Songs My Teacher Taught Me, created by teaching fellow Anthony Consiglio, is a series of three lesson plans intended to guide students through approximately one month of poetry study. This unit involves minimal technology requirements but extends across a wide range of poetry. Of the eighteen poets included; eight are women, six are African American; two are nineteenth-century poets and the three lesson plans are thematically broken into "What Is Poetry?" "Poems of Childhood," and "Self and Society." Each of the three lesson plans includes a short reading list, a brief introduction setting tone and theme, a series of analytical questions, two creative activities, and at least one writing assignment. As Consiglio notes in his Teaching Guide, the lessons can be presented in many different ways and are applicable to a wide variety of classrooms and students.
Unit Length: 20 Class Periods
"Poetry" by Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
"Autobiographia Literaria" by Frank O'Hara (1926-1966)
"Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand (born 1934)
"Summer" by Lucien Stryk (born 1924)
"Some People Like Poetry" by Wislawa Szymborska (Poland, born 1923)
"The New Poem" by Charles Wright (born 1935)
The attempt to define poetry—the reasons for writing it, the experience of reading it, the public's conception of it—is a frequent topic of poetry. How serious are the answers these authors give in their poems on poetry?
All literature confronts the effects of life-changing events. With its special affinity for raw emotion and fleeting images, poetry seems particularly well suited to convey memories of childhood.
"In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
"The Whipping" by Robert Hayden
"Digging" by Seamus Heaney (Ireland, born 1939)
"Hanging Fire" by Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
"My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
Before beginning this lesson, do a meditation exercise with your students. Ask them to close their eyes and recall their childhood. Lead them through a series of questions or prompts desgined to help them find a specific childhood memory, remember the scene and their feelings, and search the scene for images and people they did not notice as children. When the meditation is finished, have them jot down what was happening in the scene, a feeling they had as children, a visual or auditory image from the scene, and any other detail needed to fix the memory. Collect their papers, and return them only after work on this lesson is complete. Then ask them to write a poem based on the meditation exercise and keeping in mind some of the strategies and questions about childhood experiences of the poets read in this lesson.
"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," Shelley famously wrote. What images and visions of human society result when you combine the poet's fierce independence of mind, unblinking observation of mores, and visionary imagination?
"We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2001)
"homage to my hips" by Lucille Clifton (born 1936)
"The Soul selects her own Society" by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
"They shut me up in Prose" by Emily Dickinson
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
"Facing It" by Yusef Komunyakaa (born 1947)
"St. Roach" by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)
"I Hear America Singing" by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
"Song of Myself, X" by Walt Whitman
Research the historical context in which one of these poets wrote and the political issues to which his or her poems respond. Read a selection of this poet's poetry. Make a creative presentation (poster, performance, or other multimedia project) of a poem we have not read; in your project, make explicit connections between the poem and historical issues that inspired the poet's work.
Write an original poem on a topic of your choice, but imitate the style and voice and political bent of one of the poets read in this lesson. Prepare to explain how the imitation colored or inspired or limited or changed the idea you wrote about.
I have intentionally given little indication of how to present these lessons in the classroom, because I believe they can be presented in many different ways and teachers know best how to motivate their own students at a given moment and how to plan a presentation of literature or how to structure an assignment based on the character of teacher and students alike. As noted above, I expect the Analytical Questions to serve as topics for class discussion, cooperative group work, homework, and reflective journal writing, and I spend a good month or more of class time on this unit. Certain of my own teaching practices are not mentioned here, such as administering written tests and assigning a favorite poem recitation. One general assumption that underlies my conception of teaching is the idea that students motivate each other better than I can; while I believe teacher input is crucial to a worthwhile lesson, as often as possible I try to sneak my input into a lesson in response to student questions. Thus, the questions I pose to students are as open-ended as possible, though often they are intentionally leading questions. Plenty of specific assumptions underlie my conception of teaching this unit. For example, the two Analytical Questions that address the poetry of Dickinson and Whitman are decidedly intended to be reflective journal writing questions at the start of class periods that will be devoted primarily to class discussion. (I find I do more whole group discussion when I am teaching poetry than when I am teaching novels or plays: students are on less familiar ground with poetry and need more teacher input.) When teaching Dickinson and Whitman in just a couple of class periods, I find that these simple questions asking students to observe differences between the two poets and to invest themselves in some opinionated preferences lead them to bring up for discussion nearly all of the formal, thematic, and autobiographical details about the poetry that I want to inform their reading. (I regularly ask students to state preferences and choose favorites, even on written tests, but never so much as when I teach poetry, where sensuous and intuitive enjoyment often can and should eclipse intellectual interpretation.) In this "Teaching Guide," I will try to articulate other specific assumptions, objectives, and rationales underlying the lesson plans as well as give a few indications of specific directions I expect the Analytical Questions to take in the classroom.
Lesson 1: What Is Poetry?
This topic affords high school students a (hopefully cathartic) opportunity to express negative experiences with reading poetry, since Moore and Szymborska tackle that subject head on! Strand offers as substitute a daringly positive vision of enjoying poetry, and Stryk models a cool acceptance of popular hostility to poetry. Wright and O'Hara again encourage readers to examine their assumptions about poetry and poets. This lesson is perhaps the hardest of the three, since it focuses on humor and irony, the adult versions of which are often a foreign idiom indeed to teenagers. For this reason, I feel it is worthwhile to spend some time defining, at least partially, the rhetoric of each poem (Strand, fantasy; O'Hara, psychoanalysis; Szymborska, skepticism; Moore, concession; Wright, recusal; Stryk, observation).
Lesson 2: Poems of Childhood
One complaint my students have about this lesson is that I have chosen predominantly dark and depressing poems about childhood! In any case, the first seven Analytical Questions and the Writing assignment can be used generically with any poems of childhood, so you may wish to alter the reading list. Lorde's dark poem is a winner with my students, since its adolescent voice and concerns are so close to their own. Hayden's gorgeous poems filter their childhood pain through the eyes of an adult speaker, and I think their frank exploration of emotion is both challenging and healthy for my students. Roethke is an indispensable study in ambiguity and an important opportunity to study scansion and talk about the formal looseness of most twentieth-century poetry. (The poem's iambic trimeter momentarily shifts to anapestic dimeter to mark the father's "beating time" on the child's head.)
Lesson 3: Self and Society
Talking about history in English class is one of my favorite things. The more political and cultural history brought into this lesson, the richer the poems on the reading list become. Especially important are the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights and Black Power movements of the fifties and sixties, the history of racism in the United States military, and the long history of American perceptions of the Vietnam War. Rukeyser's poem responds to the German Holocaust but is eloquently fashioned to make a universal statement that encourages study of the many lesser known examples of ethnic intolerance in the twentieth century. The Dickinson and Clifton selections reward study of women's roles in history. Whitman's voice by itself conjures up so much of nineteenth-century America. The imagery which propels and embodies Komunyakaa's reflections, Rukeyser's stark metaphor, the stylistic and ideological originality of Dickinson and Whitman, Hughes's tender tributes to Whitman and to the endurance of African-Americans, the extraordinary voices created by Brooks and Clifton—these make this lesson endlessly fascinating.
My creation and implementation of this unit this year was a huge success in helping me to grow as a teacher. I was able to test many different ways of teaching poetry and think about many different aspects of teenagers' relationship to and conception of poetry. I was able to think clearly about how to use reading and writing to foster a positive view of poetry in teenagers. All this constitutes a formidable task, and the significant progress I made this year must be deemed a huge personal and professional success. The work of planning and teaching inevitably means countless hours of ruminating over ideas, painful struggle to form questions and assignments in a manner that teenagers will be able to respond to, and opposing entrenched hostility to new ideas and perspectives on the part of teenagers in general and my school administration in particular. My school follows a strict curriculum, and even though the administrators supported my implementation of this unit, the school culture itself made that very difficult. Any deviance from the standard curriculum in my school incurs aggressive cries of student disadvantage on departmental tests and unequal student workloads from both students and parents. Finally, as regards the program, the Academy needs to find ways of helping teachers deal with the severe constraints of time teachers encounter when altering an existing curriculum. I would so like to have added a website Favorite Poem Project to my curriculum this year, but that was simply impossible. (I hope to do it soon in one of the coming years.) I did do a Favorite Poem Project that involved reciting a poem and creating an original artwork and making an oral presentation, and in many ways this was my students' favorite part of the year, because they took the role of active researchers and teachers. For this project, I asked students to choose a poem from this website. Because of the constraints of time, this constituted the full extent of my use of technology for this unit. Again, in spite of the limitation, for a first year program I feel this was a success. My students became aware of the popularity of poetry on the Internet and enjoyed finding a poem of their own using the Internet. In summary, I am immensely grateful for the unprecedented strides I made in my teaching this year, and I am very eager to continue teaching and perfecting extensive units of poetry in the coming years. I hope many other teachers will be able to participate in this intensively inspiring program.