March 17, 2006

An Interactive Poetic Experience

We began the poetry unit four weeks ago. I started by writing the following four bullets on the board:

I hate poetry and make fun of it every chance I get. It is the last thing I would choose to do. Me write poetry, get real!

I don’t know anything about poetry, but it sounds boring and not something I want to get involved with. I would only write poetry if I were forced to at school.

I think poetry is okay. I liked it when I was little, but I am not very good at it. I would write poetry if someone showed me how, but never on my own.

I love poetry and I write it often. I would love for someone to teach me how to get better so my poems don’t all sound like, “roses are red…”

I asked my students to show me where they see themselves on my list by a show of hands. Most of the students fell either in the first or second category. This didn’t surprise me. I remembered my thoughts on poetry in eighth grade, and they were either negative in nature or non-existent, and I didn’t have ultra-violent video games, cell-phones and iPods to waste my time with. This was going to be a challenge. I told them that my goal was to move everyone up a box or two. My goal was to make poetry cool.

Last Wednesday night was the end of our poetry unit. Here is what happened:

As a group, we planned what we called An Interactive Poetic Experience. This was an opportunity to share our work with friends, other teachers and parents. We organized committees to bring food. There was sushi, quiches, cakes, pies, pastas, Caesar Salad, cookies, soda, juice, coffee, tea, apple cider- it was an amazing spread, all organized by the students. We also had exhibits. One was the haiku mobiles. Each student had created a haiku-mobile ( a creation of mine to illustrate the delicacy, balance, structure and freedom of the form.) Some were made from tennis rackets others included stuffed animal cows. Parents walked through a maze of mobiles while nibbling on an hors d'oeuvre. Other exhibits included a wall painting of color poems; there was also a table where students taught their parents the basics of writing haiku or using figurative language. We had a string quintet to play in the background. The students had come after school to help decorate the bland white room. We had borrowed color lights used for dances and strung Christmas lights to the ceiling. We had also lined up over three hundred tea-light candles on the floors and counter tops. The self-published books were the centerpiece of the room. All forty-six of my students had written and self-published a book of poetry containing at least twenty poems. They wrote free-verse, haiku, cinquains, even a sonnet. Each book was illustrated with photographs, drawings and other artwork that brought each book to life. We had also been practicing reading our poems everyday in class. Some days we stood on chairs, to really feel the power of owning the room, other days we bowed and chanted as we read haikus. Some days we let the sunlight fill the room as we listened to Miles Davis, some days we sat in the courtyard watching the ants and listened to the birds for inspiration. It was one of the most rewarding units I have ever taught. I watched students slowly come out of their shells. I watched them learn to manipulate language to work for them, rather than being controlled by words. I watched them start to understand and recognize the poems in their lives. Surrounded by couches and chairs, parents sat drinking their coffee while they read their children’s poems.

I walked the room like a gracious host talking with everyone. “This is so great. I can’t believe you got so-and-so so excited about poetry. This is all he has been talking about for a week. The kids all seem so excited. This is great. She worked on her book all day on Saturday. I have never seen him so excited about English before. You have done a remarkable job.” I walked through the room and watched people feeling good. Not about myself necessarily, though I was proud of the work I had done, but I was happy to see that poetry had brought us all together. It gave me faith in words and ideas. I had not made the event mandatory, nor had I ever said that it would affect their grades, but all forty-six kids showed up. Most were dressed up and looked anxious and excited. We are all alive together in a dimly lit room. Brought there to share and experience poetry: The art of self-expression.

The microphone and podium beckoned so we started the reading. Each student waited for his or her turn to stand in the red spotlight and read his or her poem. Every single one read, even the ones who came to me earlier and begged to be let off the hook. “Listen, I told them, I know you are scared. It takes a lot of courage to open up and expose yourself, but you can do it. Remember, I never said this is mandatory, so you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but trust me if you do it, tonight, as you lie waiting to fall asleep, you will feel better if you read. I promise.” They all read, so did other teachers, the principal, a mom, and a little six year old sister.

After the last reader, I thanked everyone for coming and said goodnight, but one of my students came to the microphone and said that he wanted to thank me on behalf of all the eight graders for making poetry fun. I smiled and waved, and I knew that at least for those two hours, poetry was cooler than anything else those kids could have been doing. And now we move on to Shakespeare and The Tempest.

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