This post was guest-authored by student Veronica Pusateri. Veronica just completed ninth-grade in the classroom of NCTE member Michael Guevara at Southwest High School, San Antonio, Texas.
A collective sigh filled the classroom. The teacher just assigned—wait for it: Poetry. Yes, we students have to read and—oh, the horror—annotate a poem written long before we were ever born. On top of that, we have to wring some sort of meaning out of a confusing string of words and stanzas.
Many high-school-age students will admit to hating poetry and to only reading it when assigned. Would you care to change this scenario?
Then begin with poems that students are excited to read and topics we’re excited to write about. Forgo the analysis and dissection and begin with enjoyment.
According to my English teacher, Mr. Guevara, “Poetry should be as individual as the reader,” like the poems he reads for leisure, which he describes as “quirky, contemporary, and not exactly what you always see in the classroom.”
Students aren’t naturally drawn to poems like The Raven, get discouraged trying to read it, and build their contempt for poetry on those experiences.
My classmate Cesar doesn’t like to read poetry because “It’s hard to comprehend. If I’m reading a book, it tells me the story, but I don’t want to decode a poem.”
Another classmate, Ian, has his own preferences for poetry: “If you give me a poem that’s humorous, I will probably read it, but if you give me a poem that’s complicated, I’ll probably ignore it.”
It’s all about relating to the intended audience.
In “Why (Some) People Hate Poetry,” Adam Kirsch explains, “Poetry is a gauge of our mutual connection. If we can’t speak the language of poetry, it is a sign that human communication has been blocked in a fundamental way.”
Too often students are never properly engaged or introduced to poems we may actually have a passion for. Students need poems that just might be “quirky, contemporary, and not exactly what you see in the classroom.”
Good poetry is honest and open. Today, people are more accessible than ever, especially those who think they need to share their opinions on everything—good or bad. This makes young people less inclined to create and share. We get discouraged easily because we expect to write the next ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ on our first attempt.
Still, to learn how to observe elusive themes and the myriad rules of reading and writing, we have to be exposed to a wide range of poems, including some written in the days of Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. Andrew Simmons explains in “Why Teaching Poetry is So Important” that “Poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text.”
There is a balance between building a foundation and reading simpler poems about more relatable topics. The key is to continue to be passionate with students even after the foundation is built, and remind us that every poet had to start somewhere. This validates our voices and lets us know that the world really wants our insights. And we may share them—maybe even in poetry.
Adam Kirsch, “Why (Some) People Hate Poetry,” The Atlantic. October, 2016.
Andrew Simmons, “Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important,” The Atlantic. April 8, 2014.