"[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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Infusing Poetry into Language Arts Instruction III

Continuing my long slow series on integrating poetry into an overall language arts program, which I began with my anti-Poetry Month post, I urge you and your students to create personal anthologies of poetry and verse to intensify your personal relationship with poetic expression that is of real personal meaning.

If you're reading this, you're probably a savvy teacher and you don't need me laying out all the specifications of the project. I simply want to share what I've learned about doing such an assignment, based on what I think it should accomplish, as contrasted with what usually happens in most high school and middle school English classes.

First and foremost, as I've been trying to emphasize in all of my posts on this topic, poetry should be an all-year, every-week topic, not an isolated unit hastily scrabbled together toward the end of the year. ("Poems are short -- the students are tired...") Do not shuffle it off to a sideshow, or it will become a meaningless waste of time. Poetry works on the mind and the soul incrementally. It needs time and prolonged exposure to work its magic and it does not demand those the way a novel does. So it is up to you to provide those.

So first of all, your anthology project is too small and too short. I see teachers assigning 8 or 10 poems. I can scoop that many up in less than half an hour. I would suggest no fewer than 40 poems -- about one per week for the year, and even that it is a bit cautious for my tastes. It's really easy to find poems one likes.

Second, the poems must be hand-written in the anthology. I know how to cut and paste, so I expect my students have figured that out, too. And cut-and-pasted material is rarely read. To write a poem out by hand is to have a personal physical relationship to it. Quite a palpable physical relationship, for that matter, because one has to plan the use of the available space -- if a line has to be split, or a poem stretches over more than one page. Every word that passes through the pen has passed through the mind, and as many actors and public speakers know, the act of writing something down aids the memory.

Which brings up the next point. You MUST assign memorization. A lot of teachers are shying away from this, either from fear of student opposition, which is fierce on this point lately; and also from a sincere conviction (which I share to some degree) that in the era of easy access to information, memorization is a less important skill. This is certainly true of known and static facts. But there are still things we need to carry in our heads, such as diagnostic information or procedures to accomplish things.

And there is a special relationship between a person and a poem he or she has memorized. If you have any doubt about that, look at this video:

Some grammar school teacher of blessed memory made her students memorize something, and not just anything, but in this case, one of the richest verses in the English language, and that memory provided sustenance in a time of trial, and has remained with him his entire life.

If you really want to see how someone can live completely infused with poetry, see The History Boys. Wouldn't it nice to always have poetry at your mental fingertips for every situation?

Back to the anthology project. The memorized poem really shouldn't be the only one all year. You should do it at least once per quarter and give your students detailed, kind critiques which can help them develop and improve in the aural presentation of verse. Nobody learns much from anything they only do once, or even only occasionally.

All the usual specifications should apply to your anthology project. Have them illustrate and decorate the books, be sure they write a personal reflection of a reasonable length for each verse, and, given that your project will stretch over many months, there should be periodic progress check-ups. You may want to have the students select a theme or some other organizing principle, so that the anthology is less general and perhaps scattered. But you know how to do all that.

I just ask that you stop segregating poetry from the rest of language arts and let it out of its box to play with all the other literary forms - essay, short story, journalism, dramatic work AND full-length fiction, and see what it contributes to the general conversation. I think you'll be happily surprised.

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