"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Infusing Poetry in Language Arts instruction Part II

This began with my post urging English teachers NOT to celebrate National Poetry Month in April, because that shunts poetry into a calendar-bound ghetto, whereas poetry should be freely roaming around your curriculum, lurking behind every pedagogical corner.

One of your obstacles will be the general resistance to poetry, or, to be more precise, to the way poetry was taught to your students in the lower grades. Too much emphasis was put on rhyme and other technical matters, and the subject matter tended toward nature and other harmless warm and fuzzy topics. It would be surprising to find an elementary school teacher presenting students with poetry that talked to where they really live.

Slam poetry is all about where we really live here and now. It is not interested in posterity. It is literally of the moment, of the moment it is being performed. Even now, into its second decade, there are not a great number of printed anthologies of slam poetry, any more than there are books of rap lyrics. Slam is primarily an aural medium, meant to be experienced, which brings the focus back to the aspect of poetry most greatly neglected in the 20th century. Poetry had become reflexive, self-referential and driven by academia. (The exception in the United States, were the new Black and Latino writers creating a poetry of the streets, designed to be shouted and chanted from the pavement up toward the sealed windows of the people who run things.)

Slam, on the other hand, was born and bred in a barroom and the critics are not academics, but audience members selected at random and given no criterion. The pressure is on for the slam poet to reach the listener immediately and have them like what they hear. Frank Loesser described song lyrics as being written on the side of a train which the audience has once chance to read as it goes by. So it is with Slam. No chance to reflect on the reference to Baudelaire and the significance of post-modernism. Get it now and it goes.

Simply put it, you must understand it -- at least some if not most of it -- on first hearing. This will appeal to your students. Also, it must have a performance rhythm and audience appeal; typically, this is the long upward build to a climax with a denouement, perhaps witty, wry or touching. Performance requires poetry to take a narrative shape, even if the purpose is not storytelling but reflection on a subject -- that narrative shape asserts itself in nearly all oral presentation.

And in New Jersey, and probably your state as well, oral presentation is part of your core curriculum. So forget about making it optional. All students must get up and slam. I leave it to you as to whether you require memorization, they all must speak before the others, learn how to speak clearly and evenly, to emphasize what is important, to vary the speed and the pitch of their speech. I know a lot of them will fight you on it, but it is teaching abuse to leave your students unequipped and afraid of public speaking. I've backed off in this area before for fear of traumatizing children, but I believe that was a mistake. Like other times and places when you must move your students out of their comfort zone, you can't bully and threaten them on this. You must persuade and cajole and coax. But you must insist and be firm. (My thought about memorization is to announce that it will be required, then let them use the paper on the day itself. This provides the benefits of both thorough and complete preparation of the text with relaxation and security during delivery which allows them to focus on the quality of what they are doing rather than the brute effort of recitation from memory.)

And there is the competition factor. My first principal, who is a superb teacher, was always skittish around competition and its negative aspects, which I need hardly recite here. But I believe that many of those negatives are mitigated here, as there is no built-in advantage for the brainiacs or the jocks in this competition. Most years there is at least one or two surprises as to who will excel at slamming. But one of the great values of competition is that it is its own intrinsic motivation. I rarely, if ever, offer prizes in classroom competitions. Pride of success is sufficient. Most young people cannot avoid wanting to compete any more than my cat can avoid jumping on a shiny thing that is moving. Some kind of atavistic impulse kicks in and, provided that they each believe they can be basically competent, they will try to do well at slam.

Getting them to a confidence about basic competence will take some time. Months, probably. You need to start adding the writing of poetry onto other writing assignments right away at the beginning of the school year. Have them add a poetic reflection to their five-paragraph essays. Have them do their classroom warm-up as poetry. Most of all, break the doggerel habit. Too many children are swamped by the tyranny of rhyme and meter and their expressive instincts have been completely suppressed. Find organizing principles other than rhyme, such as repetition, anaphora, antistrophe, alternation of long and short phrases, controlling metaphor and the like. Most of all, get them to write and not worry about the process and the devices much.

A side benefit of writing poetry -- by having to break thoughts and stories into lines and stanzas, they will gradually fall away from turning in prose in one single unbroken paragraph. Personally, I find unparagraphed so literally physically difficult to read, that I will hand such papers back and demand they be resubmitted with some divisions. Again, teaching in the lower grades has damaged them a great deal, and they thrash around fearing they have no topic sentences and that not all the sentences will support that, and generally write as if the chief end of writing was to be able to be outlined easily. As you can see by my style in this blog, I think this is hooey. The chief end of writing is, obviously, communication of (1) emotion; and (2) ideas. (3) Information is OK, but it is a lower order of writing, valuable to know but not aspirational.

How you organize your competition, your teams, selecting judges, involving other classes or other faculty, you are a far better judge than I. I can no more engineer your methodology than you mine. I am just here to be a cheerleader. But make sure that it is fun, that it is competitive, that is emphatic, that is strong, that it is real and true.

And this is authentic learning, in that slam competitions are going on each and every weekend, if not each night of the week, all across this country. As far as introducing your students to the ethos of slam, there are a number of videos on YouTube you could cull. Here's one example:

I would also suggest the very selective use of HBO's Def Poetry Jam -- but you MUST preview this, because unobjectionable material alternates in rapid sequence with very adult themes. I like to use excerpts from a documentary feature SlamNation which although more than a decade old and with some technical lapses, shows a lot of the great early stars of the medium (Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, Beau Sia), and presents the heat of battle well. And the film has a bleeped school-appropriate edition which can be ordered here. Another resource is the Russell Simmons miniseries Brave New Voices, which is too long for classroom use, but excerpts from which can be used to show actual high school students preparing for competition.

All of this is to prove that poetry is not for the faint of heart. It's not just for flowers and clouds and unicorns and rainbows. Although maybe it is for rainbows, because it is a powerful medium for all the colors of your classroom to be heard.

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