In all things I do, I’m and educator. It’s impossible for me to do anything without bringing education into it, so while I thought about what I could write this week, education came to my mind as it often does. I can (and probably will) write so many posts on poetry and education, but this week I want to air out a grievance I’ve had since student teaching last semester.
Being the “cool English teacher” that I am, I assigned poetry as a final project for my 10th graders who had just finished The House on Mango Street. I tasked them with taking one vignette from the novel and creating a found poem in the shape of an important symbol from the novel. I thought this was a pretty awesome final project. It was certainly one I would have loved to do in high school. However, my students hated it! My rowdy class actually started yelling at me when I assigned this. I want to know why so many students (and people in general) hate poetry.
I think that it has a lot to do with teachers. English teachers either don’t teach poetry or they teach it in such a way that makes students resent it. So many English teachers refuse to introduce new poetry into the classroom. I truly believe that if it weren’t for teachers beating “The Road Not Taken” to death and then not touching any other poetry, students might enjoy poetry more. That’s not to say Robert Frost isn’t great, I just don’t think he’s the best introduction to poetry. First of all, students like to see themselves represented, and teacher’s who only teach white, male poets are doing a disservice to their students. I remember having to research a poet in tenth grade. I had to pick from a long list of white, male poets who were all long dead. There were only three women on that list, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, and there was only one poet of color, Langston Hughes. I picked Sexton purely because she was a woman I had never heard of. So many students were not able to see themselves in the poets on that list. Nevertheless, that list is the standard for English teachers if they want to teach poetry at all.
Schools and teachers need to be more open to teaching modern poetry. I hate to hear “but that won’t be on the Regents.” Not everything students need to learn will be on the Regents! Teachers should include more modern and diverse poets (this is not to say we shouldn’t still teach Robert Frost, there just needs to be a better mix of poets) when teaching poetry. That way more students might even enjoy their poetry assignments. This is a side note, but teaching creative writing is a whole separate post.
There is a happy ending to my students who hated their assignment at first. They ended up writing some fantastic poetry! A lot of the students actually liked the assignment way more than they thought they would. In fact, the student who protested the assignment the most, wrote one of the best poems, and enjoyed the assignment the most. He actually gave me an extra copy of his poem because he wanted me to be able to read it and “remember my favorite student” as he put it. If anyone wants to read it, I still have it!