Poetic Beginnings

Michelle Bulla, November 2017

I was recently on a Twitter chat with #aplitchat where the moderator posed a question related to his focus – beginnings, middles, and endings. The question was:  “Do you prefer to have a beginning-of-the-period routine or do you prefer to mix up what students do every few days/weeks?”

Truth be told I have somewhat of a hard time with most forms of social media. I feel rather silly pronouncing my life to the world for its admiration, perusal, voyeurism, criticism, and potential judgment. On these Twitter chats, I more often just observe, rather than post my comments. However, at this one, I answered. Maybe because this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for some time? People seemed to like my idea. I got six likes. Not much, but not bad, either.

My answer, “Always start with 1 st rdg a poem of choice & fielding ?s,” was different from other answers, though I recognized my former self in those:  routines for some, mixing it up for others. I suppose you could say that my start is somewhat routine. I’d not disagree, though I like to think of it more as a ritual (thanks to one of the Twitter chat participants for identifying the distinction). However, I do love it because it takes us somewhere we’d otherwise never go:  the perfect mix of routine, mix-up, authenticity, personal connections, and an opportunity to cultivate a powerful personal voice.

My second-level response addressed exact items:  “New poem/st reader each day creates suspense, interest, routine, & originality. Bonus – they learn to love poetry. 4th year this way!” I got three likes. I felt good for participating.

Twitter chats are fun, but they don’t give you a chance for an immersive dialogue, and I find myself wanting to know more. If you’re curious too, keep reading. If not, thanks for stopping by.

As for my beginning, as with any other curricular / methodological / pedagogical decision I make, I have a many-layered rationale.

From a curricular standpoint, it allows for the class to listen and respond to far more poetry than I might ever expose them to otherwise (and they do study A LOT of poetry – more on that in a future blog). In the first year, this was a random decision inspired by students’ fear of poetry. Call it “immersion therapy,” if you will. I just told them one day in the fall that from then on, we’d open class with a poem they selected on their own, from anyplace they found an intriguing one. Now, I introduce the concept at the start of the year in the context of a year-long study of contemporary poetry, though these daily poems are not part of any of the units / projects. I share some helpful websites for finding poetry:  www.poets.org, www.poetryoutloud.org, www.poetryfoundation.org, and encourage them to seek their own. We don’t spend class time searching – all that is done independently. Students find poems on Twitter, Pinterest, in movies, in collections they find on their bookshelves at home or in relatives’ homes, and online, and sometimes come in reading poems written by friends.

Many students wind up choosing dates that are special to them – birthdays, holidays, dates coinciding with events in their lives, sometimes with a particular poem in mind. More often, students choose a random date, and – I love this part! – wind up spending a much longer time making a choice for their poem than they or I would ever have expected. It’s not unusual for students to spend upwards of an hour reading poem after poem after poem online before making a choice. How great is that?? #teacherwin as far as I’m concerned. And since we get through about four rounds each year (class size averages around 25, and while 100 is far from 180, with classes cancelled for some odd reason or another – snow, assemblies, professional development, AP exam weeks, and their year-end project after the AP where we don’t do it), that’s still around 100 poems more than they’d otherwise hear.

As for methods, there is the routine element that is welcome. The bonus is that it’s a routine the students are eager for; if I happen to forget, they’re happy to point it out and demand their Poet of the Day. And, it’s a routine that’s different every time we engage in it. They love hearing what their peers bring to the table, and they love asking questions when the poem or the performance is compelling. One year, I had a “theater kid” dress up as Santa and read from a vintage book, Twas the Night Before Christmas. In response to a great original student poem, another student prompted a class discussion (that hijacked my planned lesson – I was ok with that) on where / when / how to write. He really didn’t get how to get going. But he was curious, and we talked about when our ideas come, how to allow them to hit the paper without judgement, the importance of carrying a notebook everywhere to capture inspiration when it hits. And he came in on his day a couple weeks later with a poem that blew all our minds, including his. It was powerful, and no one was more surprised than he was that he had it in him. Another student read the lines of a song she loved, and then in the discussion told a great story about how hearing it sung in church at the age of five made her want to be a singer. I asked her if she’d sing it, and she did! The most outrageous gospel voice belted out of that child that I’ve ever heard, and boy did that class go nuts! She later performed in my annual Rhythm & Rhyme – a night of music and poetry – citing that classroom experience as the one giving her the courage to be public in school with her voice.  I’ve had students who take every creative writing elective we offer – you know the type – read their own poetry and be so compellingly good the class roars with applause. I had one student come out to his peers when it was his turn. These stories are amazing, they’ve happened in almost every section I’ve taught, and they make me want to drop to my knees in gratitude for the decision I made one random day to change how I started class. Most often though, the situation is much more mundane. A student “just found” a poem they liked that they could relate to (pathways and choices and goodbyes and friendships are common motifs for my seniors), delivered an acceptable reading, answered a couple quick questions – “Why did you pick this poem?” and “How did you find it?” and “Can you relate to it somehow?” – and we then jump into the lesson at hand.

And now for the reasons I began this practice:  the pedagogical benefits. There are many skills and goals we work on:

  • Cultivating individual student voices;
  • Practicing public speaking (I stop them to address foot placement, body positioning, inflection, intonation, facial expressions, how to hold the paper, movement, speech in their opening / question answering [my classroom is a “No Like” zone], how to read poetry by sentence vs. line, the importance of rehearsing, and anything else that makes itself known as they read);
  • Forcing (for many) them to make choices about texts;
  • Exposing both reader and audience to more poetry than I alone could bring to the table;
  • Showing poetry comes in all forms and styles, from the Chicken Soup variety to more complex and subtle works (not all artistic poetry is highbrow);
  • Taking control of a discussion in a large group;
  • Handling reactions to / participation in what one brings “to the table;”
  • Holding conversation in front of non-participating observers;
  • Taking advantage of an opportunity to get to know someone better;
  • Giving students a chance to share themselves in a safe space;
  • Interacting with the world – in this case, in the ideas presented to you, the person delivering those ideas, and the relationship that can be deepened with sincere and authentic engagement in both.

Since only a few questioners will get to speak, most in the audience are listening and reflecting. Ironically, this reminds me of my observationist tendencies in Twitter chats; I’m often watching and reading, but not inserting myself in the discussion. I talk to my students about all these reasons – the “method to my madness,” I like to claim, including the fact that they are being watching and assessed regularly by people who will not directly engage them, and that we all must be aware of how we present ourselves. I use the concept of a panel / committee interview as an example:  if you are interviewed by more than one person at a time, chances are, those not asking a question are watching you as you answer, and potentially judging you either inadvertently or purposefully.

I want them to cultivate clear, reasoned, passionate and professional voices, and powerful presentations of self. We also discuss the real significance of active engagement with people on profound levels to build community, battle loneliness, learn to live together in tolerant and accepting ways, practice the traits of democratic citizenship, and in general, to be nice to people.

Ultimately, I want my students to develop confidence, and confidence comes from competence and knowledge, capability and value of self as distinct from anyone else. This practice enables me to tell them precisely that – that I want them to feel their power, harness it, use it for good, and learn to do that in front of and with an audience. Though I don’t reveal all of this at first, I hide nothing from them, and allow these lessons to come in the teachable moments each performance offers.

If we have this conversation again at a later date, I’ll probably have more reasons to add. I really do love my job…it makes me feel good to have strong and positive reasons to do this important work. You don’t have to use my ritual, but I encourage you to engage in a meaningful one. And as an aside, this “chat” – albeit one-sided – blows the Twitter allotment by more than a factor of ten. While it takes more time, I’m happy to spend this time going far below the surface any day. I hope you feel it’s been worth your time.

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