Poetry, in my opinion, is like a Swiss Army knife for teaching literacy. Its rhythm and repetition helps English Language Learners develop phonemic awareness, its themes challenge gifted and advanced learners, its reliance on describing experience in short, measured bursts aids struggling learners, and most secondary students connect with its similarity to song lyrics.
Every weekend, I update the poems. If you’re interested in teaching poetry, there are many free resources online to help you. Start with this search for lessons K-12 at NCTE’s Read Write Think. Next, try out the educator resources at Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation.
July 8, 2017
Commentary: Whitman’s poem is a visual tour of the city, but also a kind of love letter to place. As such, it is a great model for students who may wish to use it as a guide to constructing a similar poem about their city, state, or even neighborhood. Like Whitman, students may wish to research the origin or meaning of their city’s name (or even the name of the street where they live) and use it to begin a poem or descriptive paragraph. Successive stanzas describe people, seasons, and landmarks, which also suggest a directionality for student writing about a place. Finally, students may wish to pair their writing with images, in the style of early artists Sheeler and Strand.
Whitman’s poem inspired one of the first avant-garde documentaries: Manhatta, 65 shots of early 20th-Century Manhattan, features pieces of Whitman’s poem and was created through the partnership of painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand in 1921. It was chosen for preservation as part of the National Film Registry.
July 2, 2017
Commentary: Trethewey poetically expands upon Heraclitus’ observation: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” She also examines the power of memory, history, and place to ground us in who we used to be as well as who we are now.
Two interesting writing/discussion prompts from the poem are the lines:
“There’s no going home” and “bring only what you must carry.”
Either or both phrases talk about the necessity of leaving the familiar and deciding what is important to keep from that time and place. What home(s) have you left? What have you kept, what have you discarded?
Start at 11:50 to see and hear the author read the poem as well as provide context
June 25, 2017
Commentary: Roethke uses some technical fireworks: the villanelle form and iambic pentameter to compose his thoughts and feelings here, but you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Here’s some great analysis of the poem, if you’d like to think more deeply about it, because there’s a LOT to think about.
As June closes, some schools are letting out, others have let out, graduates are thinking of the unknown path ahead, even those getting married this month can understand Roethke’s themes of awareness, anxiety, and anticipation. You may wish to try a writing exercise I’ve used with students called “writing off the line.” The instructions are simple:
- Make a copy of the poem for everyone
- Read the poem aloud twice; once to let it wash over you, the second time as if you were a piece of litmus paper waiting to react with a word or phrase
- Have students mark the words/phrases that cause a reaction in them
- Put those words at the top of a clean sheet of paper
- That’s the line to use as a jumping off point for their own thoughts
- Write for ten minutes, giving permission to write whatever comes to mind
- Have students re-read what they wrote, marking the places in their writing that they find interesting
Alternatively, have students view this video of a custodian talking about why he loves this poem. Then, use it as a springboard for their own discussion of it.
June 18, 2017
Commentary: This Rita Dove poem illustrates a scene, almost like a short video, of people waiting to board a plane. Because it’s so visual, students may sketch the scene as you read it to them. Notice the descriptions of the passengers. You may compare Dove’s visuals with actual visuals of this short scene from the ending of the film, “Love Actually.” So much poetry comes from slowing down and noticing. You may use this as a springboard for students to study a scene of people and try describing them with the same sort of empathetic noticing used by Dove. What happens when we look with understanding?
June 11, 2017
Commentary: Mary Oliver is one of my all-time favorite poets. She catches elusive and hard-to-name experiences like no other modern poet. I’ve used “The Summer Day” to teach summer school students, having them use the poem’s final question as a writing prompt. Because its imagery is so concrete, it’s a great mentor text for learners who are attempting to write their own poetry. Advanced placement students might think about the use of present tense and what that might contribute to the poem’s meaning.
June 3, 2017
May 30, 2017
May 21, 2017
May 7, 2017
April 23, 2017
April 16, 2017
April 9, 2017
April 2, 2017
March 26, 2017
March 19, 2017
March 5, 2017
by David Whyte
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
if you can know despair or see it in others,
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes,
saying this is where I stand. I want to know if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
February 26, 2017
A video of archival images that features Langston Hughes reading “I, Too”
February 19, 2017
Listen to Amanda Palmer’s amazing reading of “Protest” here:
February 12, 2017
February 5, 2017
January 28, 2017
The Gates of Hope
By Victoria Safford
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
January 22, 2017
January 15th, 2017
Image by Elijah Hail/Unsplash