Help! How do I teach POETRY?

howdoiteachpoetryUntil I was in college, poetry was a six-week course dumped in language arts class, with limericks always being the highlight. Every so often a “writer-in-residence” (I never understood that — were they living at the school?) would grace our class, and always the residing writer fit a stereotype: Older, female, verbose in a maddeningly slow manner, and effusively complimentary of just one or two students’ creations. The rest of us labored over haikus and sonnets to her ultimate indifference, until finally we could return to whatever the next six-week language arts cycle had in store.

Imagine my surprise when in college I learned that poets — at least the ones from many a year ago — weren’t old, or boring, or even female. There was George Gordon Lord Byron (“mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” according to his (married) lady friends). There was poor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lost both his wives (one of them to a fire that started as she was fixing their daughter’s hair). There was Emily Dickinson, the youthful-subversive-turned-quiet-recluse.

In those college classes was cultivated my own love of poetry. And when my children were born, I seriously read John Keats to them, thinking that to start early would inculcate their own indoctrination love of the great Romantics.

Turns out, my toddlers didn’t appreciate Keats. Or Wordsworth. Or haikus. Not even limericks.thedaffodils1


In the meantime, I read to the unappreciative little runts. I read books and magazines and everything I could find. Eventually, they read, too. And one day I dared to reintroduce POETRY — with bated breath — and guess what happened? They loved it as much as they loved reading. Perhaps more so, because it required less long-term commitment.

And I realized we had been reading poetry all along, with every rhyming Sandra Boynton book, every free-verse picture book, every nursery rhyme. See, poetry is not a bunch of words in a vacuum. And it’s not about what so many people think it’s about: grandiose words and strange syntax, a jumble incomprehensible to Joe Six-Pack. Poetry, we believe — perhaps are led to believe — is inaccessible to the modern man, written and read at oxygen-deprived levels of academia.

Now, the obvious recommendation here is that I suggest to you one of the gazillion “First 100 Poems for Your One-Month-Old” variety books. You know — Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti. Rainbows and moons.

goingtobedbookBut I’m not. That’s not my recommendation. Poetry doesn’t have to be old to be classic. It doesn’t even have to look like real poetry. Pretty much anything you read a child that is not in sentence form is going to be poetry. Don’t believe me? Compare Sandra Boynton’s book “The Going To Bed Book” to Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and then we’ll talk.

Just read to the kiddos. Read things with sing-song meter and lilting phrases and backwards syntax and you’ll be reading poetry.

But what about “real” poetry? What about Wordsworth and Whitman? Longfellow and Dickinson? Well, yeah. Read them too. And then what? you ask, beginning to panic.

Let’s face it: We all need a little help “teaching” poetry (and making it fun!). Everything I put out in the Wordplay Workshop is material I use with my own kids. Material that works. And I can tell you these work, because my kids actually like poetry, they know how to determine a rhyme scheme, they understand that Whitman was writing about Abe Lincoln, and yesterday they made up metaphors for fun. They inherited their eyes from their father and their dorkiness from me.

What I developed are these poetry and analysis guides that walk students through the interpretation of a poem, the villageblacksmithstructure and format, vocabulary, and anything else germane to that poem (don’t worry, parents; every guide comes with a poetic primer that explains exactly what a stanza is and how to determine the rhyme scheme). The guide for “O Captain! My Captain!” for instance, focuses on Whitman’s use of extended metaphor. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” introduces students to the different parts of a sonnet. In “The Road Not Taken,” students write about a time they made a decision that impacted their lives.

Each guide also details what we call “Dress-Up Devices” (simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, etc.) and “Bend-Your-Ear Devices” (alliteration, consonance, assonance). I’ve found that the kids actually like searching for these things — they become little poetic detectives.

In addition, each guide comes with at least one writing activity that corresponds specifically to that poem.

Up for sale are guides to these classic poems:

roadnottakencoverThe Village Blacksmith (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

The Daffodils (William Wordsworth)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (John Keats)

O Captain! My Captain! (Walt Whitman)

The Road Not Taken (Robert Frost)

Keep on reading — especially poetry!












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