World Poetry Day is recognized every year on March 21. This is the day in which UNESCO recognises the moving spirit of poetry and its transformative effect on culture. To honor World Poetry Day, take some time to read and explore writers from around the globe and bring their works into the classroom.
Durante degli Alighieri, simply called Dante, was a major Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature. “The Art of Imitation” invites students to craft verse-narratives that mimic the character, plot, and stylistic devices of Dante, as well as Chaucer.
Alastair Reid was a Scottish poet and a scholar of South American literature. Author Naorni Shihab Nye, in “Globos = Balloons“, shares the power of translating poems using a piece from Reid.
India’s Rabindranath Tagore authored a timeless poem, “The man had no useful
work.” “Classic Connections: Aiding Literary Comprehension through Varied Liberal Arts Alliances” explores using that poem as the inspiration for dramatic interpretation.
Rose Macaulay was an English novelist and writer. “Mimesis: Grammar and the Echoing Voice” uses an example by Rose Macaulay to show how she selected her words, as all the adjectives work hard in her description.
Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. This article from English Journal used a work from Ibsen to investigate students’ attitudes about
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era, popular in Britain and the United States during her lifetime. This lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org invites students into “Finding Poetry in Prose: Reading and Writing Love Poems“.
The African American Read-In Toolkit provides a variety of resources to help support both individual hosts and hosting organizations implement and promote African American Read-In programs. Included in the toolkit are a number of booklists including one that was crowdsourced at an NCTE Annual Convention.
Tune in to the Text Messagespodcast episode #weneeddiversebooks to hear about recently-published YA titles that celebrate diversity in a range of genres. There’s something for every reader here: comic book superheroes, Civil Rights history, love stories, humorous essays, poetry, artwork, and stories of suspense.
This blog post is written by R. Joseph Rodriguez, former Chair, NCTE College Section.
In the famous poem titled “Poetry,” Marianne Moore declares, “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle” (28). What at first seems like an attack on poetry through a poem soon becomes a defense of it. Published in 1925, the poem is a fundamental statement about the value of poetry as it reflects life itself: essential, vital, and genuine.
Moore’s poem reminds us to appreciate our everyday and experience living more fully. During National Poetry Month 91 years later, the poem continues to startle and even awaken and excite my students. In class, we experiment with language and structure by writing a poem in the style of Moore. The first line is adapted to guide us on topics such as making one’s bed, attending English class, exercising daily, and eating breakfast.
Poetry invites readers to make connections across cultures, experiences, and time. We can become present in a poem as language and form make the poem part of what we experience at this moment, now.
A poem appears and takes a breath with us—from line to line. However, the reader gives the poem full breath and a fuller life with experience. In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Jane Hirshfield explains, “Poetry’s work is not simply the recording of inner and outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving. […] A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from a tree branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world” (3–4). Granted, all must be present at the table of poetry for reading and understanding: the creator, reader, and society.
Last year, a colleague and I visited a local mountain range encompassing three states and two countries with a view of 7,000 square miles. Known as the Franklin Mountains State Park, it covers a 24,256-acre patch of the Chihuahuan Desert in the middle of El Paso, Texas.
As we drove from the university campus toward the mountain, nature seemed massive and expansive before us. Wildlife appeared and greeted us, ranging from flowering cacti to birds, deer, insects, and reptiles in movement. When we boarded an aerial cable car to witness the topography and full view at Ranger Peak, 5,632 feet above sea level, another world appeared via all our senses while in motion.
Our eyes awake became our memorable camera as we experienced the vista and natural splendor on earth—as we would experience a poem.
The aerial lift had five spectators: two professors, a father and son, and a park ranger. As we ascended, I imagined what awaited us at the peak. Soon the ranger introduced us to the east side of range, which is part of the Franklin Mountains, and the story behind the mountain, park, and view. Because I wanted a fuller picture, I asked about the earliest inhabitants of the region, but the four-minute ride limited our sharing. As I walked on, I noted that the ranger and historical markers overlook the earliest people who frequented the mountains, the Mansos, and thus their recorded experience is absent.
In contrast, in the following narrative poem I attempt to document the historical presence of the Mansos, who are essential and vital to the story of this natural landscape and view.
Variation on a Theme by Lucille Clifton
on the cable car at Sierra de los Mansos, 2nd May 2015
nobody says the names
the given names by first peoples
to rocks once moved so moved
by the people calling this home
now unidentified and indistinct
instead we only hear of purchases
and treasures galore of land
the ranger remembers with glories
claimed yet he does not know
the names we know of the sacred
rocks and hands once touching earth
some bodies sat here and carved
mountains of lineage with rocks
fed fish and manna on these rocks
how waters once flooded the land
shaping rocks and adobe we behold
before us as we ascend into the sky
and rock bed flowers bloom
we know the rocks must know
their own deserted names
and our ancestral names
even if we misremember
or forget to ask what pages
were rewritten without us
without telling what was
and is native and holy here
somebody manifested another
telling by making one history
after the coming of franklin in 1848
erasing some memories and names
we remember and pronounce
Influenced by the poem “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989” by Lucille Clifton, the poem serves as a counter narrative and a response to my scenic excursion in nature. The coming of Benjamin Franklin Coons, for whom the mountains are now named, changed local economies, geographies, and names.
In all forms, poetry reminds us to be human and humane. Poetry can transform and fuel our imagination as we gain understanding and reflect on the poem’s conversation alongside our living experience. In the essay “Pintura: Palabra” found in the March 2016 issue of Poetry, Francisco Aragón connects Latino visual artists with poets for the “creation of art-inspired poetry” to advance a dialogue. (587). I found it revealing how poetry and life become essential, vital, and genuine in our everyday through the arts and in our classrooms.
With our students, we can experience the vital and reciprocal relationships that poetry can fuel in our everyday lives. This effect can occur across literary tables with memories, stories, and names we seek, find, and pronounce to make poetry come alive.
R. Joseph Rodríguez is assistant professor of Literacy and English Education at The University of Texas at El Paso, located on the border across from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México. His research interests include children’s and young adult literatures, socially responsible biliteracies, and academic writing. Catch him virtually @escribescribe or via email: email@example.com.
Last week’s piece about the Nova Project explored two benefits of democratic societies that also seem to benefit democratic schools like Nova: a better educated population, and a population more enthusiastic about their society’s (their school’s) success.
But there are two more benefits that may be part and parcel with democracy as well: a responsible freedom, and a culture of equality.
Teacher Brian Charest, who left teaching in a traditional high school to teach ELA at Nova, reports that equality is certainly a benefit found here. Traditional high schools, he says, divide students into at least three tiers: advanced, general, and special-needs. But at Nova, where students work with teachers to create the classes they want, where students choose the classes they take and can choose independent study as well, tiers aren’t needed any more than tiers are needed in colleges. Students work enthusiastically and at their own pace.
Students are not ranked or judged with grades, either. All courses at Nova are pass/no pass. But to receive a passing grade in any course, Charest says, students must present a project that demonstrates their mastery of the subject. “In some ways I feel like we’re a more rigorous program academically than some of the traditional schools. . . . You can’t fill out a worksheet and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve demonstrated competency.’ You really have to be able to show clearly that you understood, that you learned something.”
Most public schools struggle with bullying. At Nova, students work to be more sensitive to one another. Students form various committees to help them express their needs. There is a committee dedicated to supporting LGBTQ students, another for students from racial minorities, and more. Students who have been bullied in other schools, Charest says, are delighted to find Nova a welcoming environment. Every floor of the student-run school, in fact, has three restrooms: one male, one female, and one gender-neutral, so transgender students can know that they, too, belong at this school.
Equality between students and staff is part of Nova’s culture as well. The staff does not dictate what classes students take but supports them in following their own curiosity. This freedom can require some adjustment for youth inured to traditional K–12 schools.
“There is a real process of unlearning that has to happen,” Charest says. “Many students start Nova not quite knowing what to make of it. ‘What do you mean I can pursue my own interests?’ Given the choice to learn what you want, a student is suddenly faced with an often overwhelming number of choices. We work hard to support students through this discomforting, yet ultimately liberating, experience. And, over time, most students begin to embrace the deep learning that happens through inquiry.“
And as students take ownership of their education, their new-found freedom seems quickly joined by a sense of responsibility, leading students to get a stronger education. Principal Mark Perry says that, while he opposes standardized testing, Nova complies with all testing requirements, and he finds the test results satisfying. Nova students score as well in math as do students at traditional high schools that “teach to the test,” and Nova students actually score better in reading and writing.
“I attribute most of this to our liberal arts curriculum that is not driven by Common Core or [various standardized tests],“ says Perry.
And what happens to Nova students after they graduate?
“Students who go to a four-year college report back to us that what they learned [at Nova] about personal time management, making good choices, and their use and understanding of depth of analysis in all subject areas gives them an advantage over other students, [including] many who come from elite or AP programs,” says Perry. “We also have colleges like Mills and other liberal arts schools who directly contact us to recruit because of the success of our graduates at their schools.”
After teaching in more traditional school settings, Charest sees clearly the benefits of a democratic school. He says:
What I don’t understand is why our public officials, including school boards and local school district administrators, aren’t doing more to encourage and support the creation of more schools like Nova. There’s a lot of talk these days by so-called education reformers about the need for more innovation and collaboration in schools, but then these folks turn around and open a charter school that looks almost exactly like the school the charter was meant to replace (i.e. they continue to do school in very traditional ways). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every school should look like Nova, but I do think it would be great to give teachers, students, and parents the ability to shape curriculum and decide for themselves what’s worth knowing and doing.
If you missed our interview with Brian Charest last week, read it here.
Last month, 24 teachers and school leaders, mostly NCTE members and ranging from early childhood educators to high school technology coaches, gathered at NCTE Headquarters in Urbana, Illinois to share their concerns. They were joined by one of the US Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassadors, Matt Presser, a literacy instructional coach from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in town as part of the Secretary of Education’s annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. (See the third blog, Barriers to Innovation and Improvement. )
Many of the schools in the communities the teachers serve have a majority of students of color and large numbers of students for whom English is not their native language. In contrast, the vast majority of educators in these schools are white. Many of the teachers pointed to a need to develop an educational workforce that better reflects the makeup of the students it serves.
Students share this concern. In Laura Koritz’ social justice class at Urbana High School, students researched the lack of teacher diversity. Because most teachers in the district were trained at the University of Illinois, the students examined the demographics of students within the teacher education program there and found the same lack of diversity they observed in their school. Noting that many students in the program came from the region, they surveyed their peers, asking them if they were interested in becoming teachers and coming back to their hometown to teach, and, if not, why not.
Most of the students who expressed such an interest looked like the existing staff of the school. Students who could contribute to diversifying it explained their reluctance to embark on a career in education by citing many of the same issues teachers highlighted throughout the night: a punitive, test-driven environment, scarcity of resources, low pay, and lack of respect.
NCTE recognizes that the educator workforce does not reflect the diversity of students they are teaching today, as reflected in its resolution “to expand its efforts to recruit, guide, and retain ethnically and culturally diverse group members, for example, Hispanic, African American, Asian American, and American Indian, who might enter the English language arts teaching profession.” Other NCTE position statements demonstrate the organization’s resolve to recognize students’ right to their own language, assign diverse literature and respect all students, no matter their background.
One of the ways NCTE is working to improve the professional environment for all teachers and to ensure that all students, particularly those in groups that have been historically underserved, are taught be excellent teachers is through its participation in the Coalition for Teaching Quality. NCTE is working with Coalition members from over 100 other educational organizations across the United States to develop and put into practice a Profession Ready Framework. The Framework charts a path for teacher and principal growth throughout their careers, beginning with recruitment and training, proceeding through induction into professional community as practicing educators, and proceeding to demonstration of mastery (such as through National Board Certification) and substantive opportunities for leadership.
The teachers who assembled at NCTE’s Urbana office, on their own time and at relatively short notice, made a powerful statement about how we ought to transform educational policy to better support literacy learning. Not only will the Teacher Ambassador carry that message back to Washington, but NCTE staff and members will do so throughout the year.