Inspiring an Appreciation for Poetry

Mar 08, 2022 | Posted by Jennifer

Instilling a love for literature and poetry is a top priority for many educators. In today’s interactive, social media-driven society, it can be difficult to achieve. Students are accustomed to viewing colorful, quick snippets of information, communication, or entertainment. As educators what can we do to help our students engage and enjoy a slower paced literary lifestyle? This is a question I have considered over and over again throughout my teaching career, first as a homeschool parent and later when I transitioned into teaching classes and tutoring students. Specifically I have pondered poetry. What could be done to help my students to appreciate poetry in their own lives?

I would love to be able to tell you fervently and forthrightly that I have always loved poetry. That would not be true. In fact, compared with my students, I am a positive latecomer to the delights of verse, becoming a convert in college. I would also love to tell you (again, fervently and forthrightly), that I recognized all on my own the power of poetry and chose it for myself. That would also be untrue. The truth is much more prosaic: I was trying to find an easy English class.

At that time I was a freshman psychology major who needed an English credit, and to be honest, I didn’t want to have to read long, (and I thought at the time) boring novels. So what was I to do? I decided an easy way to cut down the reading load would be to register for a poetry class, not knowing how it would change my entire life trajectory. In short, I fell in love with poetry, switched my major to English, and never looked back. Poetry courses filled my school schedules.

Keeping my early biases in the back of my mind, I decided to try to do what I could to help my own children and students discover at an early age the delights of poetry. I started by reading nursery rhymes and children’s poetry to my little ones before they could even talk. Additionally I introduced poetry memorization via Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization. If you have never experienced this program for yourself, IEW offers a portion of the course to try with your students.

One of the most powerful ways I managed to persuade my students of the delights of poetry, however, was slightly more surreptitious. I simply began to read poetry to them aloud at every class. I first started doing this several years ago when I began to work with my first official co-op class. That year I was teaching Windows to the World with Teaching the Classics, which included some poetry, but I longed for more. My aim was to keep things light. I did not want my students to feel any reticence about reading and discussing poetry, so we began to do what I now call the “weekly poem.”

Here is how it went. I looked for and selected poems that I thought were surpassingly good and began to cultivate a list, which at present is quite lengthy. Many of the poems were in some way loosely tied to the period or piece of literature we were studying in class, but not all. I would print out the poem and pass it out in class. At the end of the period, when there were just about five to ten minutes left, I would read the poem aloud to the students. If the audio of the poet himself reading it was available, we would listen to that too. Then we would take just a couple of minutes to notice something about the poem. It might be the poet’s use of alliteration. It might be a particularly beautiful metaphor. It could be the poet’s use of onomatopoeia. Or it might simply be something a student pointed out that caught his eye.

Oftentimes I would share a bit about the poet and the period of time during which he was writing. There were no writing assignments tied to the poem at all, just my request that the students read it again for themselves a few times throughout the week and perhaps share something they found interesting about it. That was all.

The students placed a tab for their poems in their notebooks, and as the year progressed, the section slowly filled up. By the end of the year, there were about thirty gorgeous poems that they had read and heard that represented poetic voices from all around the world and across a vast expanse of time.

Over the years many students have commented how much they enjoyed that small section of class time. Was it because they didn’t have an assignment tied to it? Quite possibly. But is it also true that they discovered the joy of (or at least a familiarity with) poetry that they had never encountered before? Absolutely.

I will continue to share poetry with my classes and consider it my solemn duty now to fill my students’ minds with beautiful words written by great poets. The world needs a bit more beauty, don’t you think? Perhaps these poems will even create a ripple effect. It would be such a great compliment to me to hear that a student enjoyed a poem so much that she shared it with her family or friends. Eventually these same students will grow up. Some will have children. Perhaps at least a few of them will read some of their old class poems to their own children as well. What a legacy that would be!

Will you join me by reading poetry aloud to your students as well? Imagine all of the ripples we will leave. The poet James W. Foley put it this way in the first stanza of his poem “Drop a Pebble in the Water”:

Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone;

But there’s half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on,

Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea.

And there is no way of telling where the end is going to be.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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