The best way to teach a poem, according to a new article on Improve-Education.org, is total immersion.
That means jumping in feet first, not standing back and delicately dissecting, as if the poem were a dead frog.
The goal is to generate excitement and a lifelong love of the poem.
The goal is to show that poetry, like music, is fun, not dry and dull as many teaching methods might make students feel.
Total immersion means wallowing in the poem, by any and all means a teacher can think of.
Read the poem again and again, in different styles, Challenge the students to recite the poem in different ways–happy, sad, soap opera, or hip-hop. Go on YouTube and find famous actors reading the poem. Tell the children interesting facts about the author, the poem, the story, the setting, the poetic techniques, the vocabulary, etc. Keep moving. Teach, teach, teach. Ideally, students get the poem in their heads and, years later, the poem is still there.
The new article is titled “58: The Worst & Best Ways To Teach A Poem.” Google that title or find it on Improve-Education.org.
“For thousands of years,” says Bruce Deitrick Price, the founder of Improve-Education.org, “poetry was the queen of the arts. It led directly to theater and dramas; it also led directly to popular music. But for most of human history, poetry WAS entertainment. There wasn’t anything else. Now, of course, there is a lot of competition. But that’s not the main problem. It almost seems sometimes that schools prefer to teach things in dull ways. Many teachers don’t know or love poetry themselves.”
Not to worry. This new article exposes all the bad ways to teach poetry, and quickly leads teachers to the promised land. The whole trick is in that phrase: total immersion. You don’t hold back. You don’t tiptoe. You especially don’t ask dull questions such as, “What is the meaning of this poem?”
No, teachers act as if they hold the key to a playground or a wonderful resort. Let’s all go inside and have a great time!
“Unfortunately,” Price explains, “schools drifted into a lot of bad habits. One of them was literary pretentiousness. They looked for famous poems and then treated them as if they were dead ancestors, and everyone must speak with lowered voices. Wrong way to go. We are not going to pull little children into poetry by making it dull and forbidding. On the contrary, go for laughs and fun.”
Another problem was the very influential theory of literary analysis called The New Criticism (circa 1950). This theory said that literary critics must deal only with the text. Well, that might be fine for people in graduate school. But it’s idiotic for children in middle school. They don’t know a rhyme from a dime, and need to be told a lot quickly. First, obscure words. Second, why we are bothering with this poem. Third, who the author is and some interesting details about the writer’s life–the juicy stuff, of course. This poet made a lot of money or died poor. Another poet married six times or lived alone in a hut. Always show the authors as they appeared in their glorious youth, not in their old age.
Still another problem is that a poem is necessarily print on a page. It’s cold and dry and distant. Teachers, as quickly as possible, must resurrect that poem into its true form, which is sound. Poems are often little plays that need to be acted out, or little short stories that need to be told dramatically. It’s a voice–a lively and emotional voice — that brings any poem fully to life.
“Here’s the big picture,” says Price. “ Our public schools are often disdainful of knowledge; and what they do teach, they teach in unimaginative and unproductive ways. We have got to change all that. We want to teach a lot of knowledge. And we can do that best by making the classroom exciting and entertaining. You can’t say to a 12-year-old, ‘Here’s a poem, kid, figure it out.’ On the contrary, it’s far better to give the child lots of ways to relate to that poem, and to do this so quickly that the child can’t put up walls of resistance. Also, in this way you quickly create parity between kids from all social backgrounds.”