Thursday, July 31, 2014

Poetry and the Common Core: The Great Non-Debate

Wordle: Poetry and the Common Core
It has been awhile. Teaching, grad school, working on my novel, and submitting my children's book for publication have made for one extremely busy year! I wanted to come back with a topic that is very near and dear to my heart - the teaching of poetry. 
It seems poetry has become somewhat of an endangered species lately due to the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, but the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. One thing I have learned about standards is this - they are most definitely in the eye of the interpreter.
My Story

The poet, John Ciardi, wrote, “The concern [for poetry] is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience” (2). When I consider all the units I teach each year, poetry is the one experience I look forward to the most. I first work to uncover my less enthusiastic students’ reasons for their apparent aversion to poetry, stressing to them that poetry is not about the destination; it is about the journey. Poetry explains, investigates, observes, and illustrates life with its beautiful economy of language and though a poem may be sparse with its words, it is exponentially substantial in its meaning and message. Poetry is about how it makes you feel, what it allows you to see, and where it allows you to travel. Poetry is the art of language, and as such, its study is crucial in developing a well-rounded education for our students. It is quite unfortunate that this critical component for teaching English Language Arts is in danger of being exiled from our curriculum simply due to a blatant misinterpretation of the Common Core State Standards.
The introduction of National Poetry Month in 1996 provided teachers a sanctioned time and place to celebrate all that poetry has to offer. Each April, ELA classrooms everywhere immersed themselves in the world of poetry – reading it, writing it, examining it, performing it, experiencing it. However, as standardization in public education reaches a new level with the introduction and incorporation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers everywhere are finding themselves embroiled in a curricular conversation regarding the future of poetry in our public school classrooms. The fact that poetry is not specifically mentioned in the Common Core State Standards along with the increased concentration on literary nonfiction and informational texts has led some teachers and administrators to conclude that the study and writing of poetry has an uncertain future in our ELA classrooms. Yet, if we take a closer look at the “new and improved” standards we are working to implement, poetry definitely has a place and a purpose in our classrooms.
The goal of CCSS is to increase the academic rigor of our curricula through increasing our text complexity, focusing on critical thinking and analysis skills, diversifying content through the addition of more literary nonfiction and informational texts, and concentrating on building and refining academic vocabulary and answering text-dependent questions (Common Core State Standards Initiative). The Common Core doesn’t give educators a prescribed reading list, but it does offer exemplar texts by grade level in the ELA Appendix B, along with sample performance tasks related to the exemplars. These lists are meant as a guide to assist educators in choosing complex texts for all students and crafting appropriate performance tasks that meet the standards. Every grade level list contains poetry and performance tasks associated with poetry. With the inclusion of poetry in Appendix B, the discussion on whether or not to include poetry in our classrooms should not be a matter for debate.
Furthermore, if we take the time to look at the Common Core’s ELA Appendix A, a cursory examination of the definitions of the writing standard’s three text types offers this addendum: “The narrative category does not include all of the possible forms of creative writing, such as many types of poetry. The Standards leave the inclusion and evaluation of such forms to teacher discretion” (23). Here is where it seems the crux of the current dispute lies – “teacher discretion.” The Common Core places more emphasis on literary nonfiction and informational text in its literature standards, and the writing standards advocate for more argumentative writing than narrative (particularly at the upper grade-levels). This, coupled with the current trend of using students’ test scores to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness, has created an atmosphere in which some educators are concerned about making curriculum choices they fear may not align with the standards or may fail to prepare their students for testing. Quite frankly, it has many teachers questioning their own judgment when choosing materials for their students; and for those who may not be comfortable or committed to poetry, the lack of definitive support for reading and writing poetry in the Common Core provides an easy route for removing material they find personally problematic. The implementation of poetry in the classroom is simply a matter of aligning student outcomes and performance tasks to meet the current standards.
In Michael Benton’s The Importance of Poetry in Children’s Learning, he asserts, “good poems are places where writers and readers exercise both an intelligence of thinking and an intelligence of feeling” (6). Moreover, poetry is a prime source of stories that leaves readers spellbound, allows them to reexamine the familiar through a fresh perspective, records and transmits culture, and assists in the mastery of language (Benton, 4-5). If one requires further justification for the inclusion of poetry in the classroom, there are wonderful organizations dedicated to reading, writing, and performing poetry that have worked with aligning poetry to the Common Core. Poetry Out Loud, the Poetry Foundation, and offer teachers resources for aligning poetry to the standards, so do a great number of state education boards and universities from around the country. The information is readily available and free for the taking.
While others may continue to debate whether or not we can take the time to teach poetry to our students and just how this unique genre of writing fits in with the standards, it is a non-issue in my eyes. There is no question that I will continue to teach poetry with all the passion and excitement I bring to the table every year and using what I affectionately refer to as the “Billy Collins Approach,” asking “them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide” and refusing to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” I could continue on for pages and pages explaining the benefits of poetry to our students and reasoning out how working with poetry can align with each anchor standard present in the Common Core, but there are plenty of others out there who have done just that. Instead, I would like to share my own experiences gained while working with poetry and students.
Each time I teach a poetry unit, regardless of whether I am working with freshmen or seniors or the classes in between, we create a capstone project at the end of the unit – an audio/visual poetry interpretation. The project evolves each time I use it, and I am sure it will continue to grow and change as I move forward with my students. I ask my students to choose a poem that speaks to them on a personal level and create a five to ten minute presentation using images and music to explain their personal connection with the verse. Students used either PowerPoint or Prezzi to create their presentations in the beginning but are now also using programs such as Movie Maker or iMovie. The only parameters I enforce are images and lyrics must be school-appropriate, other than that, anything goes. I encourage my students to consider what makes the poem important to them, how do they relate to the imagery, the tone, the message of the poem. I push them to move beyond the simple task of telling me about the poem to embrace the complexity of telling me about their relationship with the poem and sharing it with both their peers and me.
Every time I do this project, I watch my kids attack the challenge full force, and I am consistently impressed with the results of their efforts. Through this project, I have seen some truly extraordinary work. P.J. fashioned an insightful commentary on the human destruction of natural resources using e.e. cummings’ “Humanity I Love You.” R.S. and M.T. utilized Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” as a springboard for discussing the effects of gang activity on their neighborhood. A.N. fostered a conversation about public versus private personae employing Emily Bronte’s “She Dried Her Tears.” T.W. explored gay rights and the lives of LGBTQ teens with her interpretation of Lyla Cicero’s “Love is for Everyone,” complete with interactive activities aimed at increasing the knowledge and understanding of her peers on these issues. Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” is a classroom favorite, inspiring projects addressing topics such as feminine stereotypes, bullying, and our cultural obsession with plastic surgery and perfection. Finally, another seminal student choice, Mary Elizabeth Frye’s moving epitaph “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep” has inspired students to design poignant tributes and memorials to loved ones lost. A.B. chose to write and compose an original song to honor the memory of a friend lost to drug abuse. B.W. and K.C. celebrated the lives of their fathers and mourned their passing. N.G. paid tribute to a friend lost only months prior to our project in a car accident; her emotions, still open and raw, were readily apparent in her work. The passion, the intelligence, the bravery exhibited by my students in completing these projects is why I love poetry and why I will continue to teach it.

As I stated in the beginning, poetry is not about making it to the end with all the correct answers but rather how we navigate and what we discover along the way. It would be a travesty to deny our students the possibilities afforded them through the study of poetry. They will miss the chance to understand the nuance of language and to explore figurative language at its very best (CCSS Language Anchor 5). They will lose the option of using poetry to discover technical, connotative, and figurative meanings of language, all within the same lines of verse and to determine the effect of word choice on tone and meaning using the most concise application of language possible (CCSS Reading Anchor 4). They will be denied an important technique for creating well-structured narratives filled with carefully considered details (CCSS Writing Anchor 3). Most importantly, they will miss the opportunities poetry offers not only for cultural and personal association, but also for emotional connection and catharsis. I will always teach poetry to my students because they deserve the chance to experience it.

Resources to Help You Meet Common Core Using Poetry

  • Poetry Out Loud - A personal favorite of mine. Poetry Out Loud now offers CCSS alignment complete with a downloadable Teacher's Guide, links to Teacher Resources and Preparation, Lesson Plans and Class Scheduling, and Accessibility. If you haven't checked out this program, I highly recommend you do so - IMMEDIATELY. If you have any doubt, take a look at these students competing in the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition: 

  • Teaching Channel is a great source of inspiration and ideas. The video I chose to link to not only meets CCSS, but also showcases a very innovative way to approach poetry in an unusual pre-reading exercise.
  • presents educators with an interesting plan submitted by Madeline Fuchs-Holzer for grades 9-12 that approaches the study of poetry through its use in film. Crossing media boundaries, these lesson plans address reading, writing, and listening and speaking CCSS. The site also has a plethora of Common Core aligned poetry lessons and workshops that are both engaging and original.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable with the prospect of teaching poetry? Ben Curran at Education Week  offers a great article about aligning poetry to the Common Core that is easy to follow and understand for educators who may be hesitant about how poetry fits into the world of CCSS.
  • In much the same vein, EDSITEment!  uses poetry exemplars, CCSS, lesson plans, and multimedia resources to provide educators with both the means and the way to meet Common Core Standards through poetry with ideas for all grade levels K-12.
  • Looking for exemplars that meet the requirements for Common Core? The Poetry Foundation has assembled all the exemplars from the CCSS for ELA: Appendix B for all grade levels K-12 in one place.
  • Finally, while I am not a huge fan of text books, this offering from Heinneman is pretty useful (and best of all, FREE). Written for teachers in the middle grades, it is a fine resource for breaking down the CCSS and seeing exactly how each one fits into the study of poetry. It also uses a decent selection of poetry to show the literary devices featured in each one, touches on poetry annotation, and provides activities for pre-, during, and post-reading that could easily be applied to any poem at any grade level.

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