“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
We read for buoyancy. I’ve probably read this quote over 10,000 times. I have been teaching Anne’s book ever since I started a new school, but the quote has been a part of me much longer. It is inscribed in my soul. The practicum of teaching poetry spans multimedia: from Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to the Apple iPad Air commercial quoting from the aforementioned movie. All too often, however, we forget about the buoyancy of reading. We forget our personal marginalia; in other words, we cast aside our disposition in relation to the poem. Our disposition, our ways of taking stock of the market negotiations between us and the poem, our network of other readers who have also shared in the reading — these create the buoyancy, which is really a space created for wiggle room, and if we’re floating together along this sea of profound uncertainty, we might as well “[sing our didn’ts and dance our dids].”
Recently, a new buoyancy has awoken in my teaching and learning with poetry. I am currently walking through various kinds of poetry with my 9th, 10th, and 11th graders. The 9th graders are being introduced to poetry much like a restaurant would build a buffet. The walking through and the messing about is more for their various engagement with poetry of all kinds. The 10th graders just began poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Before, we had read Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The 11th grade began the semester with T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and recently we moved into Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and Blackstar’s (Mos Def & Talib Kweli, ft. Common) “Respiration.” Each poetry class has a purpose but the purpose does not have a stranglehold on the experience of the poem. This multipurpose approach in poetry has created various outcomes: reflection essay on poetry, debate on the toolkit of poetic devices, remix of poetry in contemporary voice, timeline of connections between the content of poetry and historical events.
Most of all, I like exploring Essential Questions with my students around poetry. These essential questions are generated from teacher-guided and student-driven curiosities. I recently read an article that helped with a template for helping students generate essential questions. It is this specific act of question-making that creates some of the buoyancy for engaging in poetry collectively. Some of the essential questions I like to ask are:
- Why does the poet write this poem? For whom?
- How do effective poets hook and hold their readers?
- How is this particular poem about me?
- How is the structure of this poem related to the function of this poem?
- What are the common factors in various poetic forms?
Students demonstrate understanding of poetry NEVER through multiple-choice questions. They show their learning through writing. They exercise the toolkit of poetry: alliteration, assonance, dissonance, meter, rhyme, sonnet-form, villanelle-form, ekphrasis, repetition (chorus/hook), free verse, Imagist poetry, onomatopoeia. It’s a disservice if educators of poetry avoid these forms and practices of writing poetry due to more emphasis on rational thought and essay-writing. Again, our disposition, our ways of taking stock of the market negotiations between us and the poem, our network of other readers who have also shared in the reading — these create the buoyancy, which is really a space created for wiggle room. Emphasis on synthesis/analysis ideation comes after the wiggle room.
I’ve recently come back to Socratic Smackdowns with my 9th graders. Socratic Smackdowns come from The Institute of Play; to play you create a fishbowl classroom where one-half of your students participate in the discussion and the other half remain outside, responsibly paying attention to an assigned classmate on his discussion strategies:
- body language and eye contact to indicate active listening
- poses and responds to questions
- builds on the thoughts of others
- quotes the text to support a point
- challenges ideas and conclusions in a thoughtful,well-reasoned exchange of ideas
- makes new connections
Some questions I invite the students to answer throughout the poetry units are I borrow from Junot Diaz, professor extraordinaire and writer from MIT:
- What are the poem’s primary features—spatial, cultural, biological, fantastic, cosmological?
- What is the world of the poem? What are its ethos (the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize the world)?
- What are the precise strategies that are used by its creator to convey the world to us and us to the world?
- How are our characters connected to the world?
- And how are we the viewer or reader or player connected to the world?
These are difficult, albeit frightening, questions for students to sometimes answer because they require the kind of engagement not always asked of them. At the same time, the discussion about our discursive habits and using poetry to explore our and others’ worlds facilitates the buoyancy we are trying to create with our students. That is the direction of literacy, to decrease our students’ sense of isolation, so they can feel a little connectedness and meaningfulness within the pages and within themselves.