April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.
Before the first workshop of the semester in any class I teach, I pass out a stack of papers, face down, and instruct my students to take one each. When everyone has a paper, we flip them over. I’ve given them a poem: "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Without introduction, I read the poem. I pause when I reach the ending. Some students’ heads are bowed, gazing at their copies. Some have their eyes closed. Some are watching me.
“Why do think I wanted to share this poem with you today?” I ask.
The responses from my students vary depending on the course I’m teaching. But often, one of the early answers is a question: “Because you like poetry?”
“I do like poetry.” I smile. “But what is it about this particular poem?”
Soon, someone points to the lesson plan on the whiteboard. “We’re going to talk about workshopping.” Another adds, “And you want us to be kind to each other.”
“Great observations. So what can we learn about kindness from this poem?”
The room is quiet. My students frown at the poem, or at each other, or at me.
It’s time for a short writing exercise. I ask my students to write their answers to two questions: what can you learn about kindness from the poem? How does the poem make you feel?
Most of my students are used to analyzing writing. They are used to looking for meaning. They are not accustomed to looking inward, at their own feelings, at how the work is affecting them. Poetry, in this instance, helps them identify their feelings and prepare them for the vulnerable process of workshopping. An honest conversation about something other than workshopping encourages them to trust their ideas and each other before diving into their own work.
After a few minutes of writing I ask my students to share their responses with a partner next to them, if they are comfortable. I walk around the room, eavesdropping. “This is a sad poem,” several students say. “But it’s hopeful,” others point out. “I don’t understand all of it,” some students say, and their peers offer, “I think that’s OK.”
I bring the class back together and encourage my students to share their responses. They are animated, responding to each other, almost as if I’m not present.
“I don’t like poetry much, but this is deep,” one says. “It’s like reminding you to walk in someone else’s shoes, you know?”
“Everyone has sadness. I’ve got sadness, you’ve got sadness.” A student points to herself and then to her peers.
“So we have to respect each other,” says another student.
“Even if we disagree.”
“Especially if we disagree.”
I step into the conversation after a few minutes. I encourage my students to point out their favorite lines.
“I like the opening: 'Before you know what kindness is you must lose things.'”
“You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
“It follows you like a shadow or a friend.”
All or almost all of my students participate in the conversation about the poem, even my quieter students. The poem animates them. They connect with each other over favorite lines and ideas. They connect over confusion and questions. It’s these connections that are vital to successful, thoughtful, and trusting workshops.
I read the poem one more time after our discussion, so students can listen to phrases they haven’t noticed before, memorize lines they hold dear, and remember how kindness will take them far both in workshop and outside the classroom.