When I was a new high school English teacher, I spent countless hours prepping for class. I thought I had to know everything there was to know about every literary work in the curriculum, that this was the level of commitment necessary to be a good teacher.
Where did these ideas come from? They were based on mistaken assumptions that had formed when I was too young to know better. Back in middle school and high school, it had always seemed my English teachers saw layers, symbols and meanings in the works we studied that I could never see until they were pointed out. It had seemed to me that literary interpretation was a magic trick: you either got it or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you were somehow inadequate. English teachers all knew the tricks.
What a relief it would have been if one of them had said something like, “I studied Macbeth in high school and college and have been teaching it for 18 years. I’ve read it more times than I can remember. There’s no way in one reading you’re going to see all the things I see there. I sure didn’t the first time I read it when I was your age, so don’t get frustrated.” Of course, this probably seemed perfectly obvious to them.
I loved my subject, and believed reading great literature and having the chance to express one’s self was of infinite value to adolescents struggling with their tumultuous inner lives and feelings of isolation. And yet, my fear of failure, something which I had carried with me since my own childhood and adolescence, interfered with my being as good a teacher as I might have been.
Then one morning as we were discussing Macbeth in my own classroom, and the students kept asking me “What do you think, Mr. Farawell?” I realized they were playing the same game with me as I and my high school peers had played with our English teachers: find out what your teachers think, and feed them back their own opinions.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” I said. “I already know what I think. I want to know what you think.” Some of them accused me of being evasive; others, of refusing to give them the “right answer,” which they saw as part of my job.
“Think about any work of art,” I said. “If there were a sculpture in the middle of the room, could any one of you, from where you were sitting, see the entire thing?” No, they couldn’t, they agreed. “And how could you know what it looked like from other points of view?” You’d have to get up and walk around it, or ask the people on the other side of the room to describe what they saw.
“Exactly. It’s the same with a work of literature. The equivalent of walking around the room to see a poem or play from every point of view is to have a conversation, and then we can all try to see it from each other’s point of view. We’ll see more than we could ever see by ourselves. And there’ll be things you’ll see that I haven’t yet, despite having read the play many times, simply because I come to it with my own point of view.”
To show my students there was no “trick” to interpreting literature, I had to surrender a certain kind of authority, that of being the one with all the answers. The most important thing I could do was share what a lifetime of deep engagement with literature had taught me: good readers are re-readers in the same way that good writers are re-writers. What every devoted reader I’d ever known loved about a poem, play or novel that mattered to them was the ongoing relationship: each time they returned to it something was new; the exchange was dynamic and evolving.
Try these teaching activities
A student from Spotswood High School enjoys a Dodge Poetry Mini Festival.
Photos by Lauren Rutten.
Acknowledging personal pleasure and allowing for pleasure in the face of uncertainty have always been essential elements in the Dodge Poetry Program’s work with teachers and high school students. We hope some of the activities we’ve developed over the years will help you and your students find new ways to encounter poetry and welcome it into your lives.
In all of these activities, the key is to allow your students to experience free-reading, to discover that reading, just like writing, is a process that may require many revisions. There is no more generous way to ease them beyond their fear than to allow them to see that their teachers don't always know everything about a poem the first time they read it. Show them that even your expertise is a matter of work, not magic, and they will believe that they too can have rewarding experiences reading literature if they take the time to develop their skills.
The group sharing of poems and the discussions at the core of these activities invite students to learn from each other’s points of view. This experience undercuts the assumption that the goal of literary study is to find “the one right answer” from the one authority in the room: the teacher. It allows students as a group to use their own knowledge base as a way to engage with poems, to share insights, and to contribute to the process of literary analysis. This not only shows them reading is an ongoing process, but invites them to be active participants.
This is meant to be a casual, relaxed sharing of poems, with no attempts to offer critical judgment or analysis. The key here is for students to trust their own spontaneous responses to the poems. This is also an opportunity for all to indulge in the rare pleasure of being read to.
Step one: the first read-around
If you have extended block periods or a small class, or can devote two periods to this activity, the entire class can work together as a group. If only a single period can be devoted to this activity, have the students work in independent groups of six to 10.
It would be best to have chairs or desks arranged in a circle.
Give each student a packet of 20 to 30 poems. (This can be a packet you prepare, a section from the textbook, or, if you have them, pages from past Dodge Festival Teacher Kits, which can be requested at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If you have enough time, give the students about 10 to 15 minutes to read silently through their poem packets. Otherwise, ask them to prepare for class by spending 15 minutes browsing through the packet and choose one or two poems they liked, or that struck them in some way, or that they’d like to hear aloud. The criteria for selection should not require any elaborate or critical explanation.
Once students have had a chance to browse through the packet, ask them to pick one poem that they would like to read aloud to the group. Be sure to reinforce that simply wanting to hear it aloud is a good enough reason to pick a poem. Encourage them to be spontaneous, to trust what feels right at this second and not to worry about trying to explain their choice.
Do a read-around of the poems selected—that is, simply listen to each other read poems aloud without introductions or commentary. Be sure to explain before beginning the read-around that no one will be making critical comments, and that no one will be asked to justify or explain their choices. Offer your poem first, and then have the group read around the circle.
Once the read-around begins, permit enough silence after each poem to allow it to "settle into” the listeners. Invite students to respect the silence between poems. Be sure everyone gets a chance to read his/her poem. You and the students have no responsibility but to listen to each other, and simply enjoy the experience of hearing poems read aloud.
Step two: a conversation in poems
Next, do a second reading of the same poems.
Instead of reading in the sequence of the arranged circle, let the members of the group read when they wish to, in response to each other. Allow a conversation in poems to take place. Let someone other than you start, and invite the students to read their poem when it feels right. They don’t have to see a clear link between the poem just read and the one they want to offer. Encourage them to simply allow feeling and tone to set the order.
There will be silences. Some will be long. Resist the impulse to fill them.
Once this second read-around is done, invite the students to talk about why they chose their poems, or why they answered someone else’s poem with their own.
During this step, or if you have time for multiple readings, you can ask someone other than the original reader to read the poems aloud. Invite students to discuss their own reactions to each other’s poems. (Do not allow critical attacks against the choices or those who chose them.)
In this stage of the process, it might help to keep the conversation going by raising questions such as:
- What sounds, images, words, phrases struck you?
- Was there something in the poem you connect with?
- Was it something about the voice of the poem?
- Does the subject matter feel relevant for you?
- Were you surprised by what you liked and didn’t like?
By giving time to this kind of reading and listening, we are showing by example that taking pleasure in poetry, and in the sharing of poetry, is time well spent. More importantly, it allows students to experience this pleasure without the pressure of having to perform.
At a later date, perhaps even in the next class (but absolutely not during the same class as the Giving Voice activity) you can return to the questions above and, working with the same poems, revisit the questions above. By having the students describe the sounds that struck them, the poems or lines they found powerful or memorable, you can begin a conversation about sound, rhythm, voice, persona, imagery, etc. Using a line your students found memorable to illustrate assonance or alliteration, for example, will go a long way in helping them appreciate the effectiveness of such devices and in remembering them.
The remaining teaching activities are designed to allow for a gradual progression into deeper discussions about individual poems and poetry in general.
A certain kind of attention
The poet William Stafford once said, “A poem is anything said in such a way, or put on the page in such a way, as to demand a certain kind of attention." Write Stafford’s quote on the board, and ask students to discuss what it might mean.
- What is that kind of attention?
- How do we recognize it?
- How do we cultivate it?
- How is it (or is it) different from the attention we give prose or drama?
Next, ask them to discuss poet Robert Creeley’s remark: "Every time you write a poem you can think, 'Is that a real poem or is it just something I made up myself?' If what you have written is not a real poem, then what is a real poem?"
After this discussion, let the students answer Creeley’s question: “What is a real poem?” Begin by asking them to free-write a list of criteria. Then have them rank those criteria from most to least essential.
Next, put them in groups of four to six, and have each group come up with a list of the essential elements that make a poem. You can then ask them to pick the top three, five or 10.
Then have the groups put their lists on the board to be compared and contrasted. Discuss how and why they may have arrived at different criteria. Why did some groups rank criteria differently? How many areas are there of common agreement? Can debate and discussion lead the entire class to one core list of criteria?
Although they may not use formal critical vocabulary, it is very likely most of their criteria will be examples of those used by literary critics for centuries. This is an ideal opportunity to introduce critical terms by using the students’ definitions as a starting point. They will have arrived at their understanding of these terms through direct engagement with the texts and each other, and will likely have a deeper understanding and remember them better.
Either now, or in subsequent discussions, let them illustrate their criteria with examples from poems from the packet. This process will require students to use the texts to find evidence to support their opinions. It can make clear to them that they come to their reading with a critical perspective, with assumptions and prejudices. Once they perceive this, they may be more able to open themselves up to enjoying many other styles of poetry and art.
The body as the medium
This is an opportunity to explore poetry’s aural/oral qualities. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky wrote that the reader’s body is the medium of the poem. Begin by having three students read the same poem aloud. Invite the class to note how, when different people read the same piece aloud, without trying to be different, they inevitably are different. You can also explore what changes emerge in our understanding of a phrase, line or passage if different words or phrases are emphasized. Experiment with how a speaker’s attitude and vocal tone can dramatically impact how we hear and understand a poem.
This would be a natural place to explore hip-hop’s connections to the ancient bardic tradition. Few students realize that poetry comes out of an oral tradition, that it was recited and often performed accompanied by music for thousands of years before the development of written alphabets. The street singers of ballads in Elizabethan London and our contemporary rappers are in the same line that extends back to Homer. What better way to explore poetry’s aural/oral qualities than to hear a variety of poems from these different traditions aloud and to experiment with performance styles?
This session could also begin to raise the question of whether we respond to poems differently depending upon how we receive them—only in print or only aurally/orally. For example:
- What happens when we hear a poem aloud we’d only read silently to ourselves?
- Do we relate to a poem differently if our first encounter with it is hearing it read aloud or reading it on the page? What’s different? What do we gain or lose?
- What’s different about the communal experience of listening to poems together and the private experience of reading silently, alone? What do we gain or lose?
This activity could naturally evolve into discussions about voice, persona, point of view, tone, narrative, diction, etc. As a follow up, invite students to start making a habit of reading poems aloud to themselves, even when they are reading alone. Ask them to journal write and report out on what changed for them.
The poetry anthology
Have students work in groups to create anthologies that organize poems from the text book or a packet you supply by categories the students define. Do not give them categories in advance. (You could offer “political poems” as one example of a content category or “form” as one option for an organizing principle. Be wary of giving them too many examples.) This will require that they read the poems to look for patterns and connections. Their reading of the poems should determine what categories the poems can be grouped into. Each group should decide if they want to use style, subject matter, or whatever other criteria they select for organizing the poems.
Students could also be invited to research new poems to add to their anthologies, or, as the semester continues, to consider where new poems fit into their anthologies.
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