Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Forgotten Stepchild of The Literary World

         When my colleague Erica Martin and I finished our three-year graduate program in literacy from NIU, we felt the way people would expect us to feel:  elated, relieved,  and proud.  At the same time, however, we also experienced another emotion:  fear.  By spending our time reading the latest books and research articles in the field of literacy that had been emailed to us in a neat little bundle and having the opportunity to discuss these new ideas with classmates who were just as excited about literacy as we were, we had become somewhat spoiled.  We were now responsible for our own learning once again.  How were we going to continue to advance our learning and knowledge on our own while at the same time keep up with the demands of our jobs, our children, and our daily lives?   Well, one convenient place that has allowed me to continue to grow and learn from colleagues is Twitter.  I love it because I can literally spend five or ten minutes in line reading an article or blog post and feel as if I am staying current on the new ideas in a fairly expedient manner. 
           This morning, while scrolling through Twitter, a post by Stephanie Harvey really touched a nerve with me:  "Every child every day should hear an adult read something aloud, equal amounts of fiction and nonfiction and at least one poem a day" (@Stephharvey49).  If you recall, the first instructional shift of the Common Core State Standards calls for a "true balance of informational and literary texts" (  In fact, the Core breaks it down even further to percentages.  By 8th grade, students should be reading 45% literary material and 55% informational text.  Shanahan reminds us that these numbers do not apply only to English class, but to the students' reading material across the school day (  While I am genuinely pleased to see a heavier emphasis placed on informational text reading in all classes, and I am thrilled that content area teachers are beginning to view themselves as instructors of literacy, I am worried that as an educational system, many schools have misinterpreted the core and are offering students less opportunities to read poetry and other pieces of quality literature.   Personally, I would hate to live in a world where poetry has become obsolete.
            If you think I am overreacting, I ask you to reflect on this question:  when was the last time you (and by you - I mean teachers of all disciplines - not just English teachers) read a poem aloud to students?  Do you read aloud a poem daily as is recommended by Stephanie Harvey in her recent Tweet?  Weekly?  Monthly?  If you cannot remember the last time you read a poem to students,  I would argue that perhaps you should reconsider as poetry should still play an integral part in the learning of students everywhere for the following reasons:

        1.  Poetry's Connection to Social Emotional Learning  While some may argue that poetry is "unnecessary" because most of our students won't grow up to become poet laureates or even English majors, poetry has a strong connection to Social Emotional Learning.  Poetry is about feelings, discovery, and understanding the world in which we live.  It helps us cope when time are tough and celebrate our joy and accomplishments.  As Dylan Thomas explains eloquently, "Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own."  A large part of Social Emotional Learning requires students to be able to see events from the perspectives of others and to value the unique differences in attitudes and ideas that make each of us an individual.   Poetry is the perfect medium to help students grow in this area.  In her recent edutopia blog on the need to continue teaching poetry in schools, Elena Aguilar argues that "Our schools are places of too much "brain only;" we must find ways to surface other ways of being, other modes of learning. And we must find ways to talk about the difficult and unexplainable things in life -- death and suffering and even profound joy and transformation." Sometimes, poetry helps us to put words on the indescribable.

              For those of you that need more "hard" and "fast" proof that poetry increases empathy in students, consider the recent research study in New York City that concluded just that.  In the study, students who were given literary fiction reading assignments scored significantly higher in their ability to recognize and draw conclusions about the feelings and emotions of others versus those who were given non-fiction or genre-fiction reading assignment.  The results of this study really speak volumes to the need for students to be given opportunities to read quality literature and poetry to better understand the world.  They probably won't do it on their own. The world is too full of distractions these days.  They need you, their educator, to help them remember what they did not know they knew.  Kelly Gallagher refers to these opportunities to read and discover oneself through fiction as "rehearsals for life."  Of course, students may not become poets or English majors, but they are all a part of the human race.  Poetry and quality literature enables them to practice life experiences prior to having first hand experience with similar milestones.  Additionally, poems can enable students to comprehend and value experiences they may never encounter otherwise.

           2.  Poetry Helps Students Understand Informational Text on A Deeper Level  Another misconception of the Common Core Standards is that text dependent questioning is the only type of questioning that should be occurring in classrooms.  While it is true that Shift #4 requires students to "engage in rich and rigorous evidence based conversations about text," ( we would be doing a serious disservice to students if our discussions were entirely scripted and teacher-centered.  In previous blogs, we have spoken about the importance of achieving authentic student-centered discussions in your classrooms.  And while it is crucial that students first understand the text and engage in discussions that require rereading of key passages and analysis of word choice, tone, and diction,  it is these very discussions that set the stage for students to be better equipped to engage in the commonly misconstrued as taboo reader-response type questions:  How would you have acted in a similar situation?  How do you think the narrator felt when that happened?  These questions are the kinds that drive book clubs and adult reading circles everywhere, because they remind us that we, as readers, bring our own unique perspective to the text.  We engage in discussions of these types because they help students figure out who they are and who they want to be, using the literature to help get us there.  In the years before CCSS, teachers may have begun with these questions.  The problem with this format is that the text did not help drive the ideas of the readers.  It was simply an afterthought at best. The CCSS remind us that students first must possess a deep understanding of the actual text before they can engage in a rich reader-response type discussion.   Poetry, is the perfect medium, to help students make these connections to real-world events.  What could be  more powerful than reading a poem from a hurricane survivor after reading about the science behind the disaster?  What has a more lasting effect on the human heart than reading a poem written by a Holocaust survivor after studying this horrific tragedy in a history class?  To quote Aristotle, "Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history;  for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular."  Why not make the particular more accessible and significant in the minds of our students by supplementing it with poetry?

           3.  Poetry is a Celebration of Words and Language  Those of you who know me probably know of my relentless passion for vocabulary instruction.  Research solidly supports that explicit instruction in words and language increases a student's ability to comprehend challenging text:  a necessary precursor to the Common Core Targets that require synthesis, analysis, and inference-making of these same texts.   What better way to motivate students to learn new words and use them playfully than through poetry?  When I was in college, I took several poetry and fiction writing workshop classes.  I loved that a roomful of adults felt it important enough to sit around a in a circle and discuss the power of words on a page.  During this time, I would often eat lunch with an adult returning student who was also an avid poetry writer.  She carried her poems with her under her arm, and each time she read one aloud it was like she was unwrapping a new gift to herself.  I marveled at the amount of energy she would spend on  contemplating a single word change in a single line of her work, aware that the subtle changes in sound and meaning of the new word could have an enormous impact on the piece as a whole.   How great would it be if we could help our students to channel a bit of this passion for language and words  through the exploration of poetry mentor texts?   

            Of course, I think most of us would agree that poetry has a value in education today.  So why, then, are we, as a system, not investing our energy on it?   I've heard the argument recently, "But I don't have time for poetry!  I'm too busy teaching all these Common Core Standards."  To this, I ask:  are you sure you are teaching the standards?  The 7th grade Literature Targets alone make multiple references to poetry.  Standard Four in Seventh grade reads:  Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.  And Standard Five:   Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.  The sophistication of these standards is evident;  poetry instruction obviously cannot begin and end with seventh grade.  If you believe you are teaching the Common Core but have eliminated poetry from your classroom, I urge you to do a close reading of those standards one more time. 
            Since the Common Core clearly has emphasized the genre of poetry as important, does that mean teachers everywhere can dust the cobwebs off of their six week poetry unit and begin spending several weeks on identification of similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole?  Thankfully, not.  Of course, some teachers may mourn the death of this unit, feeling that it was one that students enjoyed.  I would argue that it might have been one that teachers and possibly even some students enjoyed.  I would also argue, however, that the only day in the unit  that was not entirely lost on a vast majority of boys in the room was that initial day when they got to bring their favorite rap lyrics to school and discover once again that music is poetry.  When we teach poetry, we must teach it in a way that is engaging and motivating for all students.
             The Common Core State Standards do require that we teach poetry but that we do it  differently.  Reviewing the two seventh grade standards alone that I shared with you earlier is enough proof of that.  If you notice, both standards require students to analyze.  No longer, thank goodness, is identification enough.  In his article "Why Poetry is Necessary,"  Robert Housden reveals that "Poems are necessary because they honor the unknown, both in us and in the world. They come from an undiscovered country; they are shaped into form by the power of language, and set free to fly with wings of images and metaphor"  (  How could any of this magic happen if we don't allow our students to analyze, to dig deep, and to discover the world an author has created with words?  I would venture to bet that this magic has never once happened in classroom where students first read a poem flooded with obnoxious onomatopoeia and then were asked to create their own example to demonstrate the sound of bacon sizzling.  Kids are smarter than that.  We need to give them the benefit of the doubt.
          In her book Naming the World:  A Year of Poems and Lessons, Nancy Atwell combines published poets and student imitations in sample lessons that can be used with students.  This is a fabulous resource for teachers who are not sure how to start including poetry into their curriculum.   Whether you choose to use Atwell's book or other sources to expose your students to poetry, however, doesn't matter. What does matter is that we as educators band together to make sure poetry does not become the forgotten stepchild of the literary family. 

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.
Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.

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