Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Poetry: An Education (Part One)

Several weeks ago Jake Mooney hosted a terrific discussion on his blog Vox Populism about how best to teach poetry and when should it be introduced into a student’s education. As I had just arrived home from a vacation and had to prepare lessons for three classes, I withheld my thoughts on the matter but I thought I would share them now for I have a lot to say about the teaching of poetry, and of creative writing in general.

First of all, I am high-school English teacher which is a noble profession increasingly hampered by government PR campaigns disguised as education initiatives, moldering textbooks, dwindling photocopy budgets, administrations whose hands are tied by financial statements and board office directives; student IEPs, class medians, parasitic AP courses from the States, and a general lack of consensus between teachers when there is finally some money to make new changes. All of these factors place pressure on individual teachers and English departments to rubber stamp each student’s success and get them through that tattered copy of Lord of the Flies one more time.

Why do many English teachers in high school not take the time to teach their students poetry? Honestly, it is most often because their plate is already full.

This is not to say some teachers don’t go rogue and clear up some space for poetry in their classroom schedules. They do. I am one of them. However, you still have to teach the kids a full slate of prose, short fiction, novels and drama, doing the same major assignments the other sections of the course are doing, so usually a poetry unit falls in the get-to-know-your-teacher first two weeks of a class or in the dead-zone leading up to exams.

With younger grades, I tend to introduce poetry in two ways: through fun activities like relay ghazal-writing contests, Sound Poetry Olympics, group chapbooks, etc. and through some minor analysis of Canadian poetry that emphasizes sound, structure, imagery, and meaning.

With my senior grades, I have them write poetry research essays or I bring in poets that I know like Adam Getty and Paul Vermeersch who have always been a tremendous success. Years ago when Paul still smoked, I remember a few students gleefully running into my classroom after encountering him in the smoke-pit. They asked, are you a teacher? Taking a drag off his cigarette, and not looking at them, Paul said no. They asked, are you a narc? A mature student or something? Still not looking at them, Paul answered no. They asked him who was he? What was he doing there? Crushing his smoke and finally turning to look at them, Paul said he was a poet and then walked into the building. For the next seventy-five minutes, my students sat glued to their chairs listening to Paul read his combustible poems and, more importantly, they loved it! Such moments can do more to inspire a lifelong love of poetry than any teacher.

Lastly, if I have done my job properly, I have students sign up for the Writer’s Craft course I teach which is only for grade 12 students. Taking Writer’s Craft from “Banks” as the students call me has become a badge of honour for students exiting high school and majoring in English at university. In this course, students complete a short story, a one act play, a children’s book, a group school newspaper with a one week turnaround, a magazine article, a Canadian poetry presentation, a five poem chapbook (complete with a lesson on pamphlet stitch hand-binding), a contemporary fiction author study (minimum two novels), as well as a final writing project of their own design worth 20% of their final mark.

When I teach the poetry unit in Writer’s craft, any student who can write me a glosa gets a 6% bump to their overall mark for his or her poetry chapbook. When students hear the “glosa challenge” as it has been dubbed, they begin to smile, extra marks dancing in their eyes, and ask me why. I tell them writing a glosa will teach them more about writing poetry in three weeks than two years of undergrad creative writing workshops. When they come back with their glosas completed, most of the poems excellent, they look at me with a haunted knowing look that says 6% is nowhere near enough of a mark boost or a pay off for the amount of time, thought and effort expended while writing their poems. Well, that is the lesson kids.

I have been teaching poetry and creative writing to kids for ten years now and I’ve been lucky enough to teach many talented students who have gone on to university to become aspiring editors, poets, journalists and writers. My approach has always been the same: make it fun but make it also writing intensive. That way kids hopefully come out of high school with a love of literature but also a grounded understanding that there are no short cuts to good writing. It takes a lifetime of work.

(Part Two on University Creative Writing Programs coming soon!)

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