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.)