Questions about Poetry in Middle School, High School, and Beyond
A few weeks ago I received this as an email. It came when I was just getting snowed under with work and I never responded. I feel bad about that, as it’s an important topic.
Here’s the text of the email [I edited it a bit to make it anonymous]:
I’m a high school English literature and writing teacher. I am needing your help, and am hoping you will take a moment of your time to read this email in its entirety...
Throughout my teaching career, I have quickly realized that Middle School and High School teachers generally fall into three categories when it comes to teaching poetry: they either respect it but do not know how to teach it, they do not find it to be relevant to the state standards and therefore avoid it all together, or they teach it grossly incorrectly (i.e. encouraging students to crack the poetry code). The English teachers at [snip] High School where I currently teach, find it very relevant, but are at a loss when it comes to teaching poetry. I recently had a co-worker of mine ask me if [the teacher’s spouse, who is a poet] would come in to teach poetry to her 11th grade students because she said she knew “nothing about teaching poetry.” As the wife of a poet and a lover of poetry, I found this response to be all too common and a growing trend amongst Middle School and High School educators. I have taught many contemporary poems in my classroom: from Paul Hoover, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Cole Swensen, Dean Young, and so forth. My students end up loving them. They always say: “We wish we knew what the poet was thinking.”
I need your help! I am forever asking [my spouse] for feedback regarding poetry that I can share with my co-workers and students. I now need a variety of opinions that represent many aspects and voices within the poetry world. [My spouse] has shared your email addresses with me in the hopes that all you will take a moment to respond to the below questions. I feel that is it is undoubtedly critical to teach poetry not only correctly but with an enthusiasm that aides in eliminating people's common misconceptions about poetry. I feel certain that it is at the Middle School and High School level that poetry can become an essential part of how an individual can come to understand themselves, communicate their ideas, and connect with a larger social group. If we can help them to embrace poetry AND have a solid foundation of poetics, one can only hope that poetry will be a tradition valued and respected for many generations to come. I want students and teachers to find access to poetry and poets. I am hoping that you will help me attempt to better the way poetry is taught and communicated at the post-secondary level.
I sent this query out last year, and only got a handful of responses... Hoping you can add to them...
Here are the questions:
1. What do you think are the most essential aspects of poetry that teachers should ensure young students are taught and made aware of?
2. What do you think is the greatest misconception about poetry and how can educators help to dismantle these misconceptions?
3. What words of wisdom or advice would you offer high school English teachers attempting to teach poetry/creative writing when they themselves admit to not writing prose or poetry?
4. Are there any exercises or lessons that you have found to be successful with students who've had little exposure to poetry OR with students who've had bad experiences with poetry in the past? If so, please share.
5. The question you most hear from students and teachers is: "I don't get it." Teachers then typically teach poems that they themselves can "crack." How do you get both students and teachers to enjoy negative capability, innovative writing, and innovations of style and/or form?
6. Open-- any extra comments you may want to add or share.
I know that many of you are very busy, especially with school beginning soon. I would appreciate any response you can offer, even if it is brief. If you know of any poets who would be willing to take a moment to answer these questions for me, please forward this on.