My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.
For the most part.
What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.
Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)
Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.
The Standards say:
- Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- 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.
- Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
- By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.
I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.
We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.
our dreams when the world is wish-
magnificent the things
we wish were reality
fly high and free
and the princeandprincess live
happily ever after and
do the unimaginable
but we’re dreaming
when the world is journey-magnificent
the plans we’ve
held captive inside us escape
then come to be
and we hopeandpray to never wake up
from imagination and perfection
things real life holds make us
a Time where everything is Group–Separate
nerds and JOCKS as well as
those who are world–unaware
the crude Talk in the
the Alliances and Enemies
the Numbers and the TEACHERS–
a Place that is experiment–fearful
to think it is all bricks
caging the Mayhem–
even the labyrinth
has never been so twisted–
everyone has to but
a place where the odds may be ever in your favor
where everything is lecture-boring
and the science man
sapping every bit of interest out
when life around you is snail – speed
the distant mumble of speech
droning on — forever
a standardized test
the monotonous article
that puts you to sleep
at a single glance
everpresent is the interest
creeping on the edge of existence
living in a deep dark slumber
searching for a time to awaken
but that time
has yet to come
I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.