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.

       

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Euphoria yoo-fawr-ee-uh –noun

My students are starting a poetry blog. They chose as the blog’s title: Poetry Is a Mirror (we’re not quite ready to take the wraps off yet, but stay tuned). The title, they told me, means that poetry is a mirror in which we can see ourselves more clearly.

Maybe I should change my blog’s title to Students Are a Mirror. That’s because my students are like a mirror in which I can see myself more clearly. Or at least, they let me see myself as they see me.

Here’s an example. Recently in one of my classes, the students were out of control. They were thumbing cell phones under their desks (as if I can’t see below the horizon line of their table tops), they were whispering to one another, they were talking out of turn … basically they were doing everything they could to keep me from teaching. I could feel my frustration level rising as I asked for their attention again … and again. Finally I raised my voice, something I don’t like to do unless pressed. “I am really unhappy with the way you are all behaving today,” I said, in what I thought was my strictest teacher voice. I went on to lecture them about how disrespectful I thought they were being and if you’ve ever been or had a teacher, you know pretty much how the rest of my speech went.

When I was done, S., who was among the worst offenders, looked up at me with a genuine look of confusion on her face. “But Miss,” she said, “if you are so unhappy, then why are you smiling?”

Good question.

Then this week, we were working on metaphors. I asked everyone to say how they were feeling, and then to compare that feeling to something else:

“I’m happy like flowers,” one student said.

“I’m sad because I can’t be with my son today, I feel like a puzzle that’s missing a piece.”

 

“I feel tired, like a grizzly bear in October.”

“What about you Miss, how do you feel?” a student asked me.

Another good question. But before I could answer they started to answer for me:

“You’re hyper,” one girl said.

 

“You’re like a battery …” someone else suggested.

“… that’s all charged up.” her neighbor added.

Okay, so now my face was red, like an apple. But I had to go on with the game I’d started. “I’m energetic, like a super-ball,” I said. And once again I was surprised to see myself through their eyes.

 Then one more reflection was mirrored back to me. This time another teacher was going over vocabulary words with the students. The word was Euphoric. They reviewed the definition. Euphoric, relating to Euphoria: a feeling of happiness, confidence, or well-being sometimes exaggerated in pathological states as mania. 

“Oh,” S. said. “I get it. Euphoric is what the poetry teacher is.”

 

 

I suppose I like the view through the mirror my students hold up to me. Well, “exaggerated in pathological states …” isn’t exactly what I hope they see when they look at me, but teaching poetry does make me happy. Sure, euphoric even.

     

And Today, Another Cry

icicles-resized.jpgYesterday, I had a new group for poetry. S was sitting right up front, round-faced, with eyes hiding a wink of mischief in them. She wrote her name in a cheerful cursive in pink pen. 

 

The assignment, after reading Aleida Rodriguez’s poem, “Extracted,” was to write a poem about a neighbor.  In Rodriguez’s poem the poet describes going into her garden wanting only silence, but instead being accosted by the neighbor who” mispronounces words in two languages,” and the elderly woman with eyes that shine “like the windows/ of a house well cared for.” Rodriguez’s poem ends with this description of the mute moments she craves: “… nothingmore than the silent vines of my mindfeeling into dark places—blood-sweet—like a tongue exploring the hole left by a tooth that’s been extracted.” 

I could have assigned a poem about the deep quiet we sometimes crave … or silence, but I was in a lighter mood, and wanted to read about my students’ chatty, nosey or noisy neighbors.  

As everyone settled down to write, S. protested: “I don’t have any neighbors.” 

“You don’t have any neighbors?” I asked, eyebrow arched in disbelief. 

“No,” S. said. There was that mischief twinkling in her eyes, playfully challenging me. 

“Where do you live?” I asked. Our school is in a small city. There’s no place to stand without bumping up against someone else’s music, the aroma of their cigarettes or coffee. 

“In a building.” 

“With no neighbors?” 

“They’re invisible,” she pushed. “Like Casper.” 

“Great,” I said. “Write about Casper, your friendly neighbor.” 

And so S began to write: “She has no hair, no eyes, no nothing/ Only a stupid shadow …” 

After class I rushed to the staff lunchroom, hungry, craving conversation. About fifteen minutes into the break we heard a cry. A student’s voice; the sound of cresting sorrow. Someone came into the lunchroom to tell us: “It’s S.” 

S’s classroom teacher jumped up and she and a counselor went to find out what was wrong. Later we learned the reason for S’s wailing: the father of the baby she is pregnant with, had been assassinated. That is, he was murdered, probably in a drug or gang-related crime. 

S’s cry followed me for the rest of the day and into my dreams. A stupid shadow

…  

Today, I was working in my office late in the afternoon, just before students boarded the vans to go home. I heard another cry. This time it was a sound like the colors of balloons. And more voices joined in: teachers, counselors, everyone cheering. 

This time another student, N., had learned that she has passed her GED. I want to let that sound stick to my clothing and tangle in my hair, like stubborn confetti.