Reflections on Teaching Poetry

by Ben Berman

I often tell myself that teaching poetry should be easy.

After all, I’m a poet. And a teacher. I have hundreds of poetry books lining my shelves and wake up early to write poems every morning before heading to school. I carry a photograph of my favorite poet in my wallet, have more poems than songs in my iTunes library, and just recently spent an entire faculty meeting daydreaming about what I would say in my Oscar speech should one of my sonnets be turned into a major motion film.

And yet despite my slightly obsessive love of poetry, I find it terribly hard to teach.

The difficulties begin even before I bring the first poem in to class. I’m always amazed by how strongly my students feel about poetry – how much they dread or adore it – without ever having read a single book of poems. Usually a class of 25 high school seniors can name five living poets. They are shocked to find out that Shel Silverstein is dead. That the guy who wrote that wheelbarrow poem is dead. That Jack Frost is not actually a poet.

And poems can be hard if we’re not used to reading them. (They can be hard even if we are used to reading them.) They often require multiple readings and our undivided attention. Instead of compelling characters and dramatic storylines, they offer us interior landscapes and surprising associative leaps, words playing off one another in charged but subtle ways.

Then comes the challenge of finding the right poems for a particular group of students – poems that will speak to their emotional and philosophical concerns, poems that will both trouble and console them.

The hardest part for me, though, is figuring out how to foster an environment where the classroom truly feels like a community – where students feel connected, supported and challenged. It’s not always easy to develop the relationships and trust that it takes to make kids feel safe taking personal and creative risks and comfortable sharing their work (in its many phases) with others.

It’s because of all these challenges, of course, that I love teaching poetry – and when the stars do align it can feel truly transformative.

I once had a student spend an entire year drafting and revising a single poem on being bi-racial in the echo form (where the final word of each line is echoed and those echoes create a new poem.) It was a remarkable display of content working with form as she explored the complexities of race and identity.

Another time, a student who was sick with cancer wrote an emulation of Nazim Hikmet’s Things I Didn’t Know I Loved, cataloguing everything she, too, loved despite being ill. She held herself up on crutches as she read us her poem, which was full of such grace and humor. A year later, when the minister read her poem at her funeral, I was so grateful to hear her voice one more time.

And there are all the small moments, too – an eleventh grade boy giggling to himself in the back of the room after writing: “I love the uncomfortable silence/ between lightening and thunder;” another boy realizing with great delight that he could turn an innocuous phrase into a suggestive double entendre with a simple line break; and all the times that I’ve eavesdropped on peer workshops, amazed by how insightful, invested and engaged students can be once we get out of their way.

Poetry, for me, has always been a terribly personal and private thing. I wake up at 3:30 every morning to read and write poems for reasons that I’m not sure I could fully articulate. I often have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it – and that’s what makes it exciting. I sit down with half-formed ideas and tangled feelings and a cup of coffee, and, well, I’m not really sure what happens after that.  It’s not exactly great fodder for lesson plans.

But I think that in my ideal world, teaching poetry would feel something like this.

A few months ago, my four year old “had a stomach-ache” and “really needed” to stay home from pre-school, which meant spending the afternoon with me at Brookline High School. She was thrilled about this until she actually got to my school and saw how big my students were.  She clung to me after that, her head buried in my chest, and refused to let me put her down.

By the second class, she’d relaxed enough to watch some YouTube videos on my computer, while I “taught my lesson.” And as she grew less and less self-aware, she started turning up the volume on the computer, singing along to her favorite Hairspray songs and dancing in her seat.

My students quickly figured out that if my daughter caught them staring at her, she would shrink back behind the screen. So instead they snuck glances, not so much listening as overhearing, as her shyness gave way to joy and she crooned: Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.

I want teaching poems to feel like that.

So that for a brief while the classroom feels like a real human place – filled with love and vulnerability, fear and laughter and song – so that my students and I can just kind of smile at one another, knowing that there’s nothing to say and that there is great weight to that kind of silence.

Here are videos of Ben in the classroom: 

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently accepted by Able Muse Press. He is the Co-Poetry Editor (with Mass Poetry’s fabulous Jan O’Neil) of Solstice Literary Magazine and teaches English at Brookline High School.