The following post is an excerpt from Nancy Steineke’s article “Talking about Poetry: Teaching Students How to Lead the Discussion” (Voices from the Middle, December 2002)
“. . . [T]hanks to Tupac Shakur and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, I think students may be more personally connected to poetry than when I was in high school. Still, apparently having witnessed one too many “tortured confessions,” my students are gripped by the same fear of “school” poetry that I suffered. To ease these fears, teachers need to help students understand how to “walk inside a poem’s room,” giving them the tools and confidence necessary to read and discuss poetry.
Given some liberating experiences, students will start to “feel the walls for a light switch” when meeting a challenging poem rather than turn tail and run . . . .
One of my favorite activities for getting students talking about poetry is the simple list poem [Steineke terms this as a “low-risk poetry porthole.”] . . . .
Another idea that teachers often forget is to model their own strategies for interpreting new and unfamiliar poems explicitly. I’ll never forget a presentation on reading strategies that I attended at an NCTE convention. While one of the presenters posed as the teacher, a shill wearing a Federal Express shirt officiously arrived with a sealed package. After signing for the package, the presenter opened it up and found the transparency of a poem that he had never seen before. The scene was hilarious but really drove home the point that teachers have to take risks as readers, too. The “teacher” proceeded to model how he would read and re-read an unfamiliar poem, marking questions and noting personal connections as he went along.
When poetry becomes more challenging, it’s very important to model and emphasize that the first strategy is to just read the poem a few times. The second strategy is to ask this question: What lines/words/ideas do I understand? When students hit a poem that stumps them, they need to begin by looking for the parts they can grab onto; only then can they start trying to grapple with the parts that puzzle. . . .
When students engage in authentic conversation about poetry, most of the time the kids do get the poems “right.” . . . However, despite our best efforts, sometimes our students will find themselves way off base with a particular poem. Instead of going into teacherly misinterpretation panic, try setting the poem aside for a while and thinking about the origins of the kids’ interpretations. Then pick the poem up again later when everyone can look at it with fresh eyes. Are all poems meant to be completely understood in their first encounter? Of course not! That’s what makes poetry so interesting; you can see something new each time you return for another visit.”