Part I Connecting with Poetry: The Power of Personalized Learning
David Seelow, PhD
***This is the first of a 3-part blog on the importance of poetry as a form of communication in a world dominated by much less moving and resonant forms of communication.
Poetry represents a double paradox in formal education. Students read less and less, so poetry reading declines even more than previous decades. At the same time students listen to more and more music, whether Taylor Swift’s yearning lyrics or Nicki Minaj’s hip hop rhymes, and both these musical forms are poetic. Instructors can seize on this paradox and resolve it. The only thing I remember from 11th grade music was the teacher’s introduction of the poetry unit by playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” I still remember that class even though I have forgotten everything else from 4 years of high school English. In other words, paradox one, shows poetry is popular but the academic approach to teaching poetry sometimes suffers from lack of relevance. The academy is slow to change, but students are not.
Paradox 2. Poetry may not be read much, but poetry is, nonetheless, often written by students from middle school and on through college. Students may not share or publish their poetry, but they write it. Frequently, poetry becomes the outlet for difficult personal situations that young people do not feel comfortable talking about with others.
After not teaching Introduction to Literature for a decade I returned to teach the class this year (2023) at Siena College and discovered, to my surprise, students wanted to learn and experience more poetry. As a result of the above factors and decades of teaching experience I have identified six approaches for the effective teaching of poetry.
- Creative Writing through The Poetry Game
- Writing about Poetry
The first three approaches can be taught through one of the very best sites on the entire web, Favorite Poem Project.
Created by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, the project was launched in April 1988. Some 18,000 Americans responded to the initial call. The people ranged from elementary age children to septuagenarians, and from all walks of life (President Clinton included). Media crews traveled around the country asking people to identify their favorite poem, read the poem aloud and explain why the poem they chose meant so much to them. Videos were made of the readings and conversations then shared on the project website, which continues to be active and updated till today.
The project’s website articulates the project’s dual purpose:
Poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be heard in the reader’s voice—whether actually read aloud or in the inner voice of the imagination. The experience, in both ways, is bodily. As with conversation and song and many other uses of language, understanding is rooted in sound.
That principle is rooted in Robert Pinsky’s experience as a poet and a teacher, working with the melodies of meaning. He long ago found that if you ask students to read aloud and talk about a poem they love, something remarkable happens—a discernible change in their faces and voices that demonstrates their connection to the poem. The Favorite Poem Project grew out of that discovery.
The second purpose assumes what I have described above, many people regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity or any other demographic factor do love and appreciate poetry:
The Favorite Poem Project is also founded upon a second, more social belief: that, contrary to stereotype, many Americans do read poetry; that the audience for poetry is not limited to professors and college students; and that there are many people for whom particular poems have profound, personal meaning. The FPP began with a hunch that poetry has a vigorous presence in American life. The project seeks to document and encourage that presence, giving voice to the American audience for poetry.
Following these two guiding principles I give students two simultaneous assignments using the Favorite Poem website. I ask them to watch approximately ten of the short videos, whichever ten they feel drawn to. Next, I ask the students to share two of these videos, and what moved them about the videos, on a discussion forum (regardless of whether the course is online or not). This exercise shows students just how many different types of poems citizens like and how people connect to poems in a very personal and meaningful way. Students, in turn, really connect with some of the speakers in the videos. As a result of these two assignments, students learn how others appreciate poetry, hear everyday people read the poem aloud, and then, listen to the people discuss the poem in a meaningful way.
I introduce this exercise by showing one of the videos that I think the class will relate to (this will vary by class makeup and the student body where you teach). This semester, I started with a young man from South Boston, John Ulrich, who reads and discusses the short poem “We Real Cool” by African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Ulrich’s youth and working-class status establishes a certain credibility with students. Ulrich articulates how a white youth from predominately white South Boston connects with a poem about black youth from Harlem. Brooks’ brief lyric offers a cruel irony about inner city kids who define their coolness (substitute the latest youth vernacular for cool) as skipping school, drinking, running the streets, and hustling. The poem ends by declaring the “cool kids” brute confrontation with reality: We/Die soon.” Ulrich’s talk brings that message straight home to young students when he talks, in his strong Boston accent, about how many of his friends in high school died as teenagers from drug use, gang violence, and suicide. The pain in Ulrich’s voice is palpable, but he also shows how he has worked on community projects to help keep kids off the streets. It is a message of both tragedy and hope.
This past semester (Spring 2023) out of 58 students close to 70% identified the video on Langston Hughes’, “Minstrel Man” as one of their two favorites. I had talked about Hughes in the class, so this choice pleased me, and the fact there were very few African Americans in the class also had a positive note, showing the students’ openness to diverse voices. Most students really did not know much about minstrels and the racist society Hughes was describing, but they identified both with the poem message and its reader Pov Chin, a young college student from Cambodia (born in Thailand). Here a Buddhist Southeast Asian student connects with an African American poet from the early twentieth century around the defense mechanism of presenting a mask or happy face to others in public while suffering a deep inner pain in private (the minstrel dancing to entertain a racist white audience responsible for the minstrel’s psychological pain).
Pov identifies fully with the pain of slavery and racism. Her parents left Cambodia as Pol Pot inflicted genocide in Cambodia. Her parents fled, while witnessing the murder of family members before miraculously crossing the border into Thailand where Pov was born in a refugee camp. One can never get over such trauma and the discrepancy between the public face of happiness and the private pain of extreme trauma pain with its tragic legacy of racism, both here and abroad, speaks strongly to Pov and, I learned, also to today’s students whose inner worlds we rarely see revealed.
***If you are interested in learning about the power of games, comics/graphic storytelling in the classroom considering ordering or borrowing one of my recent books or contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org for consulting projects, workshops or other engagements.
Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom Practical Strategies for Grades 6-12 (edited collection with introduction by James Paul Gee and afterword by Justin Reich)
Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (edited collection, K-12 and higher ed)