Noticing: Creating the Next Generation of Poetry Readers

by Kathleen Flenniken

One of the things I love best about teaching for WITS is that I am allowed to follow my own passions into the classroom.Every residency is unique—a collaboration between teaching writer and classroom teacher. Every teaching writer brings his or her own voice and calling.

A little background: I didn’t start reading or writing poetry seriously until my thirties. I can pinpoint the afternoon I changed. I was reading a poetry anthology I’d checked out of the city library on a rainy Saturday, and my husband was watching our little boys so I could have some time to myself. I paged through poem after poem, reading, considering, and realized suddenly that poems were not puzzles put on earth to make me afraid! I could like or dislike famous poems. I could have my own opinions about Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman. Somehow, “owning” the poems I read transformed them from story problems that needed solving into discoveries—revelations, even. And that lifelong anxiety about facing up to a poem’s meaning went away.

So maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve developed a passion for reading and discussing poetry in the classroom. And since I work with third, fourth and fifth graders, I have the opportunity to introduce those conversations to eight, nine, and ten year olds, and start them down the road of “discovering” poems.

When I bring a poem to class, I read it once, sometimes twice. I often present it on the document camera, but that’s not essential—in fact, sometimes it’s better just to ask students to listen, maybe with their eyes closed, while I read. That might be especially true if I want them to hear the rhythms of the language.

I use a few simple questions: What did you notice about the poem? What are some of the images that stayed with you? What did you like? What didn’t you like? These are questions that will never fail you—they work with every poem. The trick is to ask for specific answers that refer to the text. I like to use the “what didn’t you like” question because it signals to students that they have a right to their own tastes and preferences, just as in music or visual art. To me it’s about giving students permission to “own” their responses to poetry. After all, that was my entry into loving poetry—my right to my own opinion.

There are lots of questions you can tailor to a specific piece. Why do you think the line breaks right there? Or, what affect does this last image have on the poem? Or, look at this cluster of sounds here—what do you think? Sometimes if I’m interested in the form I’ll ask how the poem is “built.” Sometimes I ask what sort of mood a poem creates and which word choices and images help create it.

If there is a point I particularly want students to notice that they haven’t on their own, I tell them what I noticed. I try not to make it sound like they missed something (oh no, you got it WRONG). Instead, I model the discovery. Did you see…? This is a pattern I love in the poem…. Look at this…

The whole conversation can take less than five minutes. This is a cumulative activity—week by week (or in an ideal world, day by day), poem by poem. “Noticing” is a skill and it is honed by practice.

I’m suggesting that any teacher, or parent, can do this—even if you think you’re afraid of poetry. It can be a journey that you and your students take together. I believe—and I do feel passionately about this—it is really the act of “discovering” poems that can create a lifelong comfort with and love for poetry in our next generation.

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