn’t seem to complex, does it? Here is what happened.

Every single student, without exception, wrote at least one poem. Most students wrote several. Most students shared their poems. You could feel the excitement of poetry in the class as they shared their work, laughed, talked and “Whoa, that was deep.” All three classes received an impromptu lesson on word choice and thesaurus use because in each class at least one student asked, “What’s another word for…” One girl thought the thesaurus was the coolest thing invented. They wrote about sports, love, nature, their abject hate for English class, their feelings of loneliness, isolation and not feeling good enough. They wrote about the upcoming holiday, younger siblings, and friends and relatives spending the holiday in prison. They wrote about missing a parent or grandparent. They wrote about their fear of the future. They wrote about immigrating to America. Fifty poets: fifty unique voices. Poets left the room still scribbling in their notebooks. Poetry magic.

And every year, I get at least one student who is set on fire. There was no exception this year. We’ll call him William.  William was in my second period English. He asked if he could come back fifth period, during his study hall. I told him it would be the same lesson. He didn’t care. He wanted to come back. Who has students who want to come back to repeat the lesson? For me, it happens with poetry and drama. I apologize to his science, math and social studies teacher because William literally wrote poetry all day. He came back with pages and pages of poems.  (Yes, I told him he should not be writing poetry in other teachers’ classes.) I made my concerned face and said, “Well, I suppose we’ll have to do something about this.” William looked at me, thinking he was getting in trouble. “I suppose we’ll have to have after school writing club and a poetry slam.” He beamed.

The list of things William will learn while writing poetry is long and only half of it is about poetry itself. He will learn about reading, writing, grammar, word choice, difficult text, syntax, and diction. He’ll learn about the preciseness of expression. He’ll learn to read aloud with meaning and passion. He’ll learn about himself and what he is capable of. He may even become a leader and teacher. I have seen lives transformed by poetry.

Yes, I know, science, math, social studies and other subject can transform lives. But those subjects are a “given.” Poetry, music, and art are “hit and miss.” In the movie Dead Poets Society, the teacher Mr. Keating explains, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are we stay alive for. “

When a student is set afire by poetry, I always feel like he or she is being inducted into a special society of people who stretch back to the beginning of time. The storytellers and the poets, who crouched over the fire telling the story of what it means to be human. Welcome, William. You are important. We need your voice

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