The Power of Teaching Contemporary Poetry

By Melissa Smith

Imagine my student’s surprise when Elizabeth Acevedo complimented her analysis of her poem , or when Nate Marshall tweeted that a student’s blog on his poem was “dope” and “fresh.” Students feel recognized and validated, and these interactions are one of the most rewarding benefits to teaching living poets.

The #TeachLivingPoets movement started as a simple hashtag—a way for me to share my favorite poems and ways to teach them on social media. In 2017, after Skyping with poet R. A. Villanueva, whose poems we had read in class, my students begged me to set up another call; they wanted more. We ended up Skyping with him three times and the reaction I saw in my students was pure teaching gold. They were enthralled. They wrote guitar songs set to his poems. They wrote poems responding to his poems. They were excited—about poetry! The following year, social media interaction and Skype video calls quickly morphed into poetry readings and classroom visits.

It was this newfound, or perhaps rekindled, voracity for poetry that birthed the hashtag. And now, #TeachLivingPoets has grown into a community of educators dedicated to expanding the canon and empowering students through contemporary poetry.

It’s become my tradition now for three years running to host a spring poetry workshop for my students, who read the collections of each of the visiting poets. It’s become our favorite day of the year. In 2019, R. A. Villanueva, Kaveh Akbar, and Safia Elhillo were the featured poets. The plans for March 2020 were for R. A. Villanueva to return for his third year, along with Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Then COVID hit, and everything about how I teach changed—though I knew that continuing to teach living poets would be more important than ever.

How do students engage with poetry in these strange times? Mostly virtually, like anything else. What we aim to do at is provide teachers with up-to-date practical poetry lessons for virtual and hybrid teaching to meet the current demands of our profession. We have an array of poetry hyperdocs to choose from, and with a simple click of the Share button, teachers can provide students with engaging scaffolded poetry lessons focused on a particular poet or skill (such as characterization or imagery). A team of AP Literature teachers and exam readers created these free hyperdocs, including Susan Barber, Matt Brisbin, Kelly Herrera, Brian Hannon, Kristin Runyon, Jennifer Stuckey, and myself.

Students can also browse through over twenty living poets in the Living Poets Virtual Library, created by educator Scott Bayer and myself, with links to author websites and works, audio links to the artists reading their poems, and personalized video messages from the poets . All the poems included in the library, as well as in the hyperdocs, are appropriate for grades 7-12.

Poets are showing up for their readers in the virtual space with organized online readings, poetry festivals (like Dodge), and even Instagram Live videos.  I share some of these events on #TeachLivingPoets social media, but there’s so many, I could never really keep up with them all and continue teaching! By following your favorite poets’ accounts, you and your students might catch announcements of upcoming readings; while our interaction with poets might look different this year, there are still ways for us to connect.

In these isolating times, connecting with others brings us a sense of community. My students foster this sense of community by keeping a monthly poetry blog on a poet of their choice. We share our blogs with other classes around the country who are doing the same; students read each other’s posts and comment on them, providing feedback and encouragement. In this way, students are exposed to far more poetry than I could ever teach in class. Knowing that their blogs will be read by other students in different states also provides them with an authentic audience for their analysis and writing. Teachers can create their own blog-sharing groups by reaching out to other educators they may interact with on social media. I initially found my group on Twitter and we’ve been blogging strong for about five years now.

When we teach living poets, students can see themselves in the literature they read in class, and not feel intimidated by a genre that can seem far removed from students’ lives; they can relate to the topics, and explore meaning and the use of language together. I am forever grateful for my students who credit studying living poets as inspiration for their choice of English and Creative Writing majors in college (and who often come back to visit me!). The testimony of these former students, along with the awe-filled reactions of my current students year after year, inspires me to continue the work. They are the reason I am so passionate about sharing #TeachLivingPoets.

Melissa Alter Smith is a National Board Certified high school English teacher in Charlotte, NC. She is the creator of the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag and, and the co-author of Teach Living Poets, which can be preordered (Feb 2021, NCTE). You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MelAlterSmith.

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