Thursday, February 26, 2015

Unit 5 Poetry, Samples, and The Joy of Writing

I hated poetry in school.  Hated it with a fiery passion that I would have, ironically, communicated with no shortage of figurative language.

I never had a teacher who made poetry come to life for me--instead I had teachers who were so dogmatic in pushing their own personal interpretations of poems as the one correct interpretation that I came away resentful of the whole enterprise.  Somehow, my reflections and analysis never seemed to be what my own English teachers were looking for.

As a result, I have walked my classroom, a living paradox: an English teacher who doesn't like poetry.  I am open with my students about my history with poetry, but I always make it clear to them that I want to discover the joy.  This year, I discovered some of that joy.  Allow me to share how.

As part of Unit 5 (which as I've previously mentioned is all about humanity's quest for meaning), we are examining various shifts in worldview and the resultant shifts in art and literature.  Yes, the labels are somewhat artificial, but the shifts are real and provide a reminder that history and context have just as much of an impact on art and literature as art and literature do on history.

Specifically, we examined the shift from enlightenment thought ("Meaning can be found in human reason and logic!") to romanticism ("Not everything can be explained, and sometimes your intuition and emotions tell you more than your brain!"), and especially transcendentalism ("Humans are naturally good and can learn purity, self-reliance and connectedness if they commune with the natural world!").
Then we did a brief detour to explore the medium of haiku (de-emphasizing the 5-7-5 rule, emphasizing the capturing of a moment using ku--theme, kigo--sense words, and kireji--a cutting line or phrase).
We then looked at the shift to realism and naturalism ("What we see is all there is; nature can be cruel and unpredictable and is always beyond our control!") and finally the shift to modernism ("Make it new!" as Ezra Pound would say).

To help the students fathom these shifts, I asked them to write a set of poems in four different styles, but all revolving around the same theme (which they could choose).
The four styles are transcendental, haiku, naturalist and modernist.

The students struggled for a few days and I worried that I'd only passed on my dislike for poetry, despite my great pains to be fair and diplomatic.  So today, I decided to provide them with a sample.  I sat down as my students were working and wrote up my own poetry set revolving around the theme of "school".  At first, I wrote out of a sense of duty as a teacher, but soon enough I was genuinely having fun mimicking the form and perspective of each style.  I excitedly shared my samples with the class, who seemed bemused at my enjoyment.  I won't know until I read their submissions whether or not my samples helped--perhaps I thought of this idea too late.  Still, I feel good about the fact that I could model a joy in poetry for my students, rather than a discomfort or dislike.  Who knows?  If I could discover enjoyment in poetry at age 28, maybe my own skeptical students will one day discover that same enjoyment.  And maybe, just maybe, my enjoyment of poetry will continue to grow!

Here is the poetry set that I wrote based around the theme of "school":

I. Transcendental Piece (Think Emerson, Thoreau or some of Walt Whitman's poetry)

The Best Teacher
The desks in pristine rows,
Crisp worksheets fresh off the copier,
A syllabus heavy with classics written by the wise-men of the ages.
The scene was perfectly and carefully set for the first day of school.
And I skipped.
My desk would be the old log by the river.
My worksheets, the whispering of the breeze across my forehead.
A syllabus prescribed by the creator and etched into every leaf, every branch, every flower.
I daresay it was I who came away with the truest education.

II. Haiku
Suntanned hugs subside
into desks with good-natured groans.
Another school year has begun.

III. Naturalist Piece (Think Jack London or Edward Arlington Robinson)

Old Professor Michaelson
Old Professor Michaelson was the smartest man I knew,
When he spoke up, the room went still
And how our knowledge grew!

Old Professor Michelson, a Harvard man was he.
And then to Oxford he had gone 
To earn his PhD.

He had degrees in philosophy, advanced degrees in math,
To wisdom immemorial 
We thought he’d found the path.

But then one day, while teaching, his heart just ceased to beat,
Professor Michelson dropped dead.
His journey was complete.

For all of his great learning, erudition in every breath,
There was one thing his learning 
Could not stop, and that was death.

IV. Modernist Piece (Think William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound): 

The dictionary sits
on the shelf
full of knowledge
rich in definition,
covered in dust, 
as children construct 
with their fingertips.

1 comment:

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