Saturday, July 6, 2013

National Poetry Month Presentation at a high school

Earlier this past spring, I gave a National Poetry Month Presentation to the whole student body (high school) at the school I teach and counsel at.  I figured that I might as well share parts of the presentation here.

After a front page and introductory slide or two, we launched into the important question you see above.  I've asked this question of college seniors, kindergartners, and students of all ages and grades in between.  Unfortunately, the answers often indicate that poetry is a chore.  Many students have a negative association with poetry in the way it was first taught and presented to them at a young age.  So I collected some of the answers I've heard and put them in a wordle.


 At this point I broke the responses down for students.  There are technical replies (metaphor, rhyme,
iambic pentameter), there are forms (sonnets), there are famous poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Shakespeare), and of course there are emotional reactions (boring, hard-to-understand, I-don't-get-it).  Sure, these are valid replies.  But I don't think they help me driving home my point: poetry is accessible!  We make it inaccessible, whether we are scared off by it at a young age, or because we scare ourselves off from it by feeling like we have to discover a poem's ever elusive "point."

So how did I turn the tables on the students? I asked them the same question I asked about poetry, but this time I asked it about music (When you hear the word music, what words and images appear in your brain?).  Hands shot up, minds churned, ideas were shared.  This was exactly what I wanted.  I showed the wordle responses on the poetry question again.  I told the students, think about the answers they just came up with for music (Rap, Grunge, Drake, Rihanna, MTV, Palladia, radio stations, and lots of types of dances).  The answers on the poetry wordle would be the equivalent of Bach, Gregorian Chant, Oboes, and Elevator Music to the same music question.  We need to give poetry a chance, starting with the poetry that is written today, otherwise we are focusing on the history of poetry, as opposed to its vibrant and dynamic present. 

There are many reasons we don't give poetry a chance: disinterest, lazy, fearful, too busy, thinks it's only for smart people, feels it's not accessible.  So the question then becomes, how do we make poetry accessible?  This is certainly a larger and longer discussion that I couldn't have with the whole school (I'd love to revamp some of the ways that poetry is presented in elementary and middle school).  Instead, I focused on what I could control---why not urge all students to buy/rent a single book of poetry.  I asked the audience to raise their hands to the question of how many of you have a television in your house?  Some of them have multiple televisions in their home.  I then asked them to keep their hands up in they have a book of poetry in their house.  The hands rapidly dwindled.  I finally asked how many of you have a book of poetry written in the last fifteen years.  The remaining raised hands were few, but proudly shooting up to signify their attachment to poetry.

It was now time to turn to some examples of poetry in the form of audio and video clips of poetry.  I started with Frost (audio), then moved on to Angelou (video), and ended with some spoken word from Lemon Andersen by way of Reg E Gaines (video performance).  The idea was to show a progression of poetry, a natural movement through the last century that continues with what is being written and performed today, including anything these students in the audience might contribute.  


The presentation ended with some specific opportunities to get move involved in poetry at our school and in our local community.  In my allotted 12 to 15 minutes, I tried to pack in as much as possible to get students (and faculty) thinking deeply about poetry and their own personal relationship (or lack thereof) with poetry.