Academic journal article English Journal

Mindful Poetry: Making the Strange Familiar

Academic journal article English Journal

Mindful Poetry: Making the Strange Familiar

Article excerpt

Poetry scares students and teachers. As teachers ourselves, we often hear our students cry in despair at the thought of poetry, "I don't like it"; "I don't get it"; "It doesn't make sense." What makes poetry so intimidating? And how do we get past that? One way is through a reflective, mindful approach to one poet's body of work. In this article, we explore ways to make familiar the processes of reading and appreciating poetry guided by the question, "How do we make something strange and academic matter?"

The three of us took up this question in the spring of 2014 as part of our ongoing conversations about teaching. Candy is the chair of her English department and has taught for 18 years; Jackie is a faculty member of the local university and former high school English teacher; and Melissa is a doctoral candidate in English education and has six years of experience teaching middle school and high school English. We had been meeting informally for several months and discussing contemporary issues in education at the local, national, and global levels. At one of those meetings, Jackie and Melissa discovered Candy's plans for ending the year with a poetry unit by studying the work of one author. Candy informed us that she prefers to take a focused approach to teaching poetry, concentrating on one poet's body of work rather than a survey of various forms and poets. Curious as to what makes this approach meaningful and successful (as demonstrated by her former students who still can quote lines and recall themes from last year's poetry), we decided that the best way to understand her methods would be to observe, record, and reflect on her entire unit.

This approach of observing, recording, and reflecting in a teacher's classroom is a useful way to uncover successful patterns in teaching practices. In his chapter on research and teaching, Frederick Erikson writes, "Fieldwork research on teaching, throughout its inherent reflectiveness, helps researchers and teachers to make the familiar strange and interesting again" (121; italics original). We started our inquiry by being open to possible interpretations; we would simply record what we experienced in the moment in the classroom. Sometimes, that meant recording full class discussions or small group meetings. Sometimes, we would collect and examine students' writings. And frequently, we would engage with students one on one. We asked Candy to first share her reasons for choosing the work of Seamus Heaney.

Approaching One Poet: One Teacher's Thoughts

Over the years, I've (Candy) taught all sorts of poets all different ways to my eleventh-grade students. We've covered poets from The Pearl Poet to Nikki Giovanni, poems from Shakespearean sonnets to spoken word art. We've looked at poems thematically and chronologically in an old-fashioned survey style. But lately, my teaching has changed, and I believe my students and my appreciation for the genre have changed. Though I try to incorporate poetry in every unit of study, I focus one unit of the year on a single poet. For the last couple of years, we have delved into the work of the late Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. In focusing our attention on one poet, students are able to immerse themselves in the craft and rhythms of one artist; to ease past those first tenuous, hesitant readings to allow the words to become familiar; and to begin to acquire the patience and appreciation that comes from a slower, more careful pace of reading.

I chose Heaney's work initially because his canon is simultaneously accessible and sophisticated. As a contemporary poet, Heaney's words and themes are fresh, yet timeless. His rich imagery and powerful connection to history and myth provide students with an opportunity to interact and respond to poetry in multiple ways. Though I've taught Heaney's poems in various combinations and have made various selections over the years, this year I chose to do a brief survey of his work. …

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