Reflections on teaching poetry

by Catie Button
This interview is the second in a series of stories by teachers in Massachusetts whose work excites their classrooms to love poetry. Catie Button teaches at Billerica Memorial High School.

Tell us about your various involvements with poetry programs in the last few years.
I helped out with the Student Day of Poetry when it first started, so I was invited to a meeting of Massachusetts organizers, artists, and educators, put together by Michael Ansara and Barney Arnold. We brainstormed ways to help bring poetry to young people. I was able to meet people from several different organizations and begin to ask for advice on how best to begin.

From there—my school put together a poetry team for Louder than a Bomb, which became the Poetry Club, which has since expanded to about twenty members and various people who come in and share their work. We workshop poems, write poems together, and have readings. This year, I began to establish a monthly poetry reading at night. We’ve created a separate space that is the Poetry Room in which we can host those readings. Debbie Szabo has been an inspiration—she has set up and organized Poetry Soup, which I am trying to emulate.

We have competed in Louder than a Bomb for four years. The work that MassLEAP does in putting that festival together is incredible. My kids love it. They often end up having poetry readings with other teams in parks and on sidewalks in Boston. I have met so many hard working and friendly educators there. It’s an amazing place to talk about what’s happening in our schools and how we can improve on what we have.

We attend the Student Day of Poetry every year, and I’ve convinced several students to join us just to try it out. They always come away with a positive experience.

We’ve hosted an in-school day of poetry with Harlym 1two5 and MassPoetry.

BMHS has competed in Poetry Out Loud for the last two years.

We’re also lucky to live next to Lowell, which hosts the FreeVerse! slam team and Brew’d Awakening’s monthly open mics. Many of my youth go there to share their work, network with others, and get feedback from the organizer—Ricky Orng.

Do you find students more interested in poetry than they were – say – in your high school days? If so, in what ways?
Yes, definitely. Because I surround myself with poetry so many days of the week, it seems like students are always interested in it. Also—they’re beginning to learn that poetry isn’t always about structure and rules—it’s also about expression. That expression is a tremendous power. The greater exposure kids have to different poems and poets, the more interested they become. When I was in high school, we read mostly romantic or early American poets. While these things were interesting, I was always looking in the back of the Norton Anthology at Adrienne Rich.

Tell us about a couple of the more interesting techniques you use in teaching poetry.
I like to show videos of poets reading their own work. Hearing the inflection in their voices is important to understanding the tone of the poem. We then use a physical copy of the poem as inspiration for our writing. Every other Friday during class, we conduct poetry workshops or readings. Students can share their own work, or read a poem that they discovered. Getting into this routine creates a positive, cohesive classroom culture and gives students a low-stakes opportunity to make their voices heard.

Give us a couple of examples of student enthusiasm that you have noticed in the past few years.
I’ll come to class on Fridays, and if “poetry” isn’t written in the daily agenda, I immediately get questions—“Are we reading poems today?” “We’re not going to share the poems we wrote the other day?”

Every year, on the way home from the Student Day of Poetry, all of the students on the bus quiet down and listen to each other’s poems. Many of the students share, even if they’ve never come to Poetry Club before.

How does teaching poetry square with the Common Core objectives?
Teaching the writing of poetry opens students’ eyes about why people write and what they are trying to accomplish when they write. Students have to have an idea in mind when going into a poem. They have to wrestle with word choice, symbolism, and more. They make all sorts of fascinating choices, which can then be explored and analyzed. Teaching poetry conveys the weightiness of words. Poetry is often an experiment in narrative. Speaking, listening, and reading are all inherent in the open mics.

What do you find most exhilarating about teaching poetry?
When a poet reads for the first time. When he silences the room with his story. When a poem opens eyes. When a student gets the words right.