By Sharon Kunde
Marianne Moore argued that good poetry fashions “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”: worlds created of words in which toadlike reality crouches and springs on us, eliciting clenched hands, dilated eyes, “hair that can rise/if it must” (24, 5-6). Like good poetry, good pedagogy invites students into the world of ideas and allows them to create useful, authentic experiences and artifacts with those ideas.
While poems are easy to integrate into units on longer prose works, I strongly recommend devoting an entire unit (or more!) to poetry. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are some suggestions for final projects around which you can build an engaging poetry unit.
1. The Poet Project. While it can be a joy to teach a wide variety of poets’ master works – the ones likely to be widely anthologized and easily available – it can also be instructive to read a collection of a given poet’s work. In so doing, students become familiar with a poet’s idiom and preoccupations; ideas expressed in a poet’s most famous poems are hashed out through many poems a student might encounter in a collection, allowing for a deeper understanding. Besides reading a single collection, students can also read a biography of the poet, and, where possible, reviews of the poet’s work. In this way, the poetry unit becomes a multi-modal study of literature and nonfiction prose. On the basis of this research, students can produce a portfolio of short papers: a report on the poet’s life, a review of the collection, and a close examination of a favorite poem. Such a unit can culminate with students teaching the class a mini-lesson on their poets. Some recommendations of collections for the high school level: Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman), Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (Frances Harper), North of Boston (Robert Frost), Tender Buttons (Gertrude Stein), Harmonium (Wallace Stevens), Lunch Poems (Frank O’Hara), Ariel (Sylvia Plath), Geography III (Elizabeth Bishop), Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Claudia Rankine), Odes to Common Things (Pablo Neruda), When My Brother Was an Aztec (Natalie Diaz).
2. The Poem Collection. When selecting poems to teach, choose with an eye to forms that students can imitate. Set aside class time for students to borrow elements of particular poems to compose their own. As a final project, ask students to develop a collection of poems, each of which bears some recognizable imprint from a poem discussed in class. As an appendix to their own collection, students include an “acknowledgements” section in which they explain what they borrowed for each poem and what they learned from working with that borrowed structure or quality. The unit can culminate with a poetry reading, complete with coffee, berets, black turtlenecks, and – what else? – snapping. Students can also write a review of the event, with everyone assigned to spotlight one or two other students’ writing.
3. Poetic Terms FlipGrid. By focusing on poetry, you can spotlight the mechanics of figurative language. Equipped with a more developed understanding of how to identify the terms of a figure and their implications, students will be able to read and write about fiction and non-fiction prose with greater acuity. To reinforce student knowledge of important terms, you can assign a FlipGrid video presentation in which students must define a set of terms (metaphor, simile, apostrophe, irony, tone) and give examples – with the stipulation that the presentation must involve some creative dimension, such as props, music, illustrations, animation, etc. (FlipGrid is an easy-to-use online tool that allows students to make short videos on their laptops in response to a prompt from a teacher.) In a recent application of this assignment, one of my students created a poetic terms hip-hop song, another performed a stand-up routine, and yet another created a mariner’s tale of the Mythic Beast of the Poem, told at a crackling fire through a thick Scottish accent. You can also ask students to watch and comment on each other’s FlipGrids.
Whether your poetry unit is a week, a month, or a day, poetry gives educators a special opportunity to elicit student writing and performance. Projects such as these let students enjoy language as personal and embodied communication. May your poetry teaching engender what Moore calls the “raw” and the “genuine”: sound, insight, laughter, delight.
Moore, Marianne. “Poetry.” 1919. Poets.org, Academy of American Poets. https://poets.org/poem/poetry. Accessed 8 April, 2021
Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom, and an article drawn from this material is forthcoming with Twentieth-Century Literature. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado Review, Salt Front, and The Spoon River Review, among others. She teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/.