In college, I took a course on poetry in which each class period was devoted to analyzing the works of one particular poet. In theory, that sounds like a great idea and class. Who wouldn’t like to talk about great poets and poetry? That’s what I enjoy most about poetry; every reader sees something different when they view or read a poem. I love comparing and contrasting my views with others. The big problem with the class though was that if your view of the poems discussed didn’t agree with the teacher’s views, you were wrong. The teacher took a very stifled approach to teaching poetry and would only accept one interpretation of a poem. How is that embracing the creativity that is poetry? While I used to thoroughly enjoy poetry prior to this course, because I refused to believe that the analysis provided by the teacher was the only way to interpret a poem, I almost failed the class and grew to dislike “famous” or “classic” poetry, which is a real shame.
As a teacher of the Humanities, one of my main goals is to allow for multiple interpretations and views of prose and poetry. Just because some stuffy critic wrote a book analyzing the poems of Robert Frost in a particular manner doesn’t mean that you can’t see what you want to or need to see within his poems. Poetry isn’t nor ever should be considered or taught as an objective course. Poetry must always be open to self-interpretation through one’s own perspective.
Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the students to one of my favorite “classic” poems. We read and discussed Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. I began the lesson by asking the students to describe a Jabberwock. What is it? Of course, they had no idea what a Jabberwock is, but then had fun hypothesizing what one might be. I then explained where the poem came from and who the author was. I then read the poem aloud for the students, acting it out in my own unique way as I read. I then engaged the students in a discussion on their noticings. What did you notice in the poem? How did it make you feel? What might the author have been trying to tell us? The boys added their varied insight to the conversation. One student noted that it appeared to be about some creature or beast. A few students seemed confused by it. I then explained how the author used many made up words in the poem. We analyzed a few of the made up words and what they might mean or represent. This part of the discussion helped a few students more clearly see the piece for what it is. While I pointed out the epic battle scene that I saw in the piece, I was also very clear with the boys that it’s okay if they didn’t see what I saw when they read the poem. Poetry is about self-interpretation. If you saw something else in the poem, that’s completely fine and acceptable, I said to them. I didn’t want any of my students to feel the way I did in my college poetry class. I want them to embrace and like poetry because it is open and flexible like a blank canvas or Twizzler.
Following our discussion of the piece, I had the boys create their own Jabberwocky-esque inspired poems. Although I put parameters on the writing portion, I left them quite open. They needed to write at least five stanzas of poetry with at least four lines in each. They needed to include some sort of adventure story or scene, at least five self-created and made up words, at least one example of alliteration, and at least one simile or metaphor. Other than that, there were no requirements. I didn’t force them into a rhyme scheme or syllable count. I didn’t give them any other confines aside from the tools in their poetry toolbelt, which we discussed in class on Wednesday.
I gave them plenty of time in class to get started on their piece as well. To debrief the activity, I asked the students how many of them enjoyed crafting their own inspired Jabberwocky-esque poem. Only a few hands went up. I then asked how many of them found this activity to be challenging. A few hands went up, including my own. As I used the work period to begin crafting my own piece, I shared my trials and tribulations with the boys. Being empathetic with my students allows them to see themselves in me and realize that they aren’t alone. Learning can be a difficult journey, but knowing that someone is going through it or went through the same trouble as you, helps a lot.
I wrapped today’s class up with a little sharing. I had the students share their poems with their table partner before allowing interested volunteers to share a stanza from their piece with the class. The boys seemed to really get excited about each other’s poems and reading them aloud. They were laughing and having fun, and hopefully doing a little learning along the way as well.
Teaching poetry isn’t just about analyzing and dissecting poetry already written, it’s about making poetry and inspiring students to see the simplicity or complex nature of poetry. It can be whatever you want it to be. Allowing students to use a mentor text through which poetry devices and tools can be highlighted before crafting their own unique poems fosters engagement within the students. Providing the students with choice and options empowers them to take supported and safe risks while challenging themselves to grow and develop as learners. Although many of my students began the unit on poetry thinking that every poem had to rhyme and be about something in nature and thus had a disdain for the genre, after today’s lesson, many of the boys seem to think that poetry is fun, inventive, creative, and full of action and adventure. I mean, what boy doesn’t want to hold a vorpal sword and behead a scary beast?