Teach This Poem is based on a philosophy of perception developed by philosopher, psychologist, and educator John Dewey, author of Art as Experience (PerIgee, 1934).  According to Dewey,

…to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience.  And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent….The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest.  The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest.

Educator Maxine Greene built on Dewey’s idea of perception in her lectures at New York City’s Lincoln Center Institute (compiled in the book Variations on a Blue Guitar, published by Teachers College Press in 2001) in which she coined the phrase “Aesthetic Education.”  She defined this as

…an intentional undertaking designed to nurture appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagements with the arts by enabling learners to notice what there is to be noticed, and to lend works of art their lives in such a way that they can achieve them as variously meaningful.  When this happens, new connections are made in experience; new patterns are formed, new vistas are opened.

Although neither Dewey nor Greene addressed the study of poetry directly, we have applied their concepts to our approach to teaching poetry, which we believe involves fostering in students poetic sensibility.

The characteristics of poetic sensibility include a keen sensitivity to the surrounding world (multisensory perception), asking questions, identifying patterns, making both intuitive and logical connections, a facility and passion for finding the right word or phrase to express feelings and meaning, and the use of imagination to connect these words and phrases in unexpected ways.

Developing a poetic sensibility can help students pursue discipline-based inquiries more fully and deeply and think creatively with more substance than they would otherwise. For poets, this sensibility is most likely intuitive; for readers, the experience of engaging deeply with poetry requires consciously understanding and using some of the same skills that poets use when they write. 

As a pedagogy that attempts to foster this sensibility, each lesson in Teach This Poem follows the same general trajectory:

  • A warm-up related to the featured poem that helps focus students for the rest of the lesson.
  • Careful noticing of a related resource from another genre or academic discipline. This gives students an alternate entry point into the poem, as well as practice with noticing visual details.
  • Pair shares or small-group discussions to help students who are uncomfortable speaking in large groups generate ideas.
  • A whole-class synthesis where students incorporate what they have noticed in the previous resource with questions related to the poem under study.
  • An individual silent reading of the poem, using noticing skills practiced with the related resource to create a record of words, phrases, and structures that “jump out.” This helps students begin to think about what might be important in the poem and provides a list of ideas they may be able to use as evidence in later discussions and writing.
  • Two oral readings of the poem, either by the poet in an audio or video clip or two different students. Listening students add what jumps out at them when they hear the poem to their list of what they saw on the page. This provides more ideas for evidence they can use to support their interpretations.
  • Pair shares or small-group discussions to give everyone a chance to speak. This allows students to practice what they might contribute to the whole-class discussions, adding the opportunity for more voices to be heard.
  • A whole-class synthesis based on what the students have noticed in the poem and the related resource, guided by questions to open up multiple interpretations, as well as a shared synthesis.
  • An optional extension activity.

While Teach This Poem can be adapted for use in K­–6 classrooms, it is tailored for use in upper middle school and lower high school classrooms. Each lesson includes questions about the featured poem, activities based on the aforementioned framework, and contextual information for teachers. We expect that you will further tailor the lessons we provide to your students’ grade levels and needs.  Above all, we encourage you to use your own creativity as you adapt Teach This Poem, as only you can, for the students you teach.

Read more about our pedagogy in the essay "Poetic Sensibility: What It Is and Why We Need It in 21st Century Education" by Dr. Madeleine Fuchs Holzer.