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58: The Worst & Best Ways to Teach A Poem




Here’s a classroom situation that must have occurred a billion times. A teacher assigns a poem for homework. The next day, the teacher asks, “Can you explain the poem?” Weeks later, a test has this question: “What do you think it means?”

This, I submit, is the worst way to teach a poem. It’s detached, cold, unhelpful, and almost guarantees that children will learn little about poetry except that it’s tedious and no fun. We have to wonder, how do educators end up with the worst techniques? What would be the best way?


In fact, there was a literary theory that favored this sort of hands-off approach; this theory, called the New Criticism, flourished mid-20th century. As I say, this was somebody’s THEORY, not divine revelation, and it belonged, if anywhere, in graduate school seminars or among sophisticated literary types. Certainly not in middle-school classrooms. However, it turned up in almost all of them. This critical fad was a handy pretext for justifying an unprofitable way to study poetry. But which came first, the dumb methods or the predilection for finding them?

John Dewey said schools must focus on social activities (and societal engineering). The academic aspects were not central and often seemed to be, for our Education Establishment, a nuisance. The result was that our education bosses never seemed to have a keen eye for good methods. Or they were, at bottom, actively hostile toward what really worked. (If they choose the best methods, some children would learn a lot, move ahead of other children, and you would have all the social divisions and rampant individualism that John Dewey was trying his best to stamp out. You can see the bind these people got themselves in.)   


My impression is that the Education Establishment ended up with an unfailing tropism toward gimmicks that worked badly or not at all. Everywhere; throughout the educational system. Finally, it began to seem that so-called experts sat in a room and voted to endorse whatever would surely NOT work. Then, to put some lipstick on each pig, they would seize whatever famous name or fashionable view might serve to justify the loser. 


The result was a pretend-classroom: kids, a teacher, all inside a school building. But education stayed stuck in second gear. New Math/Reform Math is a perfect example. Kids don’t learn much arithmetic. Whole Word is a perfect example. Kids don’t learn to read. You look at history, science, and geography and you know that kids learn only a few mangy bits of information. In any real sense, they are historically illiterate, scientifically illiterate, and geographically illiterate, apparently by design. 



There is clearly a pattern here; and perhaps the best example of this pattern--best as in simple and easy to discuss--may well be this hands-off teaching of poetry. Not that this method is more egregious and destructive than any of the other bad actors. But this gimmick is common and familiar. Probably everybody has experienced it.


What are the main guidelines? First, students must not concern themselves with the life and thoughts of the poet. Biographical info is forbidden. Note the foolishness. In a school, schooling is verboten. Common sense suggests exactly the opposite approach. An appealing poem is a wonderful hook for telling kids about an historical figure, a bygone era, or an unfamiliar intellectual context. 

The second limitation is that the teacher can’t provide insights or clues. Students must wrestle with the poem by themselves, and solve its mysteries in lonely struggle. Even for English majors at the college level, this is a fairly dumb idea. The professor, with his 20 or 30-year headstart, presumably knows some juicy tidbits. But no, for the professor to divulge such wisdom is considered cheating. Students must attack each poem in a cold vacuum. 

But the questions press upon us. Can you actually teach a poem in a vacuum? Why would you WANT to teach a poem in a vacuum? Well, perhaps if you don’t really care whether children are interested in poetry, this technique might seem as good as the next. Perhaps, if your main obsession is making sure kids stay at roughly the same level, then teaching poetry in a slovenly way might seem very ingenious. 

Some of our education professors will complain: students must learn to think critically. What, in a vacuum? Try it sometimes. There, across the streeet, is a bank. Tell us what goes on in there? Look, a car. What is happening  under the hood? Isn’t it simpler if an expert gives you some quick lessons on the basics? And you’re an adult!  Imagine you’re only ten or twelve years old, and your teacher basically says, figure it out for yourself, kid. (All of this is an early adumbration of the clunker known as Constuctivism.)  

Truth is, this dry, minimal, stingy way of teaching is the opposite of good teaching. It’s the death of teaching. Only after the children have had a great deal explained to them, only then, can real critical thinking begin.

I’d even argue this radical notion: you can hardly explain too much. That rush of basic knowledge is how we jumpstart the whole process. That’s how we make sure that everyone is getting it and no child is left behind. Isn't this how--think about it, liberals--we genuinely bring “social justice” into the classroom? Isn't this how we actually help the poor kids, the minority kids? It's a radical idea for some. We show our respect for these kids by assuming they want to learn and can learn. 




So, assuming we would like the children to learn about poetry, to love poetry, and to remember the poem many years later, what do we do? Here are some suggestions for making poetry come alive.

One good policy is teach little poems to little kids, and bigger poems to bigger kids. So Poe’s Eldorado might be okay for fourth or fifth grade but The Raven, as wonderful as it is, is too long for use before middle or even high school. Use only easy poems that you love. 

I’m not sure it makes any difference whether you assign the poem for homework or you just plunge in the classroom. In any case, they need to have the poem on their desks in front of them.


The goal and the procedure are one and the same: TOTAL IMMERSION. Use any pretext to have the poem read again and again. Students should experience the poem in every possible way: as drama, as narrative, as meaning, as history, as visual description, as morality, and as intellectual content. Withholding information is silly. The only question is, what is the best pretext for providing this or that piece of information?



The first step is for the teacher to read the poem. Typically, there will be a few odd words that can be explained in passing. Then read the poem again, more dramatically or in a different manner. Now throw out a few bits of biographical or historical info. Show a photo or two. Whatever is most memorable. But keep moving. 

Make a quick case for why you’re bothering with THIS poem, for why this poet is famous, or why many critics have praised it. For example, if the poem is by Poe, it’s important to mention that he has one of the best ears in the English language. He does very clever things with words and sounds. 

At this point, show a YouTube video or play audio, where a professional actor performs the poem. Drop in a few more bits of history or explanation.

One idea might be to invite different students to read it in different ways. Let’s pretend this is the saddest poem in the English language, and read it like that. Let’s pretend it’s actually a very happy poem, and read it in that style. Find students who hope to go into acting, broadcasting, advertising, preaching, sales, show biz, and tell them: here’s a way to try your skills.

To repeat, the whole point is total immersion. Before the kids know it, they have heard the poem six times, and learned a dozen interesting facts about it. Without thought or effort, many of them are memorizing the poem. It is becoming a part of them. 



I’m particularly fond of the poem El Dorado (even as I wonder if “gaily bedight” would cause a problem today). In any case, I memorized it for fun in about 8th grade. A huge story is told in this poem, a story about a quest.

Find a picture of a medieval knight in beautiful armor, on a lavishly outfitted horse, with banners and pennants streaming. Of course, “bedight” is just an old-fashioned word for dressed up. Now, this splendid knight is looking for the magical city of El Dorado. The city of gold. Mention Ponce De Leon and the other Spanish explorers who actually hunted all over Florida, Mexico and Texas for the mythical city. For some it was not only a city of great wealth, it was the city of eternal youth. Find an artist’s rendering of this magical place. 

Of course, nobody found this city. Point out that Poe captured all of that effort and failure in a few dozen words. You might mention that “gaily bedight” and “gallant knight” not only rhyme but also show alliteration. (Whether it’s rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, or onamatopoeia--Poe does all the poetics brilliantly. I’d say just explain these words as you go, as you feel inclined to, then explain them again later.)

Let different people read the poem. Play up different emotions. Have fun with this tragic poem. Read, declaim, act out, and dramatize. HAM IT UP.  

This poem is loved because Poe tells his very complicated story in four quick stanzas, with clever metrics, the whole story very visual, with a perfect balance of hope and despair.


(If, sadly, you are an English teacher who never learned to enjoy poetry, here’s a possible cure. Find a place really isolated and alone. Read the poem several times in various over-the-top ways--dramatic, sad, hysterical, musical, angry, hip-hop, whatever. Let yourself go. Whatever ways you most enjoy, take those to the classroom.)





 Use different techniques with different poems. In the case of a famous poem (The Raven, for example), try to use as many different recordings as you can find. Encourage the students to compete with what Richard Burton and Christopher Walken did with this poem (both on YouTube). It's a long poem so it might be helpful to focus on parts at a time. 

Probably details don’t matter that much. Every different part of this approach is simply a way to keep the children IMMERSED in the poem. You could have younger children practice their printing or penmanship by copying the poem on a piece of paper. You could have somewhat older children, or an art class, draw pictures of various images in the poem. (Is the art supported by the words?) Encourage musical children to come up with a melody for the lyrics. The goal is that after half-an-hour or an hour of this immersion, the child truly knows the poem, and has memorized the poem, and can say personal things about the poem.

You can find information on Wikipedia about many poems. The Raven, for example, was one of the most financially successful poems in history. People around the planet enjoyed this poem. The central conceit or literary device is that a bird croaks some sort of noise, but Poe has us thinking that the raven says “nevermore,” a pretty but ambiguous word which can mean almost anything in any given situation. The man in the poem seems to have a conversation with a bird; whatever the man asks, the raven seems to answer meaningfully--”Nevermore.” Every answer fulfills the man’s darkest fears. The bird is presumably just making bird noises but the man is so on edge that he hears prophecy in every utterance. The whole thing is brilliant; I don’t think it’s ever been done in any other poem. You can’t expect children to realize how unique and extraordinary this poem is. So tell them. 



At this point, after they've had a thorough immersion, you might invite the children to explain the poem or discuss what it means to them. Now they know a lot of related information. Now they will have interesting things to say, things they will be comfortable saying. They are on solid ground when they present their ideas, not yammering nervously in a vacuum. 

Ideally, children deal with another poem a few days later, a third poem a week after that, another poem a week after that. Aim for six poems. Then they can start making sophisticated comparisons between the poems. Which is their favorite and why? Can they make a case that one of the poems is superior or inferior to the other poems? 

This is what critics and literary experts do. 

What public schools typically call “critical thinking” is neither critical nor thinking. Real critical thinking? That’s when you can evaluate, compare, contrast and rank different objects, ideas, phenomena, etc. It’s only possible when you actually know lots of information about each item. 

Literary works--short poems, for example--provide an excellent way for children to experience how critical thinking feels and operates.   




Nursery Rhymes -- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star -- A Purple Cow

Many Folk Songs, Popular Songs, Hymns (regard lyrics as poetry)  



16: The Plight of Poetry
29: The Rules of Poetry
14: Theoryland



© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011