The Teaching of Poetry
When we ask our college students about their in-school experiences with poetry, on the negative side they tell us about teachers who did not like poetry themselves and so flooded lessons with technical terms or turned poems into guessing games that made students feel stupid. On the positive side, they tell us about teachers who seemed to take genuine pleasure in poems and shared them with students as a gift. Their actions match the advice of Richard W. Beach and James D. Marshall:
- Never teach a poem you don't like.
- Teach poems that you're not certain you understand. Teach poems about which you may have some real doubt.
- Teach poems that are new to you as well as your store of "old standards."
- Become a daily reader of poems, a habitue of used bookstores, a scavenger of old New Yorkers and other magazines that contain poetry.
- Give students the freedom to dislike great poetry.6
Books about teaching literature inevitably give suggestions on teaching this or that genre, but readers can almost palpably sense the urgency of suggestions for teaching poetry. Recommended books include Louise Rosenblatt's seminal The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work; Patrick Dias and Michael Hayhoe's Developing Response to Poetry; and Stephen Dunning's Teaching Literature to Adolescents: Poetry. With the help of these books and poems gleaned from teachers' reading, any teacher can soon have several hundred poems worth reading and using in class. Here we offer some other suggestions.
- Avoid units on poetry. Poems deserve to be used frequently but not en masse. It is better to use poems in thematic units where they can be tied in with short stories or drama.
- Drop a funny poem-or a monster poem-into class just for the fun of it.
- Let students, at least occasionally, help choose the poems that a class will study.
- Remember that poetry takes time and plan accordingly. This is not to see how many poems you can knock off in one class, but to allow students to hear poems again and again and to talk about them. We saw one teacher who obviously hated poetry set a record by killing thirty-six Emily Dickinson poems in less than one class period. It takes time to recognize kinship with a poet, to find someone who expresses a feeling or makes an observation that the reader has come close to but has not quite been able to put into words.
- Surround your students with as many beautifully designed poetry books as you can borrow from libraries, scrounge from friends and neighbors, or buy.
© ______ 2009, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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