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A Poem a Day...

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Are you teaching poetry in a way that makes your students think they have to "tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it"? Do you wonder why so many of your students profess to hate reading any kind of poetry? Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says that now is the time to make a 180-degree turn in your approach to poetry in the classroom. Teachers who have followed Collins's advice say he's right! Included: Contributions from students whose opinion of poetry has made a 180 turn.

In his poem Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins laments,

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide...

...But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

"Introduction to Poetry," appropriately enough, is the first poem students and teachers find when they visit Poetry 180, a Web site that Collins hopes will "convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless, and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience" -- not something they need to beat "with a hose to find out what it really means."

The Poetry 180 program, developed by Collins in his role as U.S. Poet Laureate, is designed to help educators easily introduce their students to the pleasures of poetry. The Web site, which currently contains 122 poems by contemporary authors (with more to come!), suggests that educators select a poem each day and have a member of the school community (student, teacher, or administrator) read the poem aloud to students. "The most important thing," Collins says, "is that the poems be read and listened to without any academic requirements." Collins believes that students exposed to poetry in this way will come to see poetry as an enjoyable and enriching part of their day.


Diane Thomas, one of the educators who followed Collin's suggestions and simply exposed her students to poetry on a regular basis, says that the process really works. "We made Poetry 180 part of our independent study weekly assignment," Thomas tells Education World. "And the results were amazing!"

Thomas is one of two teachers in the SBCC/La Cuesta Middle College program, a collaboration between the Santa Barbara High School District and Santa Barbara City College (SBCC). "Our students," Thomas explains, are tenth to 12th graders who want to get on with their education away from the traditional high school setting. This particular program is aimed at the student who has high academic potential (and may or may not be reaching that potential) but wants out of high school. It is our job to turn them back on to the learning process while helping prepare them for higher education, jobs, and/or life. The students in the program complete a rigorous weekly assignment from us while attending regular classes at SBCC."

Because students in the Middle College independent study program meet with the Middle College teachers one-on-one, Thomas and her fellow Middle College teacher adapted the poetry program to better fit their own needs. Each week during the school year, they asked their students to go to the Web site, read ten poems, and select the one poem that most caught their attention. They then printed that poem and wrote about it. The students were not asked to analyze the poem or scan its rhyme scheme; they simply were asked to write anything about the poem that came into their heads. Then they discussed with their teachers their reactions to the poetry readings and what they had gotten out of the poems.

"They always found the poems very interesting." Thomas notes. "The amazing part for us, however, was that, at first, their comments about the poems were one or two sentences -- and very simple. Comments typically were variations of 'I chose this poem because I liked it (or didn't like it). It reminded me of.....!' Soon, however -- without any prompting from us -- the comments became much more complex, thoughtful, and insightful."


Thomas points to comments by Carly, Deborah, Paul, and Neil as examples of the kind of growth students made during the spring semester's poetry reading program.

For example, in January, in response to "Poetry," by Don Patterson, Carly wrote:

"Reading sonnets has always been a challenge for me. I've read some sonnets repeatedly and never seem to get any piece of it understood. I really liked this sonnet about poetry. I love how you can see the passion the author has for poetry. It is so descriptive, yet still confusing to really put into meaning."

Later in the semester, Carly had this to say about "The Panic Bird," by Robert Phillips:

"I enjoy reading how Robert describes fear. He hits it right on the head for me. I like how I am able to relate fear to someone who feels it so intensely at moments like I do. I love the last sentence because it speaks so much truth. Whenever I am in a state of fear or panic, and I fight that fear or panic, the process of having that fear overwhelm me is what drives me to overcome and enjoy the success that is ten times more enjoyable without letting the fear consume me."

In January, Deborah said of "The Fathers," by Elizabeth Holmes:

"When I was very young, I had a very enormous crush on Peter Pan. I would play the movie over and over again enjoying every moment of it, so you can imagine how comforted I felt when I read this little poem."

Later, writing about "Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road," by Robert Hershon, Deborah said:

"I chose this poem because I have a bit of relation to it. Though, my hairline isn't receding, I still see the effects of a father who can't handle not handling the life of his child. Call it the struggle for power that reaches from birth to death for every human being or call it a beautiful pain. I admit that I would prefer having a father who can't give me up as opposed to one who wishes me away. This poem reminds me that the annoying habit of a parent's guidance is due only to the dangers that they see past the curb."

Early in the semester, Paul wrote of "An Infinite Number of Monkeys," by Ronald Koertge:

"I chose this poem because the title grabbed my attention as I looked down the list and because after reading the poem, it seemed to have a serious nature beneath it. This poem is about life and its twists and turns, how it's never over until you finally look away from life and die. It also almost seems like it was made merely to be read and laughed over with such an outrageous title and subject."

Later in the semester, Paul wrote of "The Moon," by Robert Bly:

"This poem is about the hidden darkness inside all things and the face of light that is shown to all. For nothing can ever truly be nothing but truth or good but always hides a secret or darkness inside. This poem illustrates how everything, even the moon, must hide its darkness or its secrets."

In January, Neil wrote of "Numbers," by Mary Cornish:

"A very interesting and well-written poem that makes you think. It's an 'analysis' but a creative and rhythmic one. I usually don't care for poetry (too much time in high school reading crappy, melodramatic poems), but this was a cute, well-written little piece. The best works always provoke some response, and I had to consider the conceptions of numbers after this."

In May, writing about "A Library of Skulls," by Thomas Lux, Neil said:

"This poem is just so incredibly disturbing, so very calm and unseeming in its discussion of death and necromancy that it's simply the most noteworthy of the ten featured, and none of the others can compare to the power of the message. What the message is, though, is up for debate; it could be satire, or humor, or just crazy rambling."

"That growth process," Thomas notes, was very exciting to see."


"Both Regina Freking, the other Middle College teacher, and I totally enjoy reading the poems ourselves," Thomas tells Education World. "The selection of poems is excellent; they are totally geared to high school students, and yet they can span all age groups. More important, however, we felt great about turning on our students to poetry, especially in this creative way -- and via the Web."

"When we first went over the assignment with our students, many of them reacted with 'Ugh! We have to do poetry,'" Thomas adds. "But then we had each of them read Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry," and we discussed the fact that you shouldn't have to 'rope and torture' a poem; you can just read it and let it flow over you, around you, and through you. The results were amazing. In the end, almost all our students loved doing the assignment. Many even were inspired to write their poetry of their own."


Check out the following sites for more ideas for poetry activities for students of all ages.
  • Online Poetry Classroom
    These pages from the Web site of the Academy of American Poets offer curriculum units and lesson plans designed and implemented by teachers who participated in the 2000-2001 year of the Online Poetry Classroom program. New lesson plans will be posted throughout the summer of 2002.
  • Fooling with Words by Bill Moyers
    PBS Online presents lessons and thoughts on teaching poetry.
  • Bill's Poetry Page
    A teacher at Florida's Safety Harbor Middle School presents ideas for teaching poetry in a multimedia environment.
  • The Poetry Page
    This site, from Sunset View Elementary School in San Diego, California, includes examples of classroom poetry and links to a number of poetry sites.

Reading and Reflecting

The comments made by Diane Thomas's students illustrate the many ways in which the poetry readings affected them. Alexander, for example, wrote this about the poem "Advice from the Experts," by Bill Knott:

"This poem makes me rethink the whole jumping from tall buildings stance. You're already at the bottom looking back up...yet up is where the gawkers are. Who's really jumping? Or maybe the jumper is wondering why those looking down upon him are not the ones in his shoes? Or is the jumper trying to jump back up while the gawkers are urging him to stay down? Perhaps the gawkers like drama and would rather see him stay down where he fell? The poem brings about a lot of questions in my mind. Or perhaps, the jumper is daring the others to follow? Either way, it leaves me wondering and dying for more. Though, I'm not sure I'd have there be more if I had the option. I like the mystery about this odd world in which has seemed to have been created in these four lines. I want to go deeper into this world of mixed perspectives to get a better feel for it, and I am left wondering if this is the only poem like this that the author has written."

Kim wrote about the poem "Swan Song," by Gerald Stern:

"Instantly after reading this, I thought about society today and how many people wish and hope to be what they really are not. I saw the hissing "snakeheads" as jealousy and how ugly it is. But, I also saw that the beauty of the swans was not as comforting as people often perceive it to be. I have lived in both shoes, been hated for being a "swan" and for being a "snakehead." Still to this day, I do not receive one feeling of completion, although some may think I am better now than before. Those who surround me fail to be able to be more than skin deep, and sometimes those same 'drops of mercy' pour from my eyes."

Kim, like other students who participated in the poetry readings, also wrote her own poetry. She called this one "My Eyes."

My eyes tell a story,
Where I've been...
the determination to get me where I'm going,
My emotions are lived through them,
As they widen in Fear,
Squint in Excitement,
Droop in Sadness...
My experiences are lived through them.
Expressing the state in which I've grown,
As I look into your eyes,
Grabbing your hand in a firm handshake,
That is all that matters to be known...