Poetry – a Love that Brings Deeper Understanding of Objects and Ideas 

by Jacquelyn Malone

Alison Frydman Whitebone

Alison Frydman Whitebone

A colleague at Brookline High School told Alison Frydman Whitebone about an interesting professional development program offered by Mass Poetry. She was intrigued and this past summer had what she called a “fantastic time” as a student in the classroom of the poet Jill McDonough, who also teaches creative writing at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the online writing program at the Fine Arts Work Center, and Maggie Dietz, who teaches at UMass-Lowell.

The program was exciting because it matched what Alison realized her classroom could offer. Part of the program’s emphasis was on writing poems about objects or scientific articles or whatever students are reading. Her students are currently reading Death of a Salesman and The Odyssey. What more integrated project than to have them write a poem in the voice of the characters from the Greek epic?

Alison finds that her students are not always interested in writing poems about themselves. But they find it stimulating to write from the prospective of a character or an object. The creative exercise asks them to enter more deeply into what they are reading and to creatively pull from their own minds more profound dimensions of the character or the situation. Alison explained that the exercise could work just as well if students were studying a work of non-fiction or even the constitution, for example. Writing a poem about an element of the Bill of Rights could draw students into a deeper understanding of our legal framework.

In addition, the assignment of writing a poem becomes a vehicle for learning about poetic techniques, such as meter. Meter is one of the subjects Alison found exciting as part of Jill McDonough’s summer classroom. Usually a discussion of a poem is a discussion of what it means, not how it means, and Alison really liked digging into the levels of language and technique to understand why a poem had an effect on her. The program also gave each teacher the time to write a few poems and to have the experience of using a technique such as meter. A group reading and discussion pushed the idea of a technique like meter from an abstraction to the understanding you get when you use an idea as a tool. Understanding of the term then invites further skill development. Her students seem to have the same thirst for understanding and being able to apply techniques.

Alison finds that what she learned fits easily into the MCAS and Common Core framework, the guidelines against which schools, teachers, and students are measured. She says. “Our job as English teachers is not only to teach students to read, write, think, and communicate but to love those skills enough to pursue them for a lifetime. We have to give them tools to be lifelong learners.” Alison feels that reading is not just taking in the facts but thinking about them, evaluating them, mulling them over – tasks every educated adult should be able to do. “That kind of judicious thinking requires that you enjoy or feel satisfied with your skill in thinking. As teachers we get to ignite a love of learning, and poetry becomes a tool for experiencing enjoyment and deeper understanding.”

The professional development sessions offered by Mass Poetry are taught by both poets who are teachers and teachers who love poetry. This fall Alison will be teaching a December 13th session titled “Teaching Poetry Writing While Navigating Standardized Tests.” Her energy and enthusiasm, which are readily apparent when you talk to her, have inspired her students, whether at-risk learners or honors pupils. They have won prestigious awards, including the Oprah Winfrey National High School Essay Writing Contest.  She is also a co-founder and producer of Brookline High School's Annual Poetry Festival. She says, “I believe strongly that not only can we keep creativity alive in a standardized world but that the study of poetry enhances our quantitative goals.” She’ll be asking questions, probing teachers to share, and building on the concepts of using poetry to enrich and develop the learning experience in a quantitative and qualitative way.