12 November 2013

Demystifying Poetry

Sometimes, against all reason and justification, humans find themselves moved by some "higher power". We tag this unknown, ethereal "higher power" with all sorts of labels: having an epiphany; being moved by the spirit; following a hunch; going with a gut feeling; trusting our intuition.

Whatever it's called, I had one of those. I had one of those spirit-moving, gut-rending epiphanies about switching gears about our next unit.

And, to be frank, it's quite fitting.

Originally, English 10A was going to start its practice NeSA unit; students are reintroduced to the NeSA writing exam--they take them in eighth grade--and practice dissecting prompts, reflecting, organizing, and writing responses. It's an excellent way to prepare sophomores for this test that faces them their junior year.

However, something led me away from the plans laid out for my students. Afterall, we just completed a literary analysis, which includes some of the same basic organization and writing skills as the NeSA requires.

Instead, I decided to jump to our final unit of the year a little early: poetry.

At the beginning of each class, I took a quick survey of the students to find out what they thought of poetry. The answers were widely varied. Some students said poetry was inspirational, expressive, creative, and advanced, while other students believed poetry to be difficult, dumb, stupid, pointless, needlessly vague, and even a "waste of paper".

Strong words.

But who can blame them? A majority of people hate poetry, right? That's a well-known fact. It's a "duh" statement to say most people hate poetry. Talk about pointing out the obvious, right? Just like saying a majority of teenagers enjoy listening to music; DUH!

Except music IS poetry; music is poetry set to a tune.

That slightly blew their minds. They love music--they ask to listen to it every day--and they hate poetry, but it's really the same thing. Just like a movie is nothing more than a book-turned-performance, music is nothing more than poetry-turned-performance.

The problem lies in the fact students simply don't understand poetry.

I attempted to clarify this concept for students. I asked students what they loved to do. Each period, I focused on a student that loves sports. To one student, I asked "how do you feel when someone says baseball is a stupid sport--it's a pointless game that lasts way too long...anyone can hit or throw a ball!"

His response: "People that think that obviously don't understand baseball."

And he was right. I, for one, understand next to nothing about baseball. In fact, if it's sports-related, a person might as well be speaking to me in Greek, because the concept and techniques are lost on me. I am ignorant in the ways of sports. I went so far as to admit that were I to sit and watch a baseball game, a wrestling match, or a track meet with the student athletes that participated in those events, they would have a much deeper appreciation for the sport than I would. The technique, beauty, nuances, and greatness of those sporting events would be evident to them, but the concept blows clean over my head.

But, this is how I drove it home for them. I showed them a poem by William Carlos Willams; most students agreed it was a stupid, pointless poem, but they were willing to trust me that there was greatness about it that they weren't able to see because they were ignorant in the ways of poetry. However, once we dissected the poem and looked at it through the eyes of a poet, they began to see something bigger beneath the seemingly simple, pointless poem.

During this unit, it's not my goal to get students to love poetry, or for them to go out to Barnes & Nobel and buy themselves the complete work of e.e. Cummings (though, they could do worse things...), but to be able to appreciate the inherint beauty, technique, purpose, and nuance behind poetry. In doing so, they will be able to not only read and better appreciate quality poetry, but also recognize and appreciate quality music*, too.

Over the next few weeks, students will learn poetic devices, read and write in various poetic styles, and hopefully, develop an appreciation for one of the oldest art forms known to mankind.

In the end, students should see that poetry does indeed have a point.

*We compared two lines of contemporary songs to illustrate how some songs have more inherint quality based on the poetic devices they use. Compare--

"Happiness" by The Fray:
"Happiness is just outside my window/
I thought it'd crash blowing 80-miles an hour/
But happiness is a little more like knocking/
On your door; you just let it in"

to Justin Beiber's "Baby":
"Baby, baby, baby, ooh,
Like baby, baby, baby, ooh,
Like baby, baby, baby, ooh,
I thought you'd always be mine (mine)"

Obviously, there's something to be said about utilizing poetic elements and the impact lyrics have.

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