Category Archives: Poetry

christophremargolin

How Students Helped to Discover the Relevancy of Poetry in the 21st Century

 This post is written by member Christopher Margolin.

Teachers tend to teach poetry because they feel it has supposed to be in the curriculum. They believe that students need to be familiar with sonnets, haikus, and acrostics, but what they neglect to do is allow their students the freedom to simply explore — and write poetry themselves. They spoon-feed old, outdated pieces that have not been relevant in decades, focusing on the dead white guy, or the poets they feel will strike a chord. They teach lessons from rote memory or out of textbooks. They do not watch for the yawns. Instead of partnering with their students to find out what might actually be of interest, they stifle their creativity and ruin poetry for the majority of students.

I am guilty of all the above.

I came out of college as an expert in sixteenth-to nineteenth-century British poetry, and when I started teaching, I thought these were the necessary poems for all students. I wanted them to hear the rich language, dive into the hefty topics, and talk about the importance of blah blah blah. I was excited about it, as were a few random students, but they didn’t really understand what I was talking about. Showing them poems by John Donne, or William Blake, or Samuel Coleridge didn’t inspire any real emotions, but I taught them all the same — because I liked them. The choice of texts had absolutely nothing to do with my students, and it showed on their faces — which I only noticed after a handful of years of digging through the obscure.

A few years ago, one of my students asked me to prove the relevancy of poetry in the twenty-first century. That’s when I realized I didn’t really know any current poets. I knew the laureates and a handful of current pieces I had read in different journals, and I could cite reasons why I found poetry to be important, but the challenge left me questioning how important the poems I had been teaching were in today’s world. Therefore, I stopped. And did some research. I had heard about Button Poetry, and I spent time sifting through YouTube videos of performance pieces and slam poetry competitions. I watched through five seasons of Def Poetry Jam and fell in love.

My students and I started a Twitter account (@poetryquestion) and began to send tweets to literally thousands of artists, poets, musicians, actors, authors, and anyone else we felt might offer 140 characters on how they felt about poetry in the modern world. Then our campaign started to work. We received more than 300 responses. Not only did we get responses, but we also had people reaching out to talk with my students. This was inspiring. This was what my students needed. Instead of staring at words they did not understand, they had real people talking to them — people they knew, people they enjoyed, and people who were relevant.

I had my students open up their Chromebooks, go to YouTube, type in “Button Poetry,” and hit play on whichever video popped up first. I told them to click on every poem they could find. They watched countless videos and wrote down what hit them the hardest. Then they filled my whiteboard with 183 names of poets. After that, they began to write their own poems. They wrote about the abuse they suffered, or family vacations, or fears, or joys, or teenage life, or school, or whatever made sense to them in the moment. They wrote, and they did not stop.

In addition to Twitter conversations with a number of the poets they had discovered, my students Skyped with Joel Madden of Good Charlotte and with Saul Williams. We held Twitter interviews with Marc Maron, Taylor Mali, and so many more. Alexander Dang and Clementine von Radics visited our classroom to perform.

And the students kept writing. They kept putting their emotions on paper and crafting them into performance pieces. I did not teach them how to format anything. Instead, I just told them to write. I told them to watch more poetry. I told them that we, as a class, valued their words and their lives, and that this would be a comfortable, judgment-free environment, — and they listened. They were one another’s allies and shoulders to cry on, and people with whom they could laugh and cheer on throughout the process. By the end of the unit, every student in every class had shared their poems with their peers, and some even went to a local poetry slam to share with complete strangers.

If we pay attention to the needs of our students, if we give them the freedom to explore and talk and watch and listen and teach themselves, they become excited. They want to learn. They want to write. They want to collaborate. But they only want these things if teachers stop giving the rote-memory rubbish and instead partner with them, enjoy their content, facilitate rather than lecture, and help to prove the relevancy of words in the twenty-first century.

Chris Margolin is the Vancouver Public Schools’ Curriculum Specialist for Secondary English Language Arts, Advanced Placement, College in the High Schools, and Running Start. He spent 12 years as a high school English teacher, working not only with students, but also as a member of the district curriculum design team, developing the district’s Creative Writing course. He currently resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife and daughter. 

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Poetry and English Education

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we will be posting poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “To the Loud Mouth in Room 114: An Elegy” by Jeff Spanke comes from English Education:

To the Loud Mouth in Room 114: An Elegy
I see you standing on the six inch stage up front,
wrinkled Oxford sleeves rolled to the elbow,
matching shoes and belt, a power clashing tie,
all fittingly worn—
the student-centered sage waiting to change the ways
they embrace the world:
your fresh clay to mold into busts
of justice and peace and hope and yourself,
the revival of a spirit that comfort ignores.
They close the door and turn forward to feast
upon the riches you’ve sworn to provide.
Worms to the birds, all infant and chaste.
You have arrived. You will succeed. You are above
the stigma and crap that cripple your colleagues
from those classes you took before you Became.
You are a teacher, both identity and function.
You’ve earned this moment, this space.
You swear you’ll never hurt them.
I want to go up to that Me and slap his face,
Shut Up, I’d plead—you won’t last five years.
You’re going to lose here, curse the Leaders,
damn the System, and spread blame
like pneumonia.
You’ll never own your fault, in whole, though,
and you’ll hurt them when you leave.
You were great today; they needed tomorrow.
Don’t show that movie, don’t send that email.
Answer that parent and do your job.
Grade what you assign, and don’t resign
without a humble fight.
Go to the meetings and sleep
with eyes open and engaged.
Pass out their stupid tests; then teach
democracy, metaphors, commas, and Wow.
Shutting your mouth can’t silence you.
They give you braces if you’re not white and straight,
but you don’t need teeth to smile.
There’ll always be tests.
Don’t resist accountability.
You have a house and a family,
a name to protect and a plate
they’ll take off your door and throw in the trash
with the rest of the shit they find in lockers
when school’s over.
You’ll scare your baby when you cry,
And the loss of sleep will grease your hair and
make your breath reek of mourning.
Your wife will count quarters, keep coupons.
She’ll work longer hours and start searching
for cheaper daycares.
You’ll lie on Thanksgiving and die inside
when Dad says he’s proud.
Just Stop, I’d tell the Loud Mouth Me.
You don’t have to lose.
They need you close and can’t afford the cost
of your textbook excuses.
The mine may be toxic,
but you’re more than a canary.
Teach for the students, the kids in their seats:
Not their parents, your principal, the Super,
or anyone else.
Don’t let them beat you.
Find a wind farm, a dam, or some other source
of power—Or don’t.
Change some lives, fight the fight,
the school will blink, and you’ll be gone.
You’ll be me.
An ornithologist, grounded.

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Poetry and College English

During National Poetry Month, we posted poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “A Professor Attends a Poetry Reading” by James E. Robinson comes from College English and wraps up our celebration:

A Professor Attends a Poetry Reading
I sat up front to avoid
the backs of heads
It is important to fix attention
on the eyes
And gesture
and hear the voice take flight
A reading is a prosopopoeia
an imitation of the act
that bent the being of the poet
into the poem
in the first place

Earlier that day I was glad enough
To have an audience
Go one way
And me another
Leaving the paper lecture
Afloat in the afternoon
But now I would take hold
In the night drawn rearrangement
And let the poet fix me with his meaning
As he pleased
The poem went on
And I missed pretty much the whole thing
It was about a poet being a paper poet
Building a paper house
It went up in smoke
I don’t think that was in the poem
Rather it was something that crossed my mind
But then maybe the poet meant it to

I thought perhaps I should have sat in back
To see what others do
When listening
What did alabaster girls and boys
I build in classrooms
Hear there
In the air
Where the poem was hanging
The poem went on
And I missed pretty much the whole thing
It was about a fountain and a statue
And water pouring over thighs
And down the drain
I don’t think that was in the poem
But it crossed my mind
But then maybe he meant it to

The poet wore a dark grey suit
And a dark blue shirt and tie
The face was cut from something hard
And the voice was round and clear
And the poem was solid sound
Between us all
And still I wondered what he was to me
And the others
Or I or they to him
Who is audit of which fleeting presence
Which life is rounded by which sleep
Which poem should I take hold of
As I was meant to do

The words came from the dark clothes
Vaguely priestly
And the hard face
Vaguely smiling
Like ballet steps and patterns
Which I chased across the stage
And round the room
The poem went on
And I missed pretty much the whole thing
It was about a boy bewitched by a balloonist
And an irritated father with a broken pipe
Pulling the boy away
Into thin air
Or was it the balloonist who disappeared
Whatever it was that crossed my mind
Was gone before I could be quite sure
I caught something of what he meant me to

When it was over
All the alabaster girls and boys
Gathered round to shake the hard hand
Of the Ballet Priest and Paper Poet
And I wanted to say something too
Because I had had a good time
But as the poem went on
In the room
And in the scattering crowd
And in the air outside
Having never said hello
Having failed to say goodbye
Having missed pretty much the whole thing
I just went away
As I think I was meant to do

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Poetry and College Composition and Communication

During National Poetry Month, we will be posting poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “Syllabus” by Michael True comes from College Composition and Communication:

Syllabus
You will teach me, first, my students,
the character of my indifference,
and the dark confusion of being young;
I will teach you, then, my students,
the hope that lies beneath the surface,
a love inherent in the nature of things.
Follow the course of it to the end of knowing;
gather the thread of it line by line.

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Poem in Your Pocket Day 2017

Every April, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, people celebrate by selecting a poem, carrying it with them, and sharing it with others throughout the day at schools, bookstores, libraries, parks, workplaces, and on Twitter using the hashtag #pocketpoem.  –Academy of American Poets

Here are some ideas to help you celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 27!

 

Still looking for a poem for your pocket? Try this one – with a title perfect for this day!