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On Teaching (and Learning About) Poetry

Do you read poetry? I mean do you read it often? Out loud or Aloud? To others? I love to read poetry, and I know that when I teach it I emphasize (perhaps too often?) that poets write to be read, but I never enjoy reading poetry aloud. Or out loud. I wonder why?

I struggle to support teachers as they plan poetry. I used to think it was because I didn’t see myself as a poet, but I don’t think that’s the truth. If I dig deeper it’s because I so often see the way teachers plan poetry units and it relies so heavily on kinds of poems. The Acrostic Poem. The Shape Poem. The (wait for it) Rhyming Poem. The Unit inevitably becomes divorced from living a writerly life, writing process, and meaning. Suddenly teachers who value workshop instruction become ‘today all of us will…’ teachers.

Recently I’ve worked with teachers in the 1st, 2nd, and 5th grades to plan poetry Units. My 5th-grade team wanted to attach the poetry to their content study- the Harlem Renaissance. They dove deep into finding mentor poems, gathered images and artifacts from those decades, and were energized in ways I haven’t seen for some time. And yet… I sat in the planning session not wanting to damper their enthusiasm but wondering, “Are we sending the wrong message? Do poets write in the footsteps of a time period? Or would they be better served writing in the footsteps of a poet?” It’s a small distinction, but one that matters. I believe in cross-disciplinary curriculum across the year. The times when I’ve worked on hybrid Units that span reading, writing, and social studies students have thrived. But that entanglement is a delicate one.

When I planned with my 1st-grade team they were adamant that students need to understand kinds of poetry. From Name Poems to Haikus, they wanted their writers to experiment with types, and learn the rules of these poems. I sat in the planning session and asked, “But why? Can we use poetry as a time to deepen our instruction around meaning, significance, and voice? Can we teach the craft moves poets rely upon and let kids choose what they want to write about, and how?”

It was during my 2nd-grade team meeting that I was the one who needed to be questioned. One of the new members of the team interrupted the conversation and enlightened us, “Can we not only teach kinds of poems but kinds of poets? Can we show them who Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and Alma Flor Ada are? How they came to be poets?” Can we teach about their lives as we rejoice in their poems? It was a new twist for me. And it meant we could celebrate across content the very people that bring the most powerful poetry to our lives.

I realized, rather quickly, that there is still so much for me to learn about teaching (and poetry). I’m grateful, during this rainy month, to learn in the company of others.

Here’s a poem my most favorite kindergarten teacher composed with her students. They were exploring how the same moment can have many different feelings inside of us.

It's perfect.

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