Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Questions from a high school English teacher

John Gallaher received the below questions in an email from a high school English and writing teacher. She wrote that middle 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)." Yep, pretty much. So how do you teach poetry? My answers to her questions are below (emphases added since some readers seemed to think these were John's answers; they are mine).

1. What do you think are the most essential aspects of poetry that teachers should ensure young students are taught and made aware of?

Students should be taught to approach poetry the same way they approach other arts, such as music and visual art. In other words, they shouldn't feel pressure to immediately explain the work back to themselves or to their teacher. They should be taught to appreciate it before they are asked to analyze it. The usual elements of poetry that are used as tools of analysis can be invoked to teach appreciation (metaphor, voice/tone, meter and rhyme, and so on); understanding will come later. It might be helpful to ask students to describe a poem rather than explain it.

2. What do you think is the greatest misconception about poetry and how can educators help to dismantle these misconceptions?

The greatest misconception is that all poems are boring. One way to dismantle this might be to teach more contemporary works first, which are often easier to relate to. More advanced classes can tackle stuff like Chaucer.

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?

English teachers don't seem as troubled about teaching fiction when they don't write fiction. Look at poetry more like novels or short stories -- something you can appreciate without doing yourself.

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.

My advice would be to expose students to a wide variety of work, from the very direct to the conceptual, short poems, long poems, funny poems, serious poems, old poems, new poems. Beginner students often have a narrow conception of what poetry is, and dislike that conception, but will eventually find the kind of poetry that speaks to them.

Whatever the style, a good starting point is to look for poems that fall somewhere in the middle of the language vs. meaning scale. We get meaning through language in poetry, obviously, but the easiest entry point is often poems that have some definite ideas you can talk about as well as compelling or inventive uses of language. Explore out from there.

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?

Just admit that there are poems you like that you don't understand. Say things like, "I love this line, but I don't know what it means." Or offer interpretations, but don't shut the poem down by claiming there is only one interpretation. Talk about the difficulty/impossibility of paraphrasing poetry -- there is no "other" poem, the real meaning. The poem is the meaning.

6. Open-- any extra comments you may want to add or share.

Anybody else have thoughts on teaching poetry in high school?

UPDATE: I received a note from Marlee Stempleman, the teacher who originally posed these questions: "I'm working on a project now that includes compiling student poetry from Title 1/low-income schools, and includes a reference section for educators where poets speak to questions like the ones you answered. If you have any idea about how to best get the word out about it and get some poets to respond, please let me know." They are accepting student submissions here: EdWeb. Please help Marlee spread the word if you can!

UPDATE 2: You have to join EdWeb to submit work, but it is free. If you'd like to send submissions to Marlee directly, contact me and I'll put you in touch with her. (My email address is on my profile page.)


  1. i agree with these things. the one thing i would change is, instead of "appreciate", i would say, "enjoy". i think "appreciate" sounds a little too grudging, like when people talk about "tolerance".

  2. You say:

    "The greatest misconception is that all poems are boring. One way to dismantle this might be to teach more contemporary works first, which are often easier to relate to. More advanced classes can tackle stuff like Chaucer."

    Yeah, that's a big one, and I agree with your fix. I think we do no one any good by teaching literature chronologically. The reverse would do a lot for "appreciation," I think.

    wv: inglyboi


  3. I think you have to find a way to get students to look at a poem and try to learn something from it, instead of immediately making a value judgment. Because a lot of the time the snap judgment will be "I don't like it." So "appreciate," to me, means that you get something out of it even if you don't technically enjoy it, and the goal would be for students to appreciate most of the poetry you show them, and actually enjoy a decent chunk of it.

  4. John, yes, I didn't like reading these epic classics in high school and I actually did like to write and read poetry, so imagine how the kids who weren't so inclined felt.

  5. I'd say getting them writing their own poetry breaks the gap between arm's-length "appreciation" and involvement, which is what you're really after. You can look out the window and see some people playing soccer, but you won't quite appreciate it unless you go outside and join the game.

  6. The best English teacher I had in high school had us get in groups and write sestinas after reading Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina." I freaking hate sestinas, but it was a good exercise.

  7. I think it's important to have them really criticize poems by esteemed writers. The biggest problem I run up against is students who think that all published poetry is "finished" or has "the right answer." I like to get them to explain what they consider to be bad choices in very good poems. "I see what he was trying to do, but it didn't work for me, and I would maybe have done this instead." That can be powerful for young people, and it makes the texts more engaging and relatable.

  8. @diyachaudhrui: That's interesting, but I'd probably save it for more advanced classes. I'm wary of empowering students to the point where they think they have nothing to learn. :)

  9. I agree with much of what you wrote here especially on dropping Chaucer. My view would be that the syllabus offered should start with the freshest and most relevant poetry. Maybe even begin with a song that can be read as a poem (Shane McGowan of The Pogues fame is a good example of a poet songwriter). Rather than start in the past they should maybe look for good contemporary work. In Ireland they already put Seamus Heaney on the syllabus and much of his work is very accessible.
    Also linking poetry to other subjects is a winning formula. I don't think an Irish person can read "Easter 1916" by Yeats and not be affected by what he wrote and by the historical context of the work.
    Finally schools should not be afraid of popular poems. If a poem is suddenly hip because it appeared in a film (think of say Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" that appeared in "In Her Shoes").
    Basically poetry needs a bit of marketing, there is no point in putting children off it for life.

  10. something you might do along those lines is just make the kids aware that even in their own time, no author was universally esteemed. show them some criticism of a canonical author by another canonical author. that way they'll feel less like these authors are on a pedestal, that they're *supposed* to like them.

  11. who reads chaucer in high school anyway? i didn't get to him until i was an english major.

  12. Here's my number 2:

    2. What do you think is the greatest misconception about poetry and how can educators help to dismantle these misconceptions?

    The biggest single misconception I think that there is is that people often think and teach poetry as if it’s always communicating a lesson. This misconception tends to reduce the possibilities of poetry down to things that a lot of students no longer trust. A close reading of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” reveals a much different poem than the one people keep wanting to make it.

    I prefer to think of poetry as “Language Art.” That helps to separate it from “communication” and “argument.” Poetry isn’t one thing. And there are poems that one can address as communicating a lesson. It’s just that that is not always the case.

    Also, teachers, because they were taught to think there’s an answer (a single, unitary answer) to the poem, are made very nervous by poems that are not supplied to them with already made lesson plans. If poetry were able to be encountered outside of “the answer,” then teachers might feel more confidence in using contemporary poetry.

    I would suggest strongly Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s new book on poetics, and specifically, Stephen Burt’s essay on “difficult” poetry. A similar essay from Burt can be found in his recent collection Close Calls with Nonsense. That could be a very helpful way to begin to think of teaching poetry in a more exploratory, less thesis-driven, way.

  13. Yep, I read Chaucer in high school. Also Dante, Beowulf, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, the Iliad, plenty of Shakespeare (which wasn't taught well) ... feel like more than half of what we read was multiple centuries old.

  14. Thanks, John, I like that answer.

  15. I had the "The Canterbury Tales", it was horrible. We had loads of Shakespeare's sonnets too but I loved them.

  16. weird high school. i don't think we read anything older than shakespeare.

  17. Not even The Iliad? I don't think that's unusual.

  18. oh, maybe the odyssey. not that i read it myself.

  19. Oh, yeah, I think we read the Odyssey first. then The Iliad.

  20. A good resource for that teacher might be teachers and writers:

  21. I pretty much wrote my first book with disaffected younger readers in mind, but I think most high school teachers aren't teaching anything contemporary. Which is a shame, because I think high school kids would love a little Matthea Harvey or a little Hoops or even Gluck. However, some old stuff - like Basho - in the right translation, reads incredibly modern.
    I learned Chaucer in Modern Euro History class, where the teacher explained the dirty jokes and the language. I think that's a better place for it than English.

  22. I agree with pretty much everything everyone has said here.

    Most of the poetry I remember reading in class in high school or junior high (and there wasn't much of it) was modern, 20th century: I remember bits of W.C. Williams, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ray Durem, in particular.

    It was after a teacher showed me some poems by Carl Sandburg, when I was 14, that I started (later that day or later the same week) writing poems.

    During high school I did read quite a bit of earlier poetry, on my own, checking out anthologies from the public library, etc. One weekend during the summer on the north shore of Lake Superior with the Selected (or Collected) Poems of Yeats.

    In high school we had quite a bit of flexibility in how we met the basic English requirements, which courses to take, which teachers, etc. To meet the literature requirement, I took a class on short stories, so I wouldn't have to endure "analyzing" poetry.

    I guess I would tend to use mostly modern poets, since roughly 1900, though I wouldn't be rigid about that, and I think it's more important for a poem to have a modern feel than to be from a modern time period as such. I'm sure, for instance, that if I'd encountered some of the longer "prophetic" poems of William Blake, for example, when I was in high school, they would have just blown me away.

    An early poetry teacher of mine (this was one summer during high school, but the class took place outside of school) said once that when you read a poem out loud you should read "mouth speed," not "eye speed" -- read the speed that your mouth wants to say the words, not the speed your eye reads the page, because our eyes tend to read faster than our voices can keep up with. I found this useful and effective advice. I might be a useful way to present it to younger readers when they take a chance with reading poems out loud.

  23. Hey Elisa, that link just takes you to the EdWeb front page, and I can't seem to find a way to search the site without joining it. Does Marlee have a more specific link? I'm about to start working with a fourth grade class and would love to get them to contribute to the project!

  24. Oh! I'll write to her and see what I can find. Thanks for calling my attention to that!

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. I am the English teacher who wrote with the questions. My name is Marlee Stempleman. If any of you would be willing to answer my questions please feel free to do so. I would appreciate it greatly!
    Also, I am currently trying to gather poems from students across the country for an upcoming publication. If you know of any high school teachers at low-income/Title 1/high-risk schools, please encourage them to send their students' poems to me via email. We have three themes we are working with: “I remember…” (the poetic form for the “I remember” theme is free verse, 10 lines minimum), 6 word memoir, and free verse (10 lines minimum, any topic/theme). My goal is to collect the poems no later than Dec. 1, 2010. If you would like additional information about the project, I will happily email you the documents outlining the specifics.

    My email is:

    Thanks again poets and writers for all that you do!

  27. Clearly, I had one of the weirdest senior English high school experiences ever, but we didn't read anything BUT poetry my senior year. Our teacher also taught according to the Socratic method, which none of us understood. He also played the Devil's Advocate, and then would get mad when people would studiously take notes on his obviously facetious interpretations. He was trying to get us to really think, and to be brave, but he hadn't exactly explained that. We just thought he was terrifying.

    One of our first assignments was to write a five-page paper on the sexual sybolism in WCW's poem "This is Just to Say." Then he gave us all Fs because there is no sexual symbolism in that poem and you should't read into things just because someone else suggests it.

    Word verification: lutal. Of or pertaining to a lute?

  28. OMG. Your HS English class sounds like a very special episode of a TV series!

  29. My dream is to be that teacher, but without the angry bits. And maybe the Fs. That might be a little much.

    WV: uncedges

    The edges of the U of N. Carolina?

  30. That WV sounds like something in a "lost" Thomas Hardy novel. The Uncedges of Beresford. Has possibilities, I think.

    The WV for this comment is "prioneat." Um... what you have when you cook what you've caught after you've gone fishing for prions: a prioneat.


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