Postcard from NCTE #3: Why I’m Making 2023 the Year of Poetry in My Classes

This is the third and final of my reflections from the NCTE Convention. For the first two, click here and here.

“Poems give us something to hold up to the light, to examine from different angles” –Brett Vogelsinger

Before winter break, I began my final unit of this quickly waning semester on Living Poets, and, as expected, a handful of students in each class approached me afterwards to tell me the same four words that I’ve heard from scores of students over the course of my career when I start talking about poetry: No offense, but I don’t like poetry

My conception of poetry as a teenager

While teachers often don’t care for students questioning curricular choices, I can’t help but give these students an internal half-smile because when I was a teen, I felt exactly the same way. As I expressed on here in the blog’s early days in a post called “Why Poetry Should Be a Daily Part of All Writing Classrooms,” to me as a student, poetry was something akin to a doily: It was nice enough for people who were into that kind of thing, but I found it to be frilly, fussy, and largely useless.

Today I love poetry because Salman Rushdie was right when he said, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Poetry is an indispensable tool for bettering ourselves and our world, and it also can be an indispensable tool for the modern classroom because the condensed size of poetry makes it more easily accessible for students whose online lives are often filled with condensed media (think TikTok or Snapchat).

But at NCTE, while attending a session on poetry run by Brett Vogelsinger, author of the upcoming book Poetry Pauses, I had a sudden realization that I no longer live up to my claim back in 2019 that “poetry should be a daily part of a writing class.” This realization at first caught me by surprise because I consider myself a huge poetry supporter, but like so many elements of my class, my daily use of poetry departed quietly and unceremoniously during the pandemic, replaced with sporadic usage and far too many poetry deserts.

In his session Brett Vogelsinger spoke directly to this—how poetry is often the first thing cut and the last thing we think of adding to our curriculum—but he and his fellow presenters also gave some compelling counterpoints for why poetry should likely play a much larger role in many classes:

  • Poetry allows us to bring in more voices and ideas into our classrooms in a low-impact way. If we simply take a moment to appreciate or notice something about a poem (as opposed to the grueling process of “finding out what it means”; see “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins to get a sense for what one can do with poetry), then a poem is usually barely longer than a TikTok. And yet, though poems are little, they can be fierce. They are, in the words of Vogelsinger, “Little gems that bring glimpses of light and color and truth” into our classes.
  • Poems are also often the perfect mentor texts. Teaching parallel structure? Discussing the theme of ambition? There is a poem for everything done in the ELA classroom, and yet for some reason poems are rarely included in the conversation when it comes to meaningful mentor texts.
  • Poetry leads to better writing and discussion. During the session I thought about how both this year and before, the best writing and discussion I see in my class is often prefaced by students holding a poem up to the light, or pressing their ear against it, or looking for its light switch while water skiing (also see the Billy Collins poem, and for those who want to share it with classes, I have a video of Collins reading it at the bottom, courtesy of my wonderful colleague Susan Scott).
  • Poems offer beauty and inspiration, and those things matter. Great thinkers like Gholdy Muhammad have purposefully elevated joy and inspiration since 2020, and there is good reason for this, as I discuss here. At a time where so much in the world is less than ideal and illness still commands headlines (my school announced that we are back to a mask mandate this week because so many people are sick), beauty, inspiration, and joy are not superfluous. They are essential, and poetry is a great way to welcome them into our classes.

So next semester, I plan to bring daily poetry back to my classes. To help with that, I will use Vogelsinger’s Poetry Pauses (It is due out in a few weeks, but I already read an advance copy, and it is excellent!) extensively, along with a few of my other favorite poetry resources:

  • Go Poems: This blog is Brett Vogelsinger’s precursor to Poetry Pauses and it has 180 free poetry lessons from teachers ranging from Carol Jago to Joel Garza to Penny Kittle to, well, me!
  • Button Poetry: A massive resource of modern, diverse, vibrant poetry—Button Poetry is how I found so many of my favorite living poets, from Danez Smith to Nate Marshall.
  • Mastadon/Twitter/Instagram/TikTok: My favorite way to find new poems is to simply follow poets on social media. Half of the reason I even go to social media is to find great poems for myself and for my classroom. For example, on the right is one by Dean Atta that was shared online recently.
  • And you! My fellow teachers are the ultimate poetry repository because you know what works with kids. If you have any favorite poems that are hits in your classes, leave them in the comments below or respond to this and I will pass them along!

Thanks as always for reading, and happy 2023! Now, “Introduction to Poetry,” as narrated by the author (and animated by the internet).

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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