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When I poll the 8th graders in my Pre-AP class each year, very few of them will admit to liking poetry. Even when we talk about music being poetry, they will counter-argue with, “But we don’t like ‘real’ poetry.” And I have to agree with them. I don’t like “real” poetry much, either. I don’t remember any teacher or professor, other than one, teaching poetry as anything other than the sum of its parts, something to be broken down and analyzed, not appreciated as a total work. The joy we found in the poetry of our childhood – Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose – becomes overshadowed by the analysis of form and literary devices.
I have always struggled to find a way to connect students to poetry without tearing it apart line by line, and what has worked for me the most are poetry novels. Reading for me has always been about stories, the longer the better. Authors like Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, and Sharon Creech amaze me with their ability to tell entire stories, some with multiple story lines, using only poetic forms. Our students, as part of their curriculum, now read Out of the Dust in 6th grade. They just finished it, and while my 6th graders said it was hard, they liked it better than the book it was paired with, Esperanza Rising. My Pre-AP students are reading Requiem as our last component of the Holocaust unit. As we work through it, we will also look at the poems that survived the Terezin camps, and they will consider the question of why the children of Terezin immortalized their thoughts about what was happening to them using poetry instead of prose.
The Common Core doesn't address poetry in any meaningful way, but we know that students will be tested on their reading abilities using poems. If we embed poetry into our instruction, rather than treat it as a separate entity, perhaps our students could come to understand the value of poetry in helping connect to other pieces of literature, and to understand that poetry is sometimes the best way to express those deeper feelings that prose can’t quite capture.
Poetry has power, and our students need to know how to tap into that power. We need to help our students make the right connections so that they can answer the question posed in the Apple commercial, “What will your verse be?”