Schools Should Include More Modern and Diverse Poets in English Classes

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!

4 Replies to “Schools Should Include More Modern and Diverse Poets in English Classes”

  1. The words “I have never heard of Anne Sexton” murdered me, Hannah. Flayed me down to bone, in fact. I feel like you’d like “The Ambition Bird” (you can read it on the Poetry Foundation’s website), which is one of her better-known works.

    Anyway.

    From an educational perspective, “that won’t be on the regents” is such a stupid, simple-track perspective. Besides the obvious, teaching students how to interpret poetry form a variety of sources can only help them on final exams (not that doing well on exams is the only purpose of English class, but you know what I mean). My AP Literature teacher in high school, in fact, solely prepared us for final exams through poetry, despite the fact that prose/long-form fiction is also present on the APs/Regents (or whatever useless exams they make you take in 12th grade). His argument was that if you could interpret poetry, you certainly could interpret any other form of fiction. I think in that comment of his, there is the other problem with poetry in high school classes – poetry is incredibly difficult to write, even poorly. At least to students. English teachers get a bad enough rap as it is for being over-interpreters (“the door is green because it symbolizes greed and mistrust” as opposed to “the door is green because the author thought it sounded pretty) and to many students, poetry just presents an opportunity for a teacher to go absolutely off the rails. I think about that a lot in our current class; how our interpretations of poetry would sound absolutely asine to a class of younger students. Sometimes I feel like that class of young students, especially when we talk about the “shape” of poetry. Uh, it’s choppy? Kinda looks like lines? On a page?

    What I’m getting at is that poetry has this identity as a difficult, unknowable thing. An elitist image, really. And the last thing English students feel like is elites when their teacher is talking about the color of a door being significant. There needs to be some kind of breakdown of poetry for students that doesn’t present it as something only for the brilliant. Part of it is probably an introduction to Shakespeare as high art; which, yes, it is, but certainly isn’t indicative of all poetry. In tenth grade, reading the words “do not go softly into that good night” made me feel like such an idiot. How am I supposed to top that, y’know? I’d even go as far as to say that poetry is often presented as a competition within schools, but going further than that oversteps my boundary of understanding how school works, seeing as I’ve been out of it for three and a half years now. I leave it to you to figure it out!

  2. Don’t you worry, I had never heard of Anne Sexton in tenth grade, then I did an entire project on her and her poetry. I love her so much, and I think she doesn’t get as much hype as she should!

    I see what you mean about poetry feeling a bit “elitist” to high schoolers, and I agree! This is why teachers need to get off their high horse and include new and diverse poets in their curriculum. I feel like doing that would make the world of poetry so much more accessible to a wider range of students.

  3. So much to say here…this might be an office hours conversation, if you’re interested, Hannah.

    First, an anthology which tries to bridge the gap you’re identifying:
    https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/313582/please-excuse-this-poem-by-brett-f-lauer/

    Second, there’s such an intriguing difference between the act of writing poetry and the expectation of studying/decoding it – it’s telling that your students were apprehensive/rejecting the idea of poetry but came to love writing it, and foregrounding writing (which can lead to and come from close reading) might help.

    That’s partly where elitism comes in: in theory, writing should be the most democratic art, the least elitist: not everyone can keep musical time or complete the spatial work of painting but we all use words. But literary devices, valid as they are, can be/have been used to control language, to exclude – as has the canon, as you point out. So the work is partly about making democratic again how we use language as well as whose language we hear/see.

    Finally – I’ve long thought we have opportunity for SUNY Geneseo creative writing students to help achieve what you’re outlining; indeed, you’ve already got materials other students and teachers could use…there’s at least a Directed Study in this, and likely more…

    1. Thank you for recommending “Please Excuse This Poem!” I have added it to my “books to buy” list. Something I’m really passionate about is Classroom Libraries; that list I mentioned is all books that I would want to have in my future Classroom Library. I think that so many teachers have a Classroom Library that goes underutilized by students due to a number of factors. Whatever the reason these libraries are ignored, if put in to place properly, Classroom Libraries could be a great place for introducing students to poetry in a way that opens doors instead of closing minds. It’s as simple as including these books in a place that’s accessible for students and then also recommending these books to students.

      When I student taught, I would often have a conversation with a student that resulting in me writing down a book recommendation for that student. Unfortunately, these books usually weren’t accessible to the students, and so the students didn’t read the book. Nevertheless, the students often expressed how important it made them feel that I thought of a book just for them based on a conversation we had before class started. If the book I recommended where in the classroom library, I could just hand it over to the student right then and there. This is a way to get around the “that’s not on the Regents” issue when introducing modern poetry to students.

      Unfortunately, Classroom Libraries are completely funded out of teacher’s pockets and books often don’t find their way back to the classroom after leaving it. It’s clearly not a perfect solution to the problem I presented, and it’s certainly not the only one, but it’s worth exploring further.

      You mention writing poetry, and I purposefully didn’t talk either creative writing or poetry analysis in this post because they are both topics that deserve their own novels (but a future post will have to do). This post I tried to explore just the idea of having modern and diverse poetry in the classroom. Though I think the democracy of writing poetry is something I’d also like to think about out loud in a future post. Thank you for the response, it gave me a lot to think about!

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