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Friday, January 25, 2013

Nurturing Poets

"Knowledge that is not passed through the heart is dangerous." --Georgia Heard

Poetry is a genre that, until the last several years, has intimidated and eluded me. I always felt like I was missing some secret, encrypted message from the poets that others around me understood. It wasn't until a close friend and colleague of mine introduced me to Billy Collins and his beautiful poetry that I discovered my love for the genre. Reading and hearing poetry became more about the experience and the personal sensations that accompanied the experience. As a student, it had been about finding the meaning and analyzing every line, every syllable. 

I will proudly confess myself to be a learner of poetry. I would be hard pressed if asked to identify the rhyme scheme of a poem, but I can tell you some of my favorite poets. I can tell you what it is about a certain poem that speaks to me. I can even, every now and then, squeak out my own poem that captures an emotion that no other format can express.

Georgia Heard's keynote address at TCTELA spoke to my own experience with poetry. Why poetry? Because, she explained, seeing the world like a poet requires a different sort of view. It teaches us to:

  • appreciate the small moments
  • see poetry in the everyday
  • see beauty in the unlovely
  • fill ourselves with curiosity and wonder
  • experiment with the possibilities of language
  • and examine our emotions, the good and the bad.
The problem is, as I well remember from my time as both a student and a teacher, poetry in school often teaches the opposite. It makes poetry out to be some exclusive club of snobby, erudite weirdos. Instead, as Ms. Heard urged in her speech, poetry in schools should welcome all students to the "club." She presented her three layers of understanding poetry approach.

Layer 1: Invitation
This layer is about getting students comfortable with seeing and reading poetry.
  • Use poetry in morning meanings in all content areas.
  • Introduce students to Found Poetry.
  • Display poems in the environment--make your school or classroom an anthology.
  • Invite students to write their own poetry to display.
  • Don't restrict younger students to the usual poets (Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky).
  • Choose poems that are accessible and relevant.
Layer 2: Connection
This layer is about helping students connect with poetry on a personal level.
  • Have students create self-portrait anthologies.
  • Have students search through books to find a poem that connects with them emotionally. Then have them reflect in writing. Finally, let them write their own poem in response.
  • Continue the activities in layer one, giving students more power over owning the poetry.
Layer 3: Understanding & Analysis
This layer focuses on helping students move into the more complicated world of analyzing poetry. 
  • Highlight the importance of re-reading poems. 
  • Live with a poem for a week:
    • Monday-What do you notice?
    • Tuesday/Wednesday-Activities to explore (i.e. illustrate the poem, act out, read aloud performances)
    • Thursday-Focus on craft and structure (How is the poem built and why?)
    • Friday-Look at other related poems by the same author or with related themes
  • Help students understand the dual meanings present in poetry. You can say one thing and mean something completely different. 
  • Practice visualizing the poetry and get students to draw their mind pictures. 

Check out Georgia Heard's website at, where you can find information about her books. 

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