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Poetry Is for Real People Like Me

Voice of ExperienceEach week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, teacher Kathleen Modenbach reflects on the day a student shared with classmates a personal poem about attempted suicide. That experience had a major impact on Modenbach and on the poetry she teaches. Now she involves the community in her poetry unit. This year, she will use technology to bring in the world! Included: Join a discussion about making poetry come alive in the classroom!

She walked timidly to the front of the classroom, lowered her gaze to the floor, and nervously started reading her poem. The poem described a recent night, a dark night that would have been her last if she had succeeded in her plan to kill herself. When she finished reading, the 18-year-old looked up at her classmates and, in a hushed voice, dedicated the poem to the friend who saved her life that night.

You could have heard a pin drop in the room.

I've always assigned my students to create original poems as part of our language arts curriculum. I encourage the students to interpret their poems using art or to select music or props to accompany the poems as they share them with their peers. I always knew that the students enjoyed -- and were affected by -- my poetry unit, but the poem about an attempted suicide led to additional changes.

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That poem about the anguish surrounding an attempted suicide was more real to my students than the poems of Keats or Wordsworth or Tennyson. Today, I encourage my students to write about themes and subjects and events that are meaningful to them. The students have come to see that their classmates write about the same classic themes -- love, death, nature -- as the classic poets wrote. The words of the classic poets take on new meaning because of their classmates' poems.

The student poem about suicide led me to make additional changes in the poetry unit I teach. Three years ago, I invited the local community into my classroom for the first time. And, this year, I will use technology to bring in the world!

The local community has become a great resource for my student poets. I enlisted members of the local poets society to hear my students' present their poems and to comment on the students' work. The president of the society came to my classes dressed like a classic French poet. After the student presentations, she encouraged them to read other poems they had written. Later, she shared some of her own work.

This year, for the first time, my students will use the Internet to publish their poems online. Web sites such as and Poetic Voices Magazine critique and publish student-written poetry. also offers a haiku-writing contest that challenges students and adults to look at an inspirational photograph and write a poem to reflect their feelings. Both Web sites offer feedback about the poetry.

I hope that publication of student poetry on the Internet will further reinforce for my students the idea that poetry is for "real people" like them. I also plan to display their online poetry in the school. Later, their work will be shared with the members of the poets society; we will also encourage students to join the local group.

The use of original student poetry has helped me evolve my poetry unit into its present form. Using my students' own "real poems" about their personal emotions and experiences has helped them to understand the mind of the poet -- and the poems of the classic poets!

Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher for St. Tammany Parish Schools in Louisiana. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Article by Kathleen Modenbach
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Updated 05/26/2004