Adventures in Teaching Poetry

“Don’t do it,” my English teacher colleague said. “They can’t handle poetry.”

I’ve been wanting to do a poetry unit with my first year English students for quite some time. As I’m sure most readers are aware, poetry is one of my biggest passions and I wanted to share it with them. This is despite the fact that the average age in the group is sixteen and they could very well be bored to tears, as my colleague assured me they would be.

On the contrary, a lot of them really seemed to get into it, and it think it’s because of my enthusiasm for poetry. It really rubbed off on them. The same thing can be said about most subjects; if you’re exited about it then they’ll get exited about it, no matter what it is. And I made my students exited about poetry.

I introduced the subject by showing them a few of my own pieces, and had them try writing their own. I showed them how to write a haiku and had them give it a go. Some of them chose to write longer pieces too, which of course pleases me immensely. There was one boy who kept writing more and more pieces. He’d write one and turn it in, and then a few minutes later he’d bring up another one. He said it was hard to stop once he got going and I said that writing poetry is sometimes like that, almost like a drug.

They are now working on an assignment that entails choosing an well-known English or American poet and writing some brief details about his or her background. They are then to read one of their chosen poet’s pieces to the class. They’ve chosen Shakespeare, T.S.Elliot, Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Byron, Keats, Whitman, Oscar Wilde, etc, etc., some of the most brilliant human beings ever to walk the planet.

Maybe some of them were bored to tears, but I’m still glad I did this lesson. If by doing so I have kindled the poetic flame in one or two of them, then that’s absolutely wonderful.

10 thoughts on “Adventures in Teaching Poetry

  1. Wow, you must be an awesome teacher! I tried doing a lesson on poetry once with my class of high school boys in Korea, and they looked at me like I’d grown a second head!

    • I know that look!

      It could be a cultural thing. I teach English in a Swedish high school and my class is a mixture of native Swedes and various other nationalities. More than half of the people in that class, including me, are immigrants to Sweden, or the children of immigrants.

      Before moving to Sweden, I taught English in Japan for two years. I don’t think English or American poetry would have gone over very well there, either.

      • They might have liked this Ogden Nash piece :

        The Japanese (1938)

        How courteous is the Japanese;
        He always says, “Excuse it, please.”
        He climbs into his neighbor’s garden,
        And smiles, and says, “I beg your pardon”;
        He bows and grins a friendly grin,
        And calls his hungry family in;
        He grins, and bows a friendly bow;
        “So sorry, this my garden now.”

      • I tried to have them read some Robert Frost, and the problem was that even though they understood the words and what the poems were about, they couldn’t find the beauty of it. That could be just because they’re teen boys, but it could also be because of the way English is generally taught in Asia. It’s almost mathematical: subject + verb + (etc) = sentence. It kind of takes the fun out of it!

    • Ah Dorothy!
      “I wish I could drink like a lady / I can take one or two at the most / Three and I’m under the table / Four and I’m under the host”

        • Razors pain you.
          Rivers are damp.
          Acids stain you.
          And drugs cause cramp.
          Guns aren’t lawful.
          Nooses give.
          Gas smells awful.
          You might as well live.

          Oh, I love it. Dorothy Parker was a genius. We actually rewrote that piece in my lesson so that the final line was, “You might as well die.”

          The government owns you.
          Taxes are high.
          Working drains you.
          And debts make you cry.
          You can never be happy.
          No matter how hard you try.
          Life is so crappy.
          You might as well die.

          Definitely not as witty or brilliant as Parker’s version but you get the idea. Anyone else want a go?

          • Hmmm….

            Life’s in permanent flux,
            With both valleys and funks,
            Sometimes it sucks,
            Sometimes it blows chunks,
            It really does stink,
            And I’d sooner just die,
            But then I think,
            Who’d be here, to spit in your eye?

Words, words, glorious words! Give me all of your words!

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