Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Defeating the Poetry Monster

In honor of National Poetry Month, we present some valuable tips for introducing poetry to students from Michele Dunaway, who teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, when she's not writing best-selling romance novels.

Today I'm going to tackle a topic that terrifies most teachers: poetry.

Teaching poetry can often be equated with pulling teeth. While writing poetry is often met with enthusiasm, the moment you announce to the class that they are going to read and interpret a poem, eyes begin to glaze over and fidgeting begins. That's because kids have learned that reading poetry is hard work. There's that pesky symbolism where one thing can mean another. There are multiple layers of meaning. Figurative language. Worse, by middle and high school the poems have gotten much more difficult to understand. It's no longer fun and quick Shel Silverstein verses but longer, deeper poems like those by Robert Frost. A great many kids see the title "Birches" and immediately tune out, which is a shame since Frost is fabulous.

That's not to say that some teachers don't inspire greatness like Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets' Society. However, the truth is that many kids have unfortunately learned that poetry simply sucks. They think that only the smart kids understand poetry (leaving the remaining 90 percent feeling like dunces). I always tell my students that poetry is the highest cerebral skill. I also point out that because poets want you to think, they don't make it easy. Yet I always reinforce that everyone can read poetry like a pro, not just the brainiacs.

There is a way for kids to begin to unlock a poem's meaning and to, in turn, enjoy poetry. The first step is to realize that kids apply their own interpretation and bias to the reading process, as I pointed out in "Why Literary Analysis is Subjective." Readers come to a piece of literature with their own preconceived notions. It is important to validate these notions, even if they are wrong. Unlocking a poem is often similar to putting together a puzzle. The meaning only becomes clear once the entire picture is visible. Yet unlike a puzzle, where the final product is under construction, in poetry the reader must perform the opposite process. To understand the poem, he must instead deconstruct it. The reader must analyze the poem and study its structure, tone, figurative language, rhyme (if any), etc. to derive theme and meaning.

Thus one of the first things a teacher must do is choose poems to which students can relate, as I pointed out in "Choosing Literature in an Age of Distraction." To me, as an educator, this is the area in which you must pick poems you love and understand personally, and not because you cheated and looked on Spark Notes or because the poems are considered classics.

Let me give you a personal example. Whether I teach eighth graders or juniors, I like to start my classes' poetry immersion with Stephen Crane, one of my favorite poets. I begin with "Think as I Think" and "The Wayfarer." Using overheads, I walk the students through these two poems, pointing out structure, tone, and figurative language. I have them mark up their own copy of the poems — they take notes as I decipher the metaphors and symbolism and such. Since both of the poems are short and quick, the kids hang in there with me. The poems are also pretty simple — they don't have any really difficult words and are pretty easy to understand. Since Stephen Crane didn't believe in morals (he thought man had no control over his fate), I am also able to debunk that long-held standard which kids have been wrongly taught — that the theme of a poem must always have a moral message.  One of the reasons I like Crane is that his themes are timeless. "The Wayfarer" reveals that when telling the truth is too difficult, most choose to lie. Even more than 100 years later, my students can relate to Crane's messages.

After I've guided them through the first two poems, I let them loose on independent practice. Next I put them in groups and hand them Crane's "The Trees in the Garden Rained Flowers." This poem is about some kids who try to gather as many flowers as they can after a rainstorm knocks blossoms off tree limbs. My students figure out the story part of the poem pretty quickly, and then I toss out the ringer.  I tell them there are six symbols in the poem and I want them to find them and figure out what they mean, and then after that to come up with the theme. The poem, which points out how those who are stronger often get more money and power than those who are weaker, again is relatable to their current lives. To make things really fun, I throw hard candy up into the air. Amazingly, some get a lot and others get none. When I refuse to spread the wealth evenly, the entire poem clicks together and they get it. Suddenly poetry is fun again.

So, in order to get successful readers, I start by modeling and then by easing them into independent work. I show them that poems can be interesting and relatable. Your first forays into reading poetry are so important — you are fighting against that poems suck mentality. So choose wisely. For juniors about to go to college, I like to use Frost's "The Road Not Taken," to which they can easily relate, as looming in their future is what to do post high school.

Choosing the right poems also means maintaining a delicate balance — you don't want to dumb them down, but you don't want to go over their heads either. After they get more familiar with deciphering, I give them Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," and Stephen Crane's "War is Kind." Depending on the grade level I am teaching I have used some of the works by E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, etc. When doing poetry, I'm a firm believer in the classics. In fact, when I taught junior honors we even worked our way through T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (which I first read in high school) and then our reward was his "Macavity" and watching the song clips from the musical "Cats."

Once kids learn they can read poetry and after they get pretty fluent, then is the time for assessment. After all, the state will give them a poem they've never seen before and ask questions. I actually use Crane's "The Seer" as an assessment piece along with Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death." Crane's poem is an earlier assessment; Dickinson's is near the end of the unit. I've found that if they can do these, they can usually tackle the ones one that state assessment throws at them. I also do one other poetry assessment, which is where they analyze a song from start to finish. I'll share that with you next article.

There are many fabulous poems out there, so don't be afraid to share your own love and passion. In order to enjoy reading poetry, students have to be shown that poetry isn't just for geeks with no social life. It's for everyone. For after all, reading poetry is like getting a present. There should be as much joy and anticipation in the unwrapping the present as in the final reveal of the gift itself.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

Michele Dunaway explains why literary analysis depends on one's perspective.
To get students excited about books, choosing the right literature to read is key.
Reading What You Want
Michele continues her discussion about getting students excited about books.