More poetry, please.

Children should read more poetry, and not just the rhyming, humorous kind in the style of Prelutsky or Silverstein, though I love those poems too. I guess what I’m saying is that children should read more for the experience of language and how it effects you without having to puzzle out a central idea, because I think it’s extremely difficult to do the work it takes to makes sense of difficult text if you haven’t already developed an appreciation for how words can pluck away at your senses in endless compositions.

The other day I gave my students the Robert Hass poem “TIme and Materials” to read and respond to. Their response in some cases was strong and surprising. “These aren’t even words!”, one student remarked about how as the poem moves on, letters start to disappear, a trick that if you’re open to the play of language strikes you as brilliant. But, if you’ve come to expect that words follow rules and our primary objective is to understand, the tricks of poets can be maddening.

I had a conversation recently where a friend remarked that she couldn’t believe how much homework there is in first grade these days. It’s true. And have you seen the nature of that homework? Is it any wonder that so often the struggle with our best students as English teachers is they are so concrete? Even when the write about poems or fiction, their default is to say “the writer explains”.

I’m probing the edges of other topics here, finding it difficult not to follow the tangents. I started with “children should read more poetry”, and I’m tempted to say what I really mean is something about the impact of over-testing or global economic terror or the information age, but no, what I really mean is just that. By the time they come to me in high school, poetry is far more strange to them than it should be.


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