Summer 2018 I attended the Poetry Foundation’s Summer Poetry Teachers Institute. It’s a free week-long institute in Chicago (and if you live 50 miles or farther from Chicago, you can stay in the dorms at UIC for free, too. The application will be active in early March.) that focuses more on experiencing poetry through writing and reading, but not much on analyzing poetry. It’s an incredible opportunity to meet living poets, learn from them as well as from creative writing teachers, and network with teachers from similar grade levels. Last summer the keynote speaker, opening and closing, was the amazing Carol Jago. It was my first time hearing her speak in person, and I have to note that as an ELA community, we need to record all of Carol’s presentations and save them on YouTube or in holographic form. Her goal was to provide us a handful of poetry activities that we could use in our first day back in the classroom. On the last day, Carol asked us to set a personal goal for incorporating poetry into our classrooms; my goal was to “do” poetry on the 2-hour early out Fridays that we have about every other week (class periods are 30-minutes long).
“Do” poetry; sounded easy enough because it was such a vague idea. In mid-August, about five weeks after the institute, I started the school year with a couple community bonding activities, including one of Carol’s activities. And then, I began my units as I always do. My senior classes are dual credit composition 1, so how would I “do” poetry with them? And my junior classes? I have taught that curriculum for at least 18 years; I defaulted to autopilot.
Over winter break, someone on Twitter, and I sincerely apologize to whomever it was because I don’t remember and I cannot scroll through my tweets all the way back to the end of December, said one of the best activities she did was to project a poem for the whole class to see and then puzzle through the meaning alongside her students. A powerful lesson for her students to see that poetry isn’t a mysterious language that English teachers have the magic key to. And I tweeted that I could “do” that on my 2-hour early out days. A day or so later, a tweet popped up reminding me about the American Academy of Poets’ weekly Teach this Poem, then a tweet from the same website reminding people to sign up for Poem-a-Day, and finally a reminder that US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown (co-sponsored by Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress) would begin in January. I tell everyone that Twitter is the best professional development, but these few days in December were the most the Twitter and poetry stars had ever aligned. My lesson plans for Poetry Fridays were created—choose a poem from a source, hand out copies, and puzzle through it.
However, I teach four sections of juniors and I didn’t want to find four poems. So, I puzzle less, they puzzle more. I make copies of the poem for each student and project it onto the SmartBoard. I read the poem aloud. Then I ask students to go back through (in ELA speak, “reread”) and mark any word, phrase, line that they noticed for whatever reason. Then they go back through (read for a third time) and mark any point of confusion. Now, turn to a partner or group of three; share what you noticed and try to solve any confusion. (I borrowed this set of questions from Carol Jago’s keynote activity.) I eavesdrop, but I also make myself available to anyone without a group or anyone who really wants to discuss their confusion. But I puzzle through it with them; I don’t provide the sage-on-the-stage answer.
After a bit of small group discussion, everyone has something to share, whether it’s their own thought or the thought of a group member. They share; when the discussion lags, I have them do a quick write. The first poem was “Never Ever” by Brenda Shaughnessy about the New Year, so they wrote about their goals. (The English nerd in me loved the word play in this poem, but it was too much for my students as the first Poetry Friday; next school year, when I start this in August, I think the poem will be better received when we read it in January after four months of Poetry Fridays.)
The third poem was “Something You Should Know” by Clint Smith. I had not read Smith’s Counting Descent when my #aplitchat and #TeachLivingPoets Twitter friends did, but everyone swears by his poetry and this collection. Again, someone on Twitter posted about their success with this particular poem, so I chose it.
Well, this will be the first Poetry Friday poem next August. My students LOVED it. They said that they liked the poem because they understood it. The students who had raised hermit crabs were able to explain the reference, which I briefly mentioned was an extended metaphor and then I made no other poetry references. After their discussion, I asked them to write a sentence or poem that began “Something You Should Know.” I have bright index cards and fun paper; most chose the index cards and a sentence or two. A few copied lines or advice from other sources. And the students turned them into two boxes: HALL or CLASSROOM so that I knew where I could hang them up.
But here’s what blew my mind: during their discussions and writing with this poem, students called me over to tell me the names of their favorite poets. My first reaction was: “You have a favorite poet?” I started jotting down the names, and then I had a teacher epiphany: “Why should I do all the work?” So I asked any student who had a favorite poet to choose a poem by that poet to share with me, and I would use it on a future Poetry Friday. Poetry choices for lesson plans done by students—BAM! Then in my final class period, a student said, “You should have us write something each time to put up on the bulletin board to change it every two weeks.” KA-POW! Mind blown. My students are now in charge of the bulletin board in the hallway.
Mind you, this was week three. A lot of the success goes to Smith’s poem. But a lot of the success also goes to the multiple exposures to poetry. I won’t expect this same reaction week one or two of next school year. But I will expect it after about three weeks of poetry.