Teaching Strategies



I teach poetry for Larry, who claims to "hate the stuff" but writes wonderful parodies of Whitman, Hughes, and Frost. I teach poetry for Omatie, who didn't know that poetry didn't have to rhyme or that poetry can be about subjects other than love or death. I teach poetry for Stephanie, who does not believe that one person can make a difference in this world. But mostly, I teach poetry for a very selfish reason: I love it. I love the way the words feel in my mouth when I read a poem to my students; the sound of it in my ears and the silence in the room; the sight of lines and white space and faces lost in thought; and the immeasurable joy of sharing a moment of truth with an unseen and unknown person and 30 amazed and astonished teenagers.

I first have students bring all of their preconceived notions to the table. I ask them to take five minutes to respond to the following journal prompts:

1. Poetry is . . .
2. The subject(s) or theme(s) of poetry is . . .
3. I think poetry . . .
4. I wish poetry . . .

We then create a list of some of the responses, which, in and of itself, stimulates a lively discussion on their conflicting views.

This year I am using Gary Soto's A FIRE IN MY HAND as the basic text for my ninth graders. Soto's book is a volume of 23 poems with an introduction from Soto about how he came to poetry and his poetics and a question-and-answer section at the end. In between, Soto gives a line or two of explanation or commentary with each poem that will help focus our initial discussion about the poems.

Also new to my freshmen this year will be Willa Cather's MY ANTONIA. I intend to team this novel with poems from the anthology UNSETTLING AMERICA (UNSETTLING AMERICA: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MULTICULTURAL POETRY. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan, eds. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, 406 pages) such as Mora's "Immigration," Hamod's "Dying With the Wrong Name," and Lisella's "Song of the Third Generation." Though a few are immigrants, most of my students have very limited experiences. I intend to both expand the horizon of my students and make the world a smaller, more familiar place for them.


A perverse and contrary art, poetry calls for a no-less-than-loving (obsessive even) scrutiny of words. These are tasted, stroked, tested for tensile strength, translucency, buoyancy. At the point at which all this engineering transcends its material and subject matter, the poem is born: ethereal but not airy, wise but not preachy, surprising and yet slipping into the spot in your heart you hardly knew you had prepared for it.

And how does one prepare students for poetry? Quantity is helpful. An assortment of poetic styles, subjects, sizes, forms, and sensibilities welcomes newcomers and helps them find a favorite corner in this foreign land. Attitude is important, too ... enthusiasm, certainly, but also reverence, puzzlement, curiosity ... each new poem reduces the reader to beginner. Good! I think it also helps to never "have the answer." I compare the effect of the poem to the effect of turning on a lonely road and slapping into the setting sun, or watching an athlete sail impossibly through the air: even before understanding or ownership, which may never come, a joy in aptness, rareness, and grace.


I try to remember how it felt to be taught poetry when I was an adolescent. How often I felt stupid or frustrated when I'd been moved by the music or imagery of a poem only to be condemned for not "getting it." How I resented those teachers who turned studying poetry into a parlor game called "Find the Symbolism," or presented poems as intricate Chinese boxes: If you knew the trick, you could open them; otherwise, you were lost.

I remember secretly suspecting that those teachers somehow savored being in the privileged position of always being the one in the room who knew the trick. This reminds me not to hide from my students the truth that some poems, even after many readings, still bewilder me.

And then I remember those teachers who made me want to read and write poetry: Mr. Meyers in eighth grade, reading aloud, his whole body engaged in the sheer physical pleasure of the sound and shape of a poem; Ms. Papa, sophomore year, who believed so passionately that poetry could change the quality of a person's life that it did: it changed mine.

I don't remember where or when I learned the definitions of assonance or alliteration, but I have never forgotten where I learned what it means to care deeply for this art. I try to let that memory be my guide in how I teach poetry.


I teach kids to write poetry because there are few things as empowering as the feeling of "Yeah, I said that!" on the occasion of having written something original and remarkable. We all know of the many things conspiring to separate today's teenagers from their identities. The forces of silence, to paraphrase the late William Matthews, are legion, and they mean us harm. Kids writing are teaching themselves, better than anyone else can, who they are.

Teaching kids to write is the most powerful way I feel I can affect their lives, and I do it without preaching a single word. I need only help them generate and craft poems, help them bring together their experience and imagination and language on the page, and they feel indebted to me for life. I've seen writing help kids in profound ways: good decisions on the page translate to good decisions in their lives.

Learning to write poems is the best way to learn how to read poems -- intimately and in the spirit in which they are written. We read in a writerly way, noticing the many decisions poets are making all the time, along with their courage. This is opposed to the readerly way poetry in schools is all too often taught: as hermeneutics, symbolic puzzles, and occasions for scholarly labor and posturing. The impulse behind great poems is hardly ever scholarly.

Jane Hirshfield identifies the two stumbling blocks to effective writing as unwillingness to reveal the self and not knowing the tools of the trade. Every exercise I use is designed to work on one of these stumbling blocks. I use a battery of free-writing exercises to coax students into revealing the self. If they write freely, and frequently, they are likely at some point to startle themselves, and that moment is usually the seed of a good poem. As for the tools of the trade, I start with accurate physical description. I find that precision in description leads to precision in other areas -- diction, thought, emotion, even rhythm. The other thing I do is write with them -- always.

How kids progress in the arts is often anything but logical and systematic. So I also go at things unsystematically, showing them as many different models and ways of writing as possible. The sequencing probably isn't that important, because there's no way to know who will be inspired by the zaniness of Russell Edson, the boldness of Anne Sexton, the deft moves of Stephen Dunn, the amazing journeys of Stephen Dobyns; no telling who will catch fire from Emily Dickenson or Patricia Smith, Marie Howe or Sharon Olds, Robert Hayden or Tony Hoagland. There's more than one way up the mountain, there's no rush, and they don't have to be good -- though they're usually very good.


Poetry is music, the tempos and tones of life, the beat of language enacted. It is the human voice singing its joys and griefs. It is movement. It is voice-dance.

Poetry is language, its deepest structures, grammar, syntax, etymologies, the origins of thought. It is metaphor and the rhythms of persuasion. It is precision and concision.

Poetry is pictures painted with words.

Poetry is seeing, noticing, close-ups of nature and its creatures. It's looking at the universe, the immense and the microscopic.

Poetry is a bridge between the reason and the emotions; it helps us think and validates feeling. It calls to the imagination and demands an answer.

Poetry is the collective memory of the human race, the record of our experience through the ages. It gives flesh to dates and eras, and tells the lived reality of wars, cultural events, historical movements.

Poetry begins to ask the questions for our necessary spiritual quest.

Poetry is the universal voice, the human spirit calling across boundaries of time, geography, culture, age, race, gender, experience. Through it we learn about the other, and about ourselves.

We read and write poems and discover that we are not alone.

The next time I am asked if I teach cross-curricular studies, I think I have my answer.

We've all had teachers who turned poems into riddles, little puzzles for interpretation, to which there's only one right answer, a single golden key that will unlock the forbidding doors. One way to avoid that is not to separate poetry from other kinds of writing, taught in one neat little unit at the end of the year -- if there's time. We should make the whole school year sing.

Fill the room with poetry. Read a poem at the beginning of class, not to analyze, but just to listen to. Encourage students to bring in poems they love, to give to the class, either by reading aloud or putting up on the walls. Read poems that share some theme with other parts of the curriculum. Find poems that speak to events that are going on in the school, the community, the world.

Ask questions of a poem, rather than battering at it for an answer. When students learn that the poems they read and write open them to the world, and allow a kind of expression nothing else offers, they too love poetry, and find it perfectly natural.


One of the poetry topics I especially enjoy examining with my students is that of addressing extreme emotion in a subtle, restrained manner. As with many art forms, poetry has the potential to impact by holding back, by letting the reader feel the intensity of understatement. Love, for example, is an excellent topic to explore with poems that invite students to experience the power of words and imagery that do not beat them over the head.

It's such a kick to introduce a poem such as Gary Soto's "Oranges," which achingly portrays the thrill and terror of a first date. I have found that my students remain anchored to Soto's narrative about being 12 and "walking with a girl for the first time" because the language is immediate and without saccharine. After we have read and discussed the poem, I enjoy pointing out that the word "love" never even appears; yet, because of Soto's effective use of detail and understatement, there is no doubt that "Oranges" is a genuine love poem.

To expand this issue, a teacher could employ other poems that tackle extreme topics in a restrained manner. I have found Mary Oliver's "Rage" (child molestation), Dwight Okita's "In Response to Executive Order 9066" (ethnic prejudice), and Joseph Pintauro's "Lizzie and Blondie" (death of a parent) to be especially well received by my 11th graders.


"I used to think poets and poetry were really weird!" Karen exclaimed in her small-group as their poetry workshop ended. "Yeah," agreed Dave, "like real toads in imaginary gardens!" "Without rhyme or reason," Robert added, not to be outdone. "Of course without reason," quipped Melissa. "After all, a poem should not mean, but be!"

Self-conscious laughter erupted now in groups around the classroom. It infected not only students who felt kinship with Karen's confession of her former prejudice but also those who shared her implied conversion. It echoed loudest, perhaps, in the novice poets who recognized Dave's allusion to "Poetry" by Marianne Moore or who caught Melissa's use of lines from Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica." Most delightful to me, though, was the belated reaction of students who urgently whispered to anyone near, "What did they say? What did they say?" and who then laughed, astonished and admiring, at peer proof that language is sport and that serious practice can lead to championship play.

As group reps returned paperbacks and anthologies to class library carts before the bell, I, too, laughed self-consciously. Only October, the third Creative Friday of the year, and already a third epiphany in my students' experience of Frostian "delight and wisdom" in poetry. ("But how can I write about my sense of poetics? I hate poetry!" "No pretty images of roses and sunsets for you, Mike. Brainstorm nouns and verbs of distaste and use them to build your metaphors.") Already evidence of incipient Re-Vision: that poetry matters, that to read it, recite it, and write it opens our view to who we are and to what we didn't know we knew.


I've never been able to teach poetry. It's too unpredictable, unruly, mysterious, unwieldy and downright weird. It's fools' play, as in Shakespeare's astute observation, "What fools these mortals be." That's why poetry is so exhilarating and worthy of consideration -- it's fully human.

Instead of teaching, I offer poems to students. I want them to get up close and personal with poetry, to read it aloud, so it takes shape in their bodies, so they hear the rhythms and sounds, the non-meaning aspects of its music. I'm less interested in their understanding a poem and more interested in what it provokes in them: a memory, a question, a feeling, an impression, a longing, a loss. Because poetry's source is below language -- in intuition, sensory experience, emotion -- its words are like a map to buried treasure, a treasure worth nothing unless it is discovered. "Only connect," wrote E. M. Forster. When students connect, they discover both the poem and themselves as fully present, alive to the core.

At first, I like to offer poems in quantity, forty or so poem opportunities for a class of twenty-five. That might mean a tape recorder with earphones and a few spoken-word cassettes. Brief poems on the board or flip chart. Poem-posters. Fifteen or so individual poems and twenty poetry journals and books. If there's Internet access, I log on to Poetry Daily or another poetry source. If there's a VCR, a poet reading on video. I want a critical mass that gets attention. Poems everywhere, displayed with wit and whimsy. That way, everyone can rummage until she or he finds the phrase or stanza -- it doesn't have to be a whole poem -- that connects, that gets the heart knocking, the blood buzzing. Then share that fragment with someone else. And copy it, saying it while writing, so it takes shape in the mind. And, finally, use a few of the poem's words to begin a piece of their own writing to pass the connection on.


I teach for the students who look to me and say, "You write?" I teach for the need in their eyes, the want to know there is some reason and satisfaction in doing what tugs at their very souls for them to do. I teach also for the students who take my class and say, "I can't write." I teach so I can show them that they are wrong. I teach in order to hear a student write a new line and yell to the rest of the class, "I've never heard that before in the history of the entire world!" I teach poetry so that I can keep hearing new things in the world, and I teach poetry so that I can make sure there are new things being made in this world.

My class is open for discussion. Sometimes we write things in our private notebooks. I tell my students, "Write a poem you will never show anyone else to someone you would never normally write a poem to." It never fails that they want to read aloud these poems they never want to show anyone else. Sometimes we combine our efforts on to poster board and make group poems we can all take credit for. Once we made pop-up books, inspired by Nick Bantock's pop-up version of Kubla Khan. Whenever my students ask me in the course of a day what we're doing for creative writing class, I tell them, "I don't know! We're not there yet!" We work together to come up with our writing assignment for the day. We play games like Balderdash and Scattergories so that we can all appreciate the depth of words and the joy of making our own definitions to the unknown. Poets find words to fit their ideas, not ideas to fit their words. We laugh at ourselves, but we are never allowed to laugh at each other. Each day I have each student tell me something he or she liked from someone else's work. We all come out feeling we have accomplished something new and made some one else appreciate our efforts.

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