Immersion in poetry

My experience with teachers has often been one of “I don’t understand or enjoy poetry much, and I don’t know how to teach it”. That probably puts you with 80% of the population!
However, if you feel like that about poems, how can you ever expect your students to read and write poetry, and get excited about it?
I can remember first being excited about a poem back in high school – it was a poem about a girl running away from her mother, and it really spoke to me at that age. If you can find some time and make an effort to engage with poetry yourself, it then becomes so much easier to pass this on to the class.

Whether you are already encouraging your students to write poems, or are not sure where to start, don’t disregard the immersion process. It’s different from writing, and I believe should come before or be a part of the writing of poems. Reading and writing are not exclusive – they enhance each other.

Suggestions for teachers

Find some anthologies that are accessible and enjoyable to read. Don’t begin with Norton’s, which is around 1200 pages and goes back to the 1600s. Look for collections that are contemporary, and that contain a variety of poems. These might include Anne Fine’s books, called A Shame to Miss 1, 2 and 3, any anthology collected by Lee Bennet Hopkins, or a good children’s collection (often called Treasuries). The vital thing to remember here is that you will not like every poem. Some you may love, some will leave you cold. There are also now a lot of anthologies of poems written by kids and teens – one lovely Australian example is the collection of winning and commended poems in the Dorothea Mackellar awards published every year.

What you are looking for are the poems that you love, the ones that speak to you. I would highly recommend that when you find these poems, you collect them and make your own class anthology. Why? Because your likes and dislikes transmit clearly to your students, whether you are conscious of it or not, and if you choose only the poems you enjoy, you can’t help but pass that pleasure on to them.

You may ask – why not just use other people’s collections? Won’t it save time? Yes, but this is not about saving time – passing on an enjoyment of poetry takes time. Time to think, time to read again, time to savour.

Immersing your students

The first method is to share your collection of favourites with your class. You can read one per day (read it out loud at least twice during the day) and put a copy on the wall. Or photocopy your collection so everyone has a copy. Please note: this is not about dissecting or analysing. That is a different process, and often one that will kill the enjoyment of a poem. Simply read, think, and if your students are keen, then talk about what the poem means to them. What do they feel when they read it? Were there any bits they didn’t understand? Help them to access the poem and then let them ‘get’ from it whatever they want.
Poetry is not prescriptive! There is very little right and wrong in how a person chooses to engage with a poem. And it’s definitely not a test – of any kind.

The next step after this is to have lots of poetry books in the classroom, or access to the internet, and let your students compile their own collections. You might ask each student to find a poem they like to put in a new class collection, or each student might want to create their own collection of favourites. The more they read along the way, the better. And then they can share.

Other activities that encourage immersion are a poetry basket – collect enough great poems so that there is one for each student (add an extra ten or so – that way no one feels they get the last pick). Let each student pick a rolled-up poem from the basket and then present it to the class however they want. One per day is good. They can perform it, create a wall hanging with it, draw a picture to go with it, make it into a song – whatever they want. They need to at least read it out loud, and then it should go on a wall so everyone can read everyone else’s poems.

There are lots of websites with terrific poems on them. Please take some time to find poems you think will excite the students, not just funny little ditties to make them laugh. Billy Collins created a site that gives you 180 poems, one for each school day in a year. This site is aimed at high school students, but there are some poems that younger ones can tackle.
Be aware that a lot of people self-publish poems that are not very good – if you feel that you are not adequate to judge, you will find that the more you read, the more you will see what works and what doesn’t.

When this website is fully restored, I hope to put together a collection to get you started, which will be links to poems online (due to copyright laws). Stay tuned.