By Amanda Little
Robert Frost is quoted as saying “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.”
It is cryptic quotations like this one that often make people run from poetry screaming. While I identify with Frost’s quip as an amateur poet and an aesthete myself (full confession, I had to look that word up), I can understand why poetry has a tendency to scare off students and teachers alike. One of my main goals, however, is to bring a love of poetry back to my students. Or at least make it so they don’t groan in anguish any time someone utters the word.
I have used various methods in the classroom to try and make poetry more accessible for my students. Aside from reading a poem a day out of the critically acclaimed Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, I try to disarm the word daily. When I start talking about poetry in depth, which is usually sometime around National Poetry Month, I often hear one of two things: “Really?! Ugh!” or crickets chirping louder than those found on a pastoral night in one of our beloved Kansas prairies.
But I then ask my students if they enjoy music. Usually, most hands go up or heads nod in assent.
Then I drop the bomb.
Music. is. poetry. (Wait, whaaah???) I remind my juniors of our Native American Literature unit, of the fact that the oral traditions of most cultures were often first sung around a fire, set to a rhythm to bring it to life and to help them remember their sacred legends.
I explain to them that the iambic foot is so widely used in poetry because it mimics our own heartbeats. duh-DUM, duh-DUM, duh-DUM. Poetry is a part of our very being and body.
I assure them that most poets aren’t trying to hide a “special” or “deeper” meaning in the words of their poems. That readers connect with some poems and poets more than others. That to a certain degree, a reader gets to connect with each poem in their own unique way.
And I comfort them with the knowledge that all a poem is is an astute observation about a microscopic slice of life.
Finally, after we’ve taken the fear out of poetry, I introduce them to poet Taylor Mali’s poetry game: Metaphor Dice. Because many teenagers either lack the words or the experiences to put life into lyrics (well, most of us adults do, too, for that matter), Mali, former-teacher/SLAM poet/advocate himself, invented a game to help us identify and connect words with life. He has a starter set and the new “Erudite Expansion” pack.
I stumbled across these as I was fan-girling and stalking Mali’s Facebook page—Mali has been a favorite of mine since discovering him in college. (And I continue to follow him. #Noregrets!) You might know Mali for his poem “What Teachers Make” found in his collection, What Learning Leaves.
I usually use Mali’s dice as a brain-storming activity for our summative poetry project in which the students must create their own “book” of poetry (usually between 6 and 9 poems depending on the time we have). I give them choices, examples, and mini assignments to help them build different styles of poetry like haiku, concrete poems, acrostic theme poems, and traditional forms (like sonnets). I also let them explore mimic poetry, using an excerpt of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as the mentor text. I’ve even let them explore slam poetry after viewing a student edition of SlamNation (a 1998 documentary by Paul Devlin). They have quite a bit of freedom balanced with guidance to choose forms and create the poems that will express themselves best. My goal is to help them find their own way to voice their own experiences.
And this is where Mali’s dice come in.
The way the dice work is simple. In the original edition, there are 12 dice, 4 red (subjects), 4 white (adjectives), and 4 blue (objects). When you roll the dice, you see which subject, adjective, and object make a metaphor that you can identify with.
Sometimes you get remarkably insightful ones: Home is a burning kiss.
Other times you get hilarious ones: Your mother is a desperate party clown.
And still other times you can mix it up by using negation: The world will never be a bright trophy.
Once you have found the metaphor that strikes you through your heart, you know you have a poem started. Then the work becomes putting into words why that metaphor is true.
Here’s a finished product of my own:
Fronts of the Mind
Regret is an obstinate odyssey
relentlessly pursuing the pursuer
memories attacking blindly--
(but hind-sight is only 20/20
if the view remains unskewed)
escape only possible
for those with the tools
still forfeiting friends
in the chimerical front
that is the mind
Regret is the perilous sojourn
we choose for ourselves
knowing we eventually
come to the fork
in the road
realizing we must take
the path of self-clemency
(the path less traveled)
for the sake of our own survival
for the sake of survival
the sake of sanity
the journey of regret
and only we choose that
If you didn’t notice it, my starting metaphor was regret, obstinate, and odyssey. I related to that in my own thought patterns and redemption to create my poem.
Many of my own students, especially the ones who thought they hated poetry, have found the days that they played with Mali’s dice to be some of the most fun of the year—I have survey answers to prove it! I have limited sets, so my students work in groups, passing the divided sets from one group to another throughout the class time, which only adds to the conversations and fun. I also pair the dice with Rory Story Cubes to help students brainstorm ideas for their own poetry projects.
This year, I am heartbroken that the pandemic is stealing yet another experience from my students, one that this year’s juniors won’t even know they are missing. I can’t wait to get back in my classroom and inspire my unwitting poets next year.
In the meantime, I am focused on writing my own poetry. I’ve never been published before—at least not professionally, so I am looking forward to submitting some work and getting valuable feedback from publishers. I find poetry so cathartic, and I hope to inspire that feeling in my students as well.
I encourage you as teachers to let your students play with words. We often times are so focused on the analysis and scholarly study of poetry, that it’s easy to suck the joy out of it. And I postulate that poetry should bring joy, both to the reader and the poet.
If you are interested in exploring Metaphor Dice for your own classroom, you can find them here or on Amazon. If you would like to know more about my own poetry project, please feel free to contact me via email. I will happily share my resources.
About the Author
Amanda Little is a mother of two and a native Salinan who has been teaching ELA and Public Speaking to juniors and seniors at Ell-Saline MS/HS for the last 7 years. She earned her bachelor's degree from Kansas Wesleyan University and recently earned her masters through the summer MA program at Fort Hays State University, graduating Phi Kappa Phi. When she isn't at school serving her students, she is serving through the church, scrolling Facebook far too much, reading books that are past due from the library, and writing poetry. Her first publication was published in the local newspaper when she was in kindergarten, a short poem about Christmas trees. You can contact her via e-mail at email@example.com.
By Tim Wilkins
In Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry,” the poem’s speaker depicts what often occurs with poetry in American high schools. The poem, written in 1988, begins by sharing what most writers would prefer their readers to do with their poems. Collins’ speaker wants readers to “hold it up to the light,” “walk inside,” “feel the walls for a light switch,” and—most recreationally—“waterski across the surface of a poem.” These breezy, informal acts invite the reader to unwind with a poem. Loosen up, he seems to say. The students, however, take a different approach:
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I find that little has changed in our classrooms with regard to poetry since these words were penned. In my experience, students might approach poetry with scorn or reluctance or great intrigue; whatever their interest level though, at some point most will don their investigator caps and begin to question the poem for its “deeper meaning.” I can almost see the dangling yellow bulb and bare steel table of their mind’s interrogation room.
Our students’ recognition that poetry offers a depth that most of our world passes over is certainly right. But if we lead them to believe that this is all poetry has to offer, then we withhold from them a world of enjoyment. I want to suggest that we as educators begin to present poetry as a pause, a pleasure, and a practice in creativity. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, we need all three of these in our lives. What a perfect time to rediscover the wonder of poetry!
Poetry as a Pause
Three years ago, I decided to start each of my Honors English classes with the reading of a poem. I have maintained this practice in my classroom to this day, and it has become a great way to come together as a group before we begin our learning for the day. As a class, we don’t study the poem, examine it for meaning or metaphor, or even look at the text together. I simply read it aloud, then we move on. I call it Paused for a Poem. Poetry, I tell my classes, is really a pause from the unceasing rhythm of life to grab at a moment, at a brief glimpse of life, and relish it. Even the lineation of verse draws the reader back into the poem, pausing after each phrase and returning again to the moment in question.
When I first introduced this practice to my students, I was worried they would find it hokey, childish, or simply a waste of time. And some probably do. But I can’t tell you how many times a student has connected with a particular poem, asked me afterward for more information about a poet, or made sure to remind me if I forgot to read one to begin our day. As I share poems with my students, I can see the tilt of the head or a focusing of their eyes that says, “I’m listening.” Sometimes there is even a whole-class exploratory discussion —a longing almost, to do something more with the poem of the day. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised by their responses.
When our school was shuttered amid this pandemic, one of the first questions I received from a student was, “Are we still going to have Pause for a Poem?” I have since started @pauseforapoem on Instagram to showcase the title, author, and audio reading of a daily poem for my students and for me. While we are apart, and in need of a pause from the isolation and distance, poetry lets us share together in a moment of verse -- to become, for a few seconds, a community looking out some window other than our own.
Poetry as Pleasure
Anyone who has ever written much poetry knows the work that goes into selecting the words, images, and punctuation that are just right for each situation and turn. Of course we can get out our dictionary of literary terms and lead students through an understanding of meter and scansion and lineation. But does being able to distinguish a trochee from a spondee really add to the students’ experience and understanding of a work? Don’t get me wrong, I love dissecting a poet’s labors as much as the next guy. But if our goal is to get students to pay attention to a poem and appreciate its depth and richness, I think focusing on these details is the wrong approach.
The two areas of focus that I have found to help students grasp and appreciate poetry in the classroom are: 1) working with punctuation and 2) self-selecting impactful portions. When trying to emphasize the importance of punctuation in poetry, have students stand in a circle and read a common poem aloud, skipping readers at each punctuation mark. Every comma, dash, or period means a switch in the student reading the work. This exercise helps them grasp enjambment and end-stop, and what each contributes to the meaning and clarity of the language. Another exercise to try is to have students self-select a 2-4 line portion of the poem in question that they “like best.” This gives them the freedom to evaluate the words and images as critics, and then to reflect on why it resonated with them. I always get the most quality feedback and reflection from students using this exercise. They often share that they could personally connect to a description, or the words flowed well together, or they “just liked” the image or language used. That’s the pleasure of poetry.
Poetry as Practice (in creativity)
The last focus or exercise I’ll share is what I refer to as style swap. This exercise gives students an opportunity to try out their own poetic hand, but with reduced intimidation. I select a model poem that uses some structure or language that can be easily re-applied to something the student is interested in or familiar with. For instance, Ted Kooser’s poem “Splitting an Order” is a wonderful model poem for this exercise. In the poem, Kooser uses participle (-ing) verbs to begin phrases that describe the many delicate motions of a person splitting a sandwich with a romantic partner. After we read, annotate, and discuss the poem, I have students select an everyday common action that they are intimately familiar with (putting on make-up, making a Tik-Tok, changing the oil, entering a tree stand, etc.) and describe it using a style similar to Kooser’s litany of participle verbs. The results can be impressive, inspiring,and even revealing, for both you and your students. Engaging in this activity provides students with an opportunity to write their own open-form, expressive poetry, and shows them that poetry can be as innocuous and approachable as one chooses to make it.
Below are some resources for applying the strategies I’ve mentioned. I hope you will turn to poetry in your personal life during this bizarre time of social distancing and voluntary isolation - go waterski across a poem perhaps. I also hope you consider ways to inject poetic experiences into your classroom for your students, to let them explore it without abusing it—teach them how to pause and appreciate a moment for all it has to show us.
Recommended collections of easy readable poems: Good Poems series collected by Garrison Keiller; A Treasury of Poems compiled by Sarah Stuart; Best Loved Poems of the American People collected by Hazel Felleman; Poetry 180 and 180 More, both compiled by Billy Collins.
Recommended poems for style swap exercise:
- Ted Kooser: “Splitting an Order” “So This Is Nebraska” “Abandoned Farmhouse”
- Walt Whitman: “I Hear America Singing”
- Naomi Shihab Nye: “Full Day” “Famous”
- Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays”
- Jane Kenyon: “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer”
Comment below any other poems/works you enjoy utilizing in your classrooms!
About the Author
Tim Wilkins teaches English at Abilene (KS) High School. He is currently in his tenth year as a Kansas educator. Besides exploring poetry, he spends his free time reading and being outdoors with his wife and son. Twitter: @considerthis_ Instagram: @pauseforapoem
By April Pameticky
I am a poet and a writer. It’s taken me years to take ownership of those words, in large part because I so often considered those activities somehow frivolous, self-indulgent, or superfluous. I saw them as ‘extra’ to my other roles: teacher, wife, mother.
But I find there is nothing ‘extra’ about engaging the world as a poet first; that it’s the lens by which I measure and experience everything. It’s how I reconcile injustice and how I make sense of the senseless. Poetry is how I find my way home, both spiritually and metaphorically. And it’s often how I reflect on my every day, ordinary life.
While I loosely studied poetry in college, my primary focus had always been fiction. It was only about ten years ago that I started exploring and studying poetry on my own. The irony, of course, is that as an English teacher, didn’t I always love poetry? The answer is No. More often than not, I believed that Poetry [capital P on purpose] was actually somehow lofty and above me. Poetry was for the ascetics and more ‘literary,’ not for me, who read trashy urban fantasy novels all summer long.
But while pregnant with my oldest daughter, I found myself nesting in unexpected ways, drawn to more creative expression, and reading in ways I had never bothered to before. It helped that some friends put more contemporary poetry in my hands.
Today, I take comfort and solace in poems:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do not go gentle into that good night –Dylan Thomas
Poetry reminds us of perspective, like in the lines from Rae Armantrout’s “Thing:”
We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles
and it is far
to "balanced reporting"
though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.
Poets respond to the world with humanity, giving word to our fear and unrest. Rattle maintains the series Poets Respond, and poet Francesca Bell touches on our collective anxiety in her poem “Love in the Time of Covid-19.” She writes
I held my hands steady
in the water’s reassuring scald,
trying and trying
to save you.
As teachers and educators, we have the opportunity to either spoil poetry for our students, or introduce them to something that will be their companion through life. My concern is that we often want to ‘unlock’ a poem, somehow divine its key, and then we expect our students to do the very same thing. We approach a poem as a Biology I student might a formaldehyde frog. I love how Elizabeth Alexander defines poetry with such concrete detail in “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe:”
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus.
While poetry is both a craft and an artform, and there are certainly ‘rules’ and ‘conventions’ that apply (as anyone who has ever had to coach students through their own poetry revision process can attest), poems are also this wonderful opportunity to live with ambiguity. To grieve that we are no longer in our classrooms, but to celebrate that we are still teachers, that we can provide comfort and care to our students. So as we enter April and National Poetry Month, I want to encourage my fellow educators to give your students an opportunity to really engage with poems.
The internet can be an amazing resource, even if an educator feels they don’t quite ‘get’ poetry. Take some direction from Dante di Stefano’s award-winning poem “Prompts (for High School Teachers Who Write Poetry” when he says
Write the uncounted hours you spent
fretting about the ones who cursed you out
for keeping order.
For those teaching remotely, the Dear Poet Project 2020 [Poetry.org] is an awesome opportunity to engage directly with poets. Students are encouraged to write letters after viewing the poets’ videos—two of my favorites are participating this year: Joy Harjo and Kwame Dawes. Poets read and discuss their works, and students can then respond.
For educators wanting to embrace their inner poet, here are a couple of prompts to consider, but don’t feel you must limit yourself! We at KATE would love to read what you come up with. I want to encourage you to embrace your inner poet and to not strive so much for perfection or that ‘A’ poem. Instead, respond to where you are each day. There are some prompts provided below, as well as some further resources for inspiration.
Over the course of history, various groups have challenged, banned, and burned texts out of fear and the desire to control the thoughts and beliefs of a populace. Dictatorial regimes such as Hitler's Nazi-controlled Germany used "bonfires [to] 'cleanse' the German spirit of the 'un-German' influence of communist, pacifist, and, above all, Jewish thought" (Merveldt 524). Modern religious fundamentalism seeks to control a populace either through fear and indoctrination like the ultra-conservative, nearly-literal witch hunt of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series when religious leaders of various Protestant denominations feared that the hit young adult book series would teach impressionable minds actual witchcraft. One of the most famous and still frequently taught banned books is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this paper the argument is made for the teaching of banned books by a case-analysis of Twain's text that considers the historical context, positive and negative aspects of the text, the harm of censorship, the value of free speech, and how frequently-challenged texts promote critical thinking for students.
Nathan G. Whitman, Derby High School
Nathan Whitman is an English teacher at Derby High School who has an MA in English, a BA in Secondary Education with an emphasis in English 6-12, and a BA in Creative Writing, as well as an endorsement in English to Speakers of Other Languages from Wichita State University. In addition to heading the school's GSA sponsor, he is also
a founder of the Voices of Kansas journal published by the Kansas Association of Teachers of English, a 2014 Horizon Award Winner, and a Kansas Exemplary Educators Network Member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Message from the Editor
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