Reflections on Teaching Poetry: “Students Have Something to Say” 

by Shannon Murphy
This is the third in a series of stories by teachers in Massachusetts whose work excites their classrooms to love poetry.  Shannon Murphy teaches at Masconomet Regional High School.

Six years ago, we decided to overhaul our senior English course offerings at Masco. Rather than teaching a one-size-fits-all survey of British lit from Chaucer to Hardy, teachers proposed a selection of classes ranging from Gothic lit to the graphic novel, and my year-long poetry course was born. Each year, thirty to sixty students choose to spend their senior year reading poets from John Donne to Kim Addonizio. We study their craft not so that we can figure out what the poem “means,” but so that we can OOOOH and AAAAH and pick up a few tricks to use when writing our own poetry. That is what keeps students coming back. They all have something to say, and this is the one place in the English curriculum where half the credit they earn depends on their saying it.

Certainly the senior poetry class is a testament to students’ enthusiasm for poetry, but that enthusiasm exists before students enroll. This is Masco’s ninth year participating in the Poetry Out Loud program, and I credit that program with making poetry cool in our school. In my classes, we never discuss a poem without first hearing it aloud, often more than once, and Poetry Out Loud is founded on that same principle that poems need to be spoken in order to fully live. The contestants become instruments playing songs written in distant lands and times. It was a natural leap for students from wanting to recite other poets’ work to wanting to recite their own work.

Shortly after we began Poetry Out Loud, our GSA (gay-straight alliance) partnered with Exit 51, our literary magazine, to host an open mic one Friday afternoon. That open mic soon became a series of open mic lunches during which we inevitably run out of time before we run out of names on the sign-up sheet. GSA, Exit 51, and the women and gender studies club have also hosted poetry slams after school--including a students vs. teachers slam that featured a Shatneresque rendition of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. When you get students to realize that poetry and poetry performances can be funny, you have won a victory for verse.

Bringing the Student Day of Poetry to our sophomores and juniors last year solidified poetry’s rock star reputation. The workshops, student open mic, and performances by the poets all help students see that poetry is a living art form practiced in many different ways. Even students who had no interest in poetry prior to SDOP found themselves moved by their peers’ willingness to share their writing with hundreds of students. When they heard we would be doing another Student Day of Poetry this year, they asked whether the same poets would be returning--“that guy who made me cry,” or “that guy who was clapping, stomping, and singing” --and they fondly remembered workshop leaders who made it seem so easy to write a poem.

The internet has also helped to make this generation more broadly aware of spoken word and slam poetry than teenagers of my generation. Most of my students have discovered Button Poetry on their own before they set foot in a poetry classroom. That, of course, leaves me with the challenge of making Emily Dickinson seem as cool as Sarah Kay (she is!), but that is a challenge I will gladly accept for the simple reason that I could teach 90% of the Common Core ELA standards using only poetry. Poetry is the ultimate concentration of language. We can delve into subtle choices of diction, nuances of tone, figurative language, structure, syntax, sound, the power of a single line break, and the interdependence of all these poetic elements in making meaning! Best of all, I do not have to worry that some students might not have completed 30 pages of reading assigned for homework. I can read a poem aloud in class, and every student can participate in the discussion. For this reason, I have found poetry especially helpful in teaching disengaged populations of students.

Teaching poetry has also allowed me to tap into my students’ other forms of creative expression. The musicians help their peers understand rhythm. The visual artists bring a certain sensitivity to lights, shadow, color, and object. I believe that creativity breeds creativity, and I exploit that by asking my students to freewrite in response to a series of short instrumental songs and by doing an ekphrastic poetry swap with the painting classes. For the last four years, my poetry classes have sent a batch of poems to painting students as inspiration for surrealist paintings, and the painting students send us a batch of abstract paintings to use as inspiration for poetry. Having a real audience makes students more invested in writing those poems.

More than any other genre or skillset that I teach, poetry brings a sense of play into the classroom. All great poems offer a surprise--a unique pairing of words, a slightly skewed perspective, a sudden shift in tone. More than once as students have shared their work, I have literally laughed aloud and clapped my hands together in delight in response to a particularly clever rhyme or savory phrase. Poetry can move me to tears or make my jaw drop with a “Dannnnng!” That is the power of poetry. The moments when students feel that power, in the words of others and in their own words, are the moments that keep me setting that alarm at 5:03 A.M. Teaching poetry is good for the soul. Trust me.