“If you present poetry as if it were castor oil, no one will be interested. Instead, teachers can approach it as something fun, and also explore poetry that connects to the students and their lives (as opposed to choosing poetry that they feel “should” be studied).” – Nikki Grimes, in Teaching Multicultural Literature
Poetry is a type of genre with which many students have a hard time engaging. In fact, it’s also a genre that many teachers struggle to teach, as a result of its complexity and form. I, for one, am one of those teachers. Helping students to decipher lines, tropes, and the meaning of poems, while at the same time keeping the lesson engaging was a struggle for me. Consequently, I was a little worried before the start of a poetry unit that my students would be disengaged from the lesson. As a result, I decided to ask students to bring songs, lyrics, or poems that they enjoyed and that conveyed a special message or meaning to them.
To my great surprise, while many students opted to bring song lyrics, a large number of them shared poems that they liked and that resonated with them. One particular student shared Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” As she read it, she started tearing up making for a very emotional read.
I asked her about what made her tear up. She answered me with the following, and I will never forget it:
“We’re always put down by society, men, and sometimes those who love us. It’s why I have this on my mirror, it gives me strength every day to walk into the world as a black woman.”
Maya Angelou’s poem resonated with my student and many students who heard it that day, because it touched on what it means to be a woman of colour in society. The poem challenges traditional notions of beauty constructed by society and elevates the beauty of a woman to which we can all relate.
For this lesson I learned three things.
- Never underestimate the interest of students in a certain subject area. It might not be a popular subject or theme or unit, but what students might share may allow us to get to know them and understand them.
- Poetry, just like literature, has the power to start an open conversation about issues that students care about and that directly touch students’ lives.
- By giving students a choice to bring their own examples, I opened room for discussions about topics that are relevant to them. Our particular conversation taught my students about what feminism means and that everyone, not just women, shares a responsibility in advocating for women’s rights.
Facilitating a conversation by teaching poetry began with sharing selections and samples. To help my students start the conversations, I asked them: Why did you choose the piece? What was so special about it? What resonated with you? From there on it’s crucial to build on that conversation through more questioning, inquiry, analysis, and reflections.
In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 2, “Engagement and Dialogue,” read an interview with writer Nikki Grimes about teaching poetry to students. Also explore methods of teaching poetry to help students engage in the work. Find strategies for helping students to connect with the texts they read, and instructions for how to host an open mic event with students.
The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the experience of teaching poetry and learning with and from students.