Poetry. Walk into any middle or high school English class, and you will hear a variety of noises emanating from the room. Some will be excited, giving noises of joy. Others, and likely in far greater numbers, will groan as if in utter pain. So, how do we combat this?
Let’s face facts. Whether you like it or not, kids need poetry. There is so much to be learned from reading and writing it. The problem is that kids have always been afraid of it because they have been told they have to do it in a certain way, constrained to certain limits. They were told that they had to find a poem’s rhyme scheme and meter in order to understand poetry. Let’s be real, if you want to hook an audience, that’s not the way to go about it.
I have always tied poetry to music, because music is poetry. Kids like music, and think they hate poetry. The trick here is to show them how closely related they are. So, today, I did things a bit differently than the norm…. well, the norm for me. For some, this is way out there, and you won’t go there. For others, you might consider it, as embarrassed as you might be. I encourage you, do this. Kids love it, and they make connections.
So, what did I do? I sang… wait, I made up poetry on the spot… no… I rapped… wait… I did all of that. I started out with a song most of my kids know. Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud. Now, to start out, we sang it.. as a group. Even the kids who don’t sing. Even the kids who don’t know the song. Guess what? After the first verse, they all had the beat. They were all together singing as the lyrics scrolled on my screen. It sounded great. I showed them how once they had the beat to a song, they could pick up at any spot in a poem and roll with it, get it, understand it. They loved it.
Next, I sang… solo… I let them pick the topic, and the topics were about what you would expect from 7th graders. Things like bathroom humor, eating strange things (cats), etc. My task was to make up, on the spot, a song that went with Mr. Sheeran’s song, but instead, was about their chosen topic. They laughed, they hooted, they hollered, and they loved it. Soon, they were doing the same, not so publicly as me, but they were doing it. You could see lips moving, hear the gears turning. Their goal had been to stump me, my goal was to show them that poetry was alive, adaptable, and could be made to work for just about anything. I think I made my point with them.
I am a firm believer in never asking my students to do something I am not willing to do myself. As the class period neared it’s end, I let them know, their time was coming. I let them see a video of us singing a made up story to a blues tune. We did this when we went to the Ron Clark Academy. We visited the classroom of a phenomenal teacher, Ms. Barnes. My students again laughed as I sang a song about bookstores and Starbucks. Then I broke it to them, their turn is coming. I informed them that they would be telling their stories, to the tunes of the blues. I told them they would get to work in small groups to do this (there is a sense of safety in numbers), and guess what? No one complained. They met the challenge with enthusiasm, asking when they get to work on this.
Now, I ask you… when was the last time you had a room full of English students begging you to do even more poetry? I encourage you… put yourself out there, your students will love you for it… and they will amaze you… mine do every day.