I have talked before about how Brett Vogelsinger’s work with finding ways to bring more poetry in the language arts classroom and use poetry beyond the classic poetry explications or once-or-twice-a-year freewrites has been transformational to my practice.
This last week, Vogelsinger’s long-anticipated (at least for me) book Poetry Pauses was released, and I am delighted to report that it lived up to every one of my expectations. It is one of the freshest, most engaging, and most practical pedagogical reads I’ve encountered in some time, and I can’t recommend it enough. After reading it, I knew I wanted to get him on the newsletter, and happily he made some time to digitally sit down with me last week.
Here is our conversation about all the ways we can make our classes better, more joyful, more inclusive, and more effective places through regular—and maybe even daily—poetry usage. We also talk about the on-the-ground practicalities: how to find a way to fit poetry in, where to find good poems, ways to win our students over to poetry, and lots of practical lessons and resources. I hope you enjoy!
MJ: Hi, and thanks for being here! On the very first page of Poetry Pauses, you discuss how poetry has historically been one of the most groan-inducing topics covered in the ELA classroom. Why do you think that is and what can we do to turn it into a more beloved and joyful branch of the English Language Arts tree?
BV: I think that poetry has typically been used either for intense analysis and explication or for self-expressive creative work. To some students the first can feel tedious and to some students the second can feel invasive. That is not to say there is no place for these approaches to poetry, but if we want to make it more organically a part of what we do and more approachable, we have to weave it into the year, dipping into poetry for varying purposes. Poetry becomes a friendly companion in the class, rather than a standalone unit. Variety in the types of poems, the age of the poems, the background of the poets is also key to centering poems in English class.
In the book, I write about the resurgence of poetry in recent years, as well as verse merging with other genres. On top of this, students already turn to song lyrics as some of their favorite words. So in a world that is tilting toward poetry with students who have a soundtrack of words set to rhythm already in their heads, it’s not a stretch to engage them in poetry more frequently than we have in the past.
MJ: I love that notion of a world tilting towards poetry. I heard somewhere—maybe it was from you—that the TikTok-ification of attention online, where so much content is short little bursts, actually means that our students are already more primed to connect with poems because they are more compact. Of course, the rub, which you know well as a fellow full-time ELA teacher, is finding the class time. As teachers we have so many demands on our time, which I think plays a role in why poetry is so often left out. With that in mind, what are some reasons that we should look to invest more of our time in poetry, and how are you able to fit in a daily poem and still cover everything else?
BV: One key is that the length of poetry pauses is flexible. Sometimes the poem is the center of the lesson and we step away from our writing process for an essay and work on a key skill exclusively in a poem for the period.
More often, the poems only take a few minutes of class. We must choose our focus in a poem carefully and stick to that if we don’t want it taking over the class period. It’s quite like teaching Shakespeare’s work: you can’t possibly highlight everything your English major eyes catch on. Pick that one shining thing that will take your students where you want them to go and focus on that in the poem. Then the rest of the lesson can be spent applying that to their writing projects, their reading, or a project.
I purposely choose short poems for my Poem of the Day routine, and the Poetry Pauses gives you over 100 of them, with many organized by what you can do with them and links to free access online via a companion website, to get you started.
MJ: As someone who has taught hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of poetry lessons, what are some keys to picking poems that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are lightning instead of lightning bugs?
BV: Choose poems that are accessible on the first read and get better with multiple reads. Reading a poem twice in a row with a class (once from you, once from a student) can be powerful and lead to better observations. I always love poems that find the magic in the mundane, like “What the Window Washers Did” by Margaret Hasse.
Choose poems that interest and excite YOU and enjoy the process of discovering new things in the poem as you read it multiple times a day across your class periods. Share that joy. Students in your afternoon classes will get a lot of “earlier in the day, I missed this . . . but now I see . . .” and that can be cool.
Eve L. Ewing’s poem, “testify” is a poem that exemplifies this well. On a first read, it’s beautiful. On a second read, it’s better. And the ending of the poem demands that I think about it and talk about it with others, which I wrote about in a blog post last year. It’s the perfect poem of the day to bring to a high school audience!
And then also choose poems that push you into topics and styles that might interest your students but do not appeal as much to you. It’s OK for them to hear you say, “I don’t love everything about this poem, but I admire what the poet does here” and then spotlight something that reinforces a skill you learned a while back (that’s right, we can embed retrieval practice and spacing in this routine!) or introduces something new you want to work on. For example, I am not a huge Whitman fan, but I sure can find some excerpts from “Song of Myself” that show how often he uses hyphenation to be inventive with words or another to show how he uses parallel structure. This can provide an apt review of these skills AND exposure to a famous poet my students will hear about again in their academic careers. They may well enjoy his work more than I do.
MJ: Most of my readership is either practicing educators or those who work directly with practicing educators. You’ve already shared some, but with that in mind, what are other awesome, knock-it-out-of-the-park poetry lessons that we could use? Also what are some of the best poems for sharing with classes?
BV: “Wreck This Poem” is an engaging lesson that gets students playing with poetry and talking about mood. I challenge them to identify the mood of Anne Porter’s poem “Wild Geese Alighting on a Lake” and then swap out five words in the poem for new words that radically alter the mood. What is the tone now? This could lead to a reading lesson for mood in a longer piece, noticing how individual words build mood, or a revision lesson as they intensify the mood in a piece they are writing. We always laugh as we work on this, so it communicates that we can be playful with words and poetry too.
In the book, I share poems in lists that are specific to different purposes, which I think will help teachers. Working with argument? Contrast the claim and evidence in Taylor Mali’s well-known spoken word poem about speaking with conviction with the claim and evidence in Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s rebuttal. Want to examine how imagery can make our research writing more engaging for a reader? Check out scientist Dr. Amy Boyd’s beautiful poem about the biology of decay, “Altered Axis.” How can we imitate some of her artful use of language and description to enhance our own essays?
BV: Speaking of those different purposes, that is one of the things I’ve really learned from you. I’m not sure I ever would have thought about using poetry to sharpen a claim in an essay, teach a craft moves, or brainstorm ideas for a project. What are some of the most powerful, out-of-the-box uses for poetry that have really improved your instruction?
BV: Having students write poetry as they prepare to work on some literary analysis has been so interesting! Poems to help them articulate themes in a book, poems to trace character changes and emotional journeys in a book . . . earlier in my career I would not have thought such things possible. But the end result is that their analytical writing becomes both more perceptive AND more heartfelt, because they are attending to their analysis with an analysis mindset AND a poet’s mindset.
I have also always struggled to strike a balance between direct instruction in grammar and teaching it in the context of writing – I think balancing both can be helpful. Poetry can give us quick and repeated examples of a certain grammatical structure or punctuation mark because they are so often built on patterns, so in a small space, students get several examples to study in a way that is more engaging than a worksheet with contrived sentences. “Love” by Alex Dimitrov can help us talk about independent clauses in all their shapes and sizes, as well as anaphora. Additionally, poets sometimes break the rules, so as they develop a skill, it can be instructive to ask in our poem of the day conversation, “How does this poet break the rule we’ve been learning about? What defies conventions in this poem?”
MJ: Lastly, where do you find poems? Where are the best resources to get them?
BV: I share a bunch of resources for poem-gathering in the book, but my top suggestion is to subscribe to a daily poetry email like the one available from poets.org. I don’t open the email every day, but I do often, and it keeps me reading and finding new poems all the time! I simply add favorites to a folder in my email where I can then go look for the perfect new poem.
Dr. Maya C. Popa @MayaCPopao also posts beautiful poems on her Twitter feed, which is a new favorite place to find poems.
Teachers can also access all of the link libraries associated with Poetry Pauses using the QR codes in the book, so enjoy these curated collections!
MJ: Thank you so much for talking with me today!
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