The Secret to Teaching Poetry: Focusing on Feelings

Can You Keep a Secret While I’m a firm believer that poetry should be read throughout the year, I fear I tend to wait until April, when it’s National Poetry month, to write about it—just as many a teacher waits until then to dust off the poetry books. This is a shame, if not a crime, as is the fact that too many Common Core interpretations have all but squeezed poetry out of the curriculum or relegated it to a handful of lessons to tick off Reading Literature Standards 4 and 5.

Why this is so, I can’t say for sure–though for me it’s related to the schools where I work doing less poetry. But I’ve wondered whether the reason why poetry is so absent from the Common Core has to do with the fact that, perhaps more than any other genre, poems ask, even beg, to be felt. Poets want us to feel their words in a way that seems almost antithetical to those Common Core close reading approaches that say that the meaning of the text resides, not in a reader’s heart or mind, by within the four corners of the text. Mary Oliver, for instance, talks about the pleasure readers feel when they “enter the rhythmic pattern of a poem:”

“It takes no more than two or three lines for rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader.”

And Dylan Thomas’s definition of poetry goes straight to feelings as well:

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

My experience in classrooms, however, is that if I begin by asking students what a poem is, I get a list of terms of the things poems can have—stanzas, rhyme schemes, similes, metaphors; I’m sure you know all the culprits. But if we begin instead by reading poems Seeing the Blue Betweenwith the question “What does a poem do for a reader?” in mind, we get closer to Dylan Thomas as students start seeing that poems can make us smile or feel sad or see ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Once kids start feeling poems this way, it’s often fun to bring in quotes by poets like Dylan Thomas, which can affirm what students are experiencing and offer new ways of thinking about how a poem affects them—as in, considering which poems make your toe nails twinkle. For younger students I love using quotes from Seeing the Blue Betweenwhich pairs poems with letters of advice to young poets and readers of poetry by 32 renowned children’s poet. And for older students, I have a stash of quotes, such as the ones below:

“What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? . . . When you really feel it, a new part of you happens or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.”  James Dickey

“Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.”  Charles Simic

“We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his life, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.” Amy Lowell

Then and only then do I move from exploring what a poem does for a reader to how it manages to do that. And one of my favorite ways of helping students—and teachers—see how poems work their magic on readers is by asking students to think about how a poem is different than a greeting card, such as this birthday card for a mom: Mom Birthday Card And this poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer:The Way My Mother Walker Judith Ortiz Cofer Many students can readily see that the poem on the card is broader and more general—even, we might say, generic—and it more or less hits one emotional note. Cofer’s poem, on the other hand, is highly specific. She writes about a particular mother who we can picture and hear and who is much more complicated than the every mom of the card. Because Cofer’s mother is so complicated, she and the poem seem more real to me than the ‘always’ mom of the card. And while my mom never wore an amulet or lived in a second-floor walk-up, the poem gets me thinking about all the complicated and confusing messages she sent me through the way she put on her lipstick or clutched my white-gloved hand in hers as we hurried through Grand Central Station.

In this way the poem does exactly for me what Simic says poetry does. I see myself in the specifics of Cofer’s poem, despite the fact that all those specifics are quite foreign to me. And this is the magic of poetry—and, I think, of all literature: the more specific and particular it is, the more it taps into universals that enrich, deepen and move us.

The poem, though, is harder to understand than the card, which is why some students say initially say that they like the card better. But focusing on feelings can help us here, too. As a strategy for accessing poems that feel hard, we can ask students to think about what feeling the poem evokes for them—even if they’re not sure why—and to locate lines where they think they feel it. This also works as the kind of rich task I wrote about the other week, as different Anchorstudents pick up whiffs of different feelings arising from different lines. In this poem, for instance, many students pick up fear, which they feel in various lines, though some also feel safety or relief in the last few lines or a sense of the daughter’s pride in the line about the “gypsy queen.”

Anchoring themselves in the poem through these lines, students can then begin to think how these lines and feelings are connected with others by wrestling with the sort of open-ended questions I shared in January. This will ultimately allow them to interpret the poem and then—and only then—to hit Reading Standards 4 and 5. Or put another way, before students can analyze how a poet’s specific choice of words, structure and figurative language shape meaning, they have to feel the affects of those choices on themselves as readers first.

Of course the words ‘feel’, ‘feelings’ and ‘pleasure’ are nowhere to be found in the  Standards. But if we hold on to what the Standards do say—that they “define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”—it seems we’re in the all clear. Or we could just keep it our little secret to share with our colleagues and friends.

Sharing Secrets

A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE

Cornucopia

Once again I couldn’t quite get this out before the turkey was done. But as I did last year, this Thanksgiving weekend I’d like to share some inspiring words and ideas from NCTE as a way of giving thanks to all the educators out there whom I consider to be part of my professional leaning community, especially all you blog readers who, week after week, renew my faith in teachers. The theme of this year’s convention was (Re)Inventing the Future of English, and as happened last year, I detected what seemed to me to be a pattern in the sessions I attended: that the future we’re in the process of reinventing is one of “wholeness and possibility,” not data points and accountability, where the act of teaching children entails “being passionate together.”

Opal School InvitationThe words quoted above were spoken by Susan Mackey of the Opal School in Portland, Oregon, in a session on “Playful Literacy” that I participated in, along with three of Susan’s colleague from Opal, Mary Gage Davis, Levia Friedman and Kerry Salazar. The session was filled with stories (more of which can be found on their blog) about children and teachers who were given the time, the space and, most critically, the trust to follow their curiosity, seek connections and wonder, imagine and dream, knowing that whatever came out of that time would ultimately be more lasting and meaningful than anything that was rushed.

This included the story of a fifth grade boy whose class had just returned from a trip to a rock and ropes challenge course. Back at school his teacher Levia had set out some materials, including some slabs of clay, which she invited the students to use to explore their feelings about their adventure before they turned to writing. And this particular boy discovered that if he put his finger in the slab of clay and then pulled it out quickly, it would make a popping noise, which, delightfully to some classmates, sounded just like fart. He also discovered that the sound became louder if he added some slip to the clay, and soon a whole corner of the room was consumed with creating a chorus of farts.

Focus Daniel GolemanMost of us—including me—would be tempted to see this as a case of a disruptive student leading others to be off task, which, in turn, could lead Levia to losing control of the room. But the gift that Opal teachers give their students—and those of us willing, as Susan said, to trust the process and embrace uncertainty—is the belief that that play was actually important. Not only does it support students becoming authors of their own learning, it puts them into what Daniel Goleman calls in his great book Focus a state of open awareness, which as he describes below, is critical for developing new ideas:

“The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s ‘full catastrophe’—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive. In the tumult of our daily distractions and to-do lists, innovation dead-ends; in open time it flourish . . . Open time lets the creative spirit flourish; tight schedules kill it.”

In this case, rather than stopping the silliness and having students get down to work, Levia let it run its course. And her faith that that time was important was affirmed when, after his slab of clay fell apart from too much water and fart pops, the same student created this:

Opal School Clay Sculpture2Once—and only once that was done—was he ready to pick up a pencil and his writer’s notebook and write this amazing entry: “It’s like a hollow feeling when you fall down. You fall into this pit and you start to swing. You’re in a hole, it’s slippery inside and you have no idea what’s going on. My body shut itself down and I close my eyes and I thought it was dreaming. I was super happy after I did it. You have to face you fears.”

I believe that something was getting processed in this student’s mind as he played. Feelings and ideas were coalescing into powerful images and words, just as his fear transformed into triumph after that incredible fall. And none of that would have happened, I suspect, if he’d been given an onslaught of worksheets and graphic organizers and told to write down, say, some sensory details in boxes labeled ‘sounds’ ‘tastes’ and ‘feel’. Instead Levia gave him the time, space and trust to “encounter the unexpected,” which is a phrase Tom Romano, author of the new book Fearless Writing, shared in a packed-to-the-gills session I attended called “Keeping Poetry Central to Our Core.”

Fearless WritingChaired by the ever-gracious Maureen Barbieri, the session also included Georgia Heard and Linda Rief who, along with Tom, reminded the audience again and again that reading and writing aren’t just skills we need to master to secure a place in college or a job but the means by which we can, in Tom’s words, bring “ourselves into realization.”

Tom also shared his attempt to rewrite the Common Core’s Production and Distribution of Writing standards in a more meaningful and gutsy way. Rather than requiring students to “produce clear, coherent writing; develop and strengthen writing; and use technology to produce and publish writing,” he urged us instead to first invite students to:

“Write expansively, trusting the language in them, letting it gush, leading them to surprise and insights that enables them to craft writing of substance, vision and voice.”

Georgia Heard pushed back as well on the reading standards, suggesting that before we ask students to analyze the craft, structure and meaning of a poem as the Common Core requires, we need to invite them to connect to poetry “by guiding them toward finding themselves and their lives inside the poem.” She showed what this could look like with a group of young readers who, in a month’s time, came to truly understand what Robert Frost meant when he said that “poetry provides the one permissible way to say one thing and mean another.” And she shared this quote by the theologian and writer Matthew Fox, which I’m, in turn, sharing with every teacher I work with:

“Knowledge that is not passed through the heart

is dangerous.”

Finally, teacher and author Linda Rief shared how she set up her class of eighth graders to do precisely what Georgia recommended: to find themselves inside a poem. She brought out every anthology and collection of poems that she had in her classroom and invited her students Awakening the Heart 2to browse through and read some in order to find poems “that speak to your heart.” Once they found one, Linda asked them to write out the poem in the their own hand, forming each word themselves, then illustrate the poem, write a response about why you chose it, and research the poet to find out what he might have to say about reading and writing.

This led students to read more poems than they ever had before and to spend more time with those that spoke to them. One girl, for instance, loved the poem “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye, though she couldn’t quite say why. Something about the images and language struck a chord in her, and in order to understand that better, she went back to the poem again and again, reading it carefully and closely and, as she put it in her response “sleeping on her confusion,” until she discovered something about both herself and the poem.

Inspired by Georgia’s idea of heart maps, Linda’s students eventually created heart books: collections of hand-written, illustrated poems that spoke to their hearts, accompanied by their responses to the poems and the poets thoughts on reading and writing. These books were similar to ones I saw in another session, though that will have to wait for another post, as this one has gotten long. But I hope these words and ideas have awakened something in your own heart, as they did for me, and that perhaps in the words of the Opal School, you’ve begun to “imagine possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined before.”

Imagine Mosaic

Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

Like the words fiction and nonfiction, the word poetry sometimes seems too broad and general to contain all the varied approaches, purposes and styles of poems. And when helping teachers design units on poetry, I usually recommend narrowing the focus down to a few different kinds—which is also a way to ensure we’re not teaching the same thing grade after grade.

By kinds, though, I don’t mean forms, such as cinquains, limericks or even haiku because, unless they’re grounded in the kind of enduring understanding I explored last week, we risk sending the out the message to students that form is more important than content—that it doesn’t matter if your poem is nonsensical or hackneyed so long as it adheres to the form.

Whether it’s the five prescribed lines of a cinquain or the dictates of the five-paragraph essay, this emphasis on form can lead students to either reduce or inflate whatever it is they might want to say in order to fit the form.  Prescribing a pre-determined form also deprives students of engaging in one of the most vital, challenging but necessary aspects of writing: discovering a form that ‘informs’ your content and supports your meaning. (To see a poet who found a form that helped her express her content in a powerful way, check out Amy  VanDerwater‘s villanelle “V is for Vulture“.)

Instead of that, what I mean by ‘kinds’ are poems that seem to have a similar purpose, intention or way of working, such as poems that are built around a central metaphor, like the ones I shared two weeks ago, or poems that describe an object or phenomena in fresh, surprising language, such as “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard or almost anything in Valerie Worth‘s wonderful collection all the small poems and fourteen more

Over the years, depending on the grade, I’ve helped teachers gather different kinds of poems to use for either whole class studies or for learning centers or stations. We’ve gathered poems, for instance, that address social issues, such as “To the Pay Toilet” by Marge Piercy or “Coin Drive” by Janet Wong; and poems that explore identity, such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “I Am What I Am” by Rosario Morales. We’ve even collected poems about poetry, such as the Billy Collins poem I shared the other week and Naomi Shihab Nye‘s wonderful “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” But perhaps my favorite kind to study with students in grade five and up is what I like to call ‘small moment poems.’

Like their cousins, small moment stories, small moment poems zoom into an often autobiographical moment, but without the trajectory of beginning, middle and end or the trappings of problem and solution. They’re the kind of poems poet Charles Simic means when he says, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” And I love sharing and studying them with older students precisely because of this. For in showing us our own lives in someone else’s moment, small moment poems invite us into one of the great wonders of literature: the way that the particulars of a story or poem can give way to a more universal expression of the human condition, which is another way of saying a theme.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the poem “Taking Things Apart” from Ralph Fletcher‘s book Moving Day:

From Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Fletcher. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Used by permission.


As readers, we may never have moved to Ohio or had a ping pong table, let alone seen it dismantled, yet it’s the particulars of the poem that lets us feel the ache of being severed from possessions and places we love. That idea is conveyed through the things themselves—through the legless table and the beds left in pieces. And in this way the poem is both about this particular boy facing this particular move and the way we can all feel unmoored and anxious when our lives are taking such turns—as if our selves can be disassembled as easily as shelves.

Key to My Heart © Wendy Starling. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.wendystarling.com

By focusing on small moment poems, we can help students engage in thinking about what larger, invisible universal ideas the poet might be exploring and what aspects of the human condition their own small moments might speak to. As readers, students often do this through connections. But because small moment poems compress and distill a single experience in an accessible way, students are often able to zoom into the feelings underneath the poem, rather than get stuck on the literal level (making connections, say, to ping pong tables or cousins who live in Ohio). This also makes small moment poems great tools for helping students see the difference between a meaningful and what I sometimes call a “that’s nice, but” connection. The former unlocks the heart of the poem, usually via emotions, while the latter is just something the reader remembers that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths without additional thinking.

Many wonderful small moment poems can be found in the following collections. Take a look and reconnect with yourself in someone else’s moment (just choose carefully for classroom use as some of the poems are not appropriate for younger students):

Poetry Anthologies Containing Some Small Moment Poems: Moving Day by Ralph FletcherThe Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Workedited by Paul JaneczkoWhat Have You Lost?, edited by Naomi Shihab NyeTime You Let Me Inalso edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry 180edited by Billy CollinsGood Poemsedited by Garrison Keillor.