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2019

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.

 

Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambertan educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California.

 

When National Poetry Month comes around each year, I think back on the first time I taught poetry as part of a college composition class. It was nearly twenty years ago, and the class was English 102 (a second-year composition course at East Los Angeles College). I taught everyone from Yeats to Langston Hughes in 102 (and still do). My poetry assignments usually fall into one of two categories: literary criticism or rhetorical analysis. Asking students to identify a poem’s major theme and explain how the poet uses symbol, tone, syntax, and other elements to convey that theme to the audience can be a valuable exercise. I now teach writing at three different institutions, and I still enjoy discussing poetry with my students.

 

It wasn’t until very recently that I realized I was ignoring an important literary subgenre--the poetry review--when asking students to write about poetry. I was re-reading a review that I posted to Amazon.com on April 13, 2010. It was, of course, National Poetry Month, and it was a review of Ms. Anhthao Bui’s poetry collection, Yellow Flower. (Full disclosure: Ms. Bui is now my wife).

 

After re-reading my review of Anhthao’s collection (which weighs in at a mere 3 paragraphs), I thought about how asking students to review a poem (or a poetry collection) could help them formulate and support an argument. After all, isn’t a review an argumentative form of writing? The author is essentially asking the reader to read (or not to read) the piece in question. Such an assignment would require students to utilize rhetorical techniques as well as identify literary elements such as form and symbol.

 

My review of Anhthao’s collection begins with a catchy title (“Anhthao Bui’s Flowering Talent”) that ties in with her title poem’s central image (the yellow flower). I provide a clever but obvious “hook” in my first paragraph by alluding to a quote from Emily Dickinson that Anhthao uses in her collection: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I go on to identify several of the themes I believe are at work in Anhthao’s poetry, including the struggles of immigration, the heartache of love gone bad, and the dichotomy between the personal and the universal. 

 

The final paragraph of my review begins with a question: “Is Bui the Yellow Flower of her book’s title?” I don’t attempt to answer the question, but I conclude on a positive note, calling Yellow Flower “a deftly-conceived poetic portrait of a woman’s life.” My review is not perfect by any means, but it could provide an interesting subject for a rhetorical analysis by my students. Such an analysis could be followed with an opportunity for the student to write their own poetry review. I plan to try this with my students next semester. I will report back to let you know how it goes. 

 

How do you use poetry in your composition classes? How do you help your students engage with poetry? I look forward to hearing from you.     

 

 

 

             

To continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, we're re-posting the following blog from Phillip Chamberlin professor at Hillsborough Community College. This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 23, 2018. 

 

“I lost six friends and neighbors—all under 25 years old—to suicide. And since then, I’ve lost about five friends to heroin overdoses and suicide. It’s just like this cluster of death that surrounds me, surrounds my neighborhood. It’s kind of a desperate thing.” –John Ulrich, college student from Boston

 

The young man quoted above stands on his apartment building as he gazes into the lens of the camera. He’s about to recite his favorite poem, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. His personal connection to the poem is obvious, as is his passion.  The rhythm of his performance varies greatly from that of the author's, but no matter—it’s a valid reading, and he’s moved by the poem, and so are we.

 

This video and many others like it are featured in the Favorite Poem Project, a project founded by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, that features compelling videos of ordinary people introducing and then reciting their favorite poems. The website describes the participants as being “Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds.” Most of the people on camera are quite ordinary—they may have interesting stories, but rarely are they overtly eccentric. Because the participants are not famous poets or academics, they could perhaps be called outsiders. But that would be missing the point: In the world of poetry, there are no outsiders.

 

I teach at a community college that serves a population almost as diverse. Some of my students are younger than sixteen (as participants in high school dual enrollment programs) and some are older than sixty. Some have never had a day of employment, and others are changing careers. Some have disabilities. Some are multilingual. Some are already avid readers, and some avoid reading as much as possible. Some even write their own poetry. Others think they hate it.

 

In my experience, these Favorite Poem Project videos have had a welcome role in many of my courses, at least the ones that discuss literature (whether in depth or as part of a brief overview). In elective literature classes, which tend to be full of students already passionate about reading, they work. In prerequisite composition classes, which tend to include a population of students with a much wider range of skills and academic preferences, they also work. Whether I teach in traditional classrooms or in online environments, they work. Students invariably find something intriguing and relevant in these ordinary people, their favorite poems, and their interpretations.

 

Sometimes I assign specific videos, like the Jamaican-American photographer who finds himself surprised by his connection to New England poet Sylvia Plath, or the construction worker who finds inspiration and comfort in the words of Walt Whitman, or the law student who responds enthusiastically to the world view of Wallace Stevens. Sometimes I encourage students to select videos on their own.  Either way, assignments involve viewing, ruminating, responding, writing, and discussing.

 

In face-to-face classes, sometimes I assign groups of students to present a video to the class—that is, they respond to a response and continue the conversation. In online courses, these videos serve as the basis for at least one of our weekly discussions. Even when students don’t respond favorably to a video, something interesting happens: They begin to see poetry in a new light. And to be honest, sometimes I do, too.

 

Imagine where instructors could take these activities to make them even deeper, more involved, more challenging. Instructors could even ask students to create their own videos. (They would need to be brief enough to be digestible for contemporary audiences yet deep and meaningful enough to be worthwhile—a worthy challenge.) Or, instructors could ask students to base an extended essay project about these poetry fans and their responses. The essay project itself could have a multimedia component. The possibilities are exciting, and resources like the Favorite Poem Project will continue to keep poetry relevant for students from many different walks of life.

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.

 

This week's guest blogger is Krysten Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Roane State Community College

 

In an effort to use more collaborative learning activities in my classroom, I have redesigned much of my Composition II course.  The poetry unit has benefited the most from these new classroom activities because so many students are baffled by poetry, even if they find certain lines beautiful.  It’s weird!  How do you even read it?  Why does it look like that?  I’m so confused!  If you’ve ever heard those cries of frustration, then you, too, know that most students wouldn’t pick poetry as their favorite part of English class.  Now that my classes are working on their poetry paper, I’m hearing less of “I have no idea what to do!” and more of “This was easier than I thought,” which suggests that the in-class activities have made an impact.  Most recently, my students spent a day “walking through” six different poems in our Poetry Gallery: 

  •   "Oxygen" by Mary Oliver
  • "The Lungs" by Alice Jones
  • "Home-Baked Bread" by Sally Croft
  • "The Joy of Cooking" by Elaine Magarrell
  • "The Author to Her Book" by Anne Bradstreet
  • "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur.

 

The concept of a “gallery” in a writing classroom isn’t new: almost any assignment can be modified to accommodate different “viewers,” who walk around the classroom, stopping to look at a paragraph, a paper, an image, or a poem, in this case, and leave comments on or next to it.  It’s a good way to get students out of their seats, which helps shake-up the regular classroom routine, but it also gets them to think about (and write about) lots of new ideas, all in the span of one class period.

 

For this activity, I recommend using four to six poems.  (I used six, but having fewer would have allowed more time at the end of class to discuss them.)  Print them out, and tape them around your classroom.  Tape two or three sheets of paper next to each poem, so students have a place to leave their comments. 

 

To organize students, I used a random number generator app and then put them in six groups, enough to match the number of poems we used.  Each group had two to three people, so it would be easier to have discussions about each poem.  The groups came up with team names that they used to distinguish their answers on each piece of paper.  They also took turns writing down their responses.

 

To begin, each group was assigned a poem as a starting point.  After five minutes or so, or once everyone was finished, they rotated clockwise.  I put questions on the overhead projector, and groups used these to form their responses to each poem:

 

The poem’s meaning:

  1. What is the poem about when you read it for pleasure?
  2. What is it about when you read it for meaning?

The poem’s language:

  1. What’s an unfamiliar word that your group would have to look up? If you know every word in the poem, what’s one word that seems important to the poem’s tone, theme, or meaning?
  2. What’s your group’s favorite phrase? What makes it beautiful, strange, or interesting?

 

Once everyone had read and responded to each poem, the rotation brought them back to their starting point.  The groups looked over all the notes everyone had left and then circled their favorite responses to each question.  Each group had a chance to discuss their poem, but everyone was welcome to offer up their own interpretation.

 

I selected the six poems based on a shared theme (breathing, food, and writing) with another poem on the list, so students could begin making comparisons and thinking about how each poet treated a similar subject.  Interestingly enough, one student observed that each of the six poems, to her at least, seemed to be about our souls: What do we need?  What hurts us?  What fulfills us?  Her comment sparked a class-wide discussion, in which other students began pointing out subtle references and examples they hadn’t otherwise thought of, such as Alice Jones’s nod to the spiritual nature inherent in breathing, thanks to the word “transubstantiation.

 

All in all, this interactive, discussion-based activity worked well to conclude our readings for the poetry unit.  As my students have begun working on their close-reading of a poem, I have noticed that many of them have selected the poems we spent time discussing and analyzing in class, even if they initially thought one of them didn’t make sense, like “The Joy of Cooking.”  Contrary to previous semesters, this group of students seems to enjoy the puzzle-solving nature of poetry, which gives me encouragement to keep finding new ways for them to interact with this baffling, beautiful literary form.

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.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Cristina BaptistaAmerican Literature Teacher at Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, CT.

 

We all know those first few words of The Waste Land: I don’t think T. S. Eliot had in mind that what may make April—National Poetry Month—“the cruellest month” for teachers is the struggle to keep things fresh. I teach high school juniors; by the time they reach my American Literature course, National Poetry Month is no surprise. As elementary students, they listened to teachers read from illustrated books of accessible poetry. As middle schoolers, they wrote simple rhymes, carrying them around on Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day.

 

Students are often eager to write poems—but writing, feeling-through and feeling part of poetry are not the same.

 

Nowhere are possibilities of poetry clearer than when pen is physically pressed to paper (or finger to keyboard) while the mind roves over a startling combination of images, headlines, and phrases. The aforementioned childhood exposures to poetry are simply a preamble, a whetting of the cleaver-like intellect, as Henry David Thoreau calls the mind.

 

For Emily Dickinson, poetry was a chance to “dwell in Possibility.” So, as I refresh my National Poetry Month assignments, I’ve considered the potential of allowing students not just to write or read but to dwell in the possibilities of poetry, to use their words not as a direct line to an audience but as a series of lines thrust large and widely into a world, into spaces, times, and ideologies beyond them. I want students to understand that poetry is a constantly living organism, an ongoing conversation—and they are very much an essential part of it.

 

For my high schoolers, I’ve found the most edifying possibilities include being able to find one’s self in a poem—particularly one that is playful, unexpected, and a puzzle-piecing together of sundry parts. I like to think of a poem as a Frankensteinian creature that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be yet and, thus, a very adequate reflection of the young writer. And it’s okay: students, like poems, are works-in-progress, not final pieces. People are this.

 

Therefore, one of the most effective National Poetry Month writing assignments I’ve created involves words, images, and history (personal and national or global). It is an assignment designed to engage students with themselves and their world alike. It is also an essential practice at lateral thinking, a key method of nontraditional problem-solving used by scientists, technicians, and poets, among others, to force the mind to make connections where, on first appearance, there are none to be made.

 

We start with a few timed exercises, as well as some at-home preparations. In advance of the in-class writing, I ask students the class before to bring next time:

 

  1. a newspaper headline, from the current week, that caught their attention
  2. an image from their birth year (note: this is not a baby picture but, rather, an image from a work of art, a screen-capture from a film, or a photograph that was significant and/or in the news the year they were born)

 

Then, in class, I time out five minutes of free-associative writing. First, they have to write anything that comes to mind when they see their selected headline (even better if they’ve never actually read the story attached to it). Then, I time them for another five minutes and they have to write a response to their selected image.

 

Next, I go around the room and distribute, at random, a line from a famous poem, something we’ve read in class that year. It could be a line from Anne Bradstreet, Langston Hughes, or Tony Hoagland. For another five minutes, I ask them to write freely—the only caveat that they have to start with the line they were given.

 

By now, we will have discussed Gertrude Stein and free-association; they will understand the value of “messy,” Cubist-style work more disassembled than assembled. They will see the value of poetry not as answer but as a point of departure.

 

After these exercises (about 15 minutes of writing without overthinking or intervention), I ask students to reread what they’ve written. Can they identify any surprising links among their three separates exercise responses? Does a particular word or theme keep emerging? Does something surprise them?

 

Now, using these ideas, assemble a poem. Revise freely (or not), but combine the three task responses.

This work vitally force students to find timeless connections, recurring patterns of human behavior, interests, desires, and tendencies throughout their lifetimes and beyond. They are given a week to keep working, at home, on their poem. It is not long before I have students remarking, “I never knew I felt so lonely until I picked this image and saw how it fit with the line from Georgia Douglas Johnson,” or “how strange I keep talking about the color ‘orange,’ as if that means something to me. Maybe it does.”

 

The best part of this exercise? I do it, too. It gives me space to write and the students enjoy when I share my work alongside theirs. It makes them feel like we are all in this moment of assimilation together, all backstroking our way through some beautiful yet unpredictable waters, part of a growing conversation about human experience. And there’s nothing cruel about that.