The Poetry Lady’s FAQs

A web site is not really a complete web site these days, unless it offers a set of FAQs. I don’t know when FAQ became part of our common parlance, but there it is: short, clunky — rather unpoetic if I do say so myself.

Nonetheless, I feel it’s time that I created my own list of FAQs. After all, there are questions that are frequently asked of the Poetry Lady. In fact, I have a stack of yellow index cards piled on my desk and each one contains a question I’ve been asked during my workshops on teaching teachers to teach poetry. The questions I receive range from:

How do I inspire students to write poetry?

to:

How can I use poetry as a way of enabling people to search deep within and find new ways of expressing themselves?  

and

 How can I use poetry as a resource for problem solving? 

All very interesting. But for now I will try to address a pair of questions, that though seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum, almost answer one another. The first is this:

How can I present a poetry lesson without scaring my students?  

I have to admit that this question scares me just a little bit. The reason I think our students are afraid of poetry is that we as teachers are afraid of it. We’re afraid that as we delve into a poem we’ll come face to face with a line that makes absolutely no sense to us … or a word we don’t know the definition of and didn’t have time to look up before class. We’re afraid we won’t understand it and worst of all, that we will be unmasked in front of our students.

Perhaps we’re afraid that the poem’s theme: death, God, love or lust is just too big and too deep for us to handle in 42 minutes. Perhaps we’re afraid to think about these things because in truth we don’t know what we think about them.

Poetry is not math. There is no correct answer. What could be more terrifying to a teacher than that?

 The second question I want to add to my FAQ page is this one:

How can I help my students love poetry as much as I do? 

The teacher who asked this question will have no problem teaching poetry. She will have no problem convincing her students to love it. Because it is almost this simple: Don’t teach poetry, share poetry that you love.

This question reminds us that the answer to the one that preceded it is that in order to avoid scaring your students about poetry, learn to love it yourself!

Sometimes I think the less said about poetry in the classroom the better. Let’s agree not to teach poetry, but instead to read a poem aloud to your students that once made you cry – and invite them to do the same. Post poems that you love, or stanzas from them, in places where students might come across them. The bathroom wall is as good a place as any.

One of my favorite poetry activities, in fact, involves no teaching at all. I simply bring an armload of poetry books into the room and drop them on a desk somewhere in the middle. My instructions to my class are simple: Take a look inside some of these books. Find a line or a title or a stanza or a poem that makes you laugh or that makes you angry, or that makes you say, “Yes!” and at the end of class we’ll listen to what you’ve found.

Instead of teaching poetry to our students, what if we were to join them in the discovery of poetry instead? Share in the mystery. Share in the unanswered and unanswerable questions. Accept that poetry is in itself about Frequently Asked Questions. But most importantly it is about frequently unanswerable ones.