CDM Teacher Uses Poetry to Connect, Unite, and Humanize Students in the 21st Century

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Illustration by Gayle Kabaker

Early September: The last day of the opening week of school is the first Poetry Friday of the year. I stand at the front of the class, book in hand, waiting for the bell to signal the start of the period. When it comes, along with the last bits of seat shuffling and tucking away of iPhones, I address my class with the customary end-of-week greeting, “Today is Poetry Friday.” Wary at the mention of poetry, but somewhat intrigued, the students look at me, waiting, secretly hoping I won’t ask them to analyze a poem.

“I love poetry,” I continue. “So every Friday at the beginning of class, I’m going to read a poem I love. We aren’t going to talk about it or analyze it or discuss its structure. We’re simply going to listen and enjoy.”

A couple of students nod, accepting my offer; one or two even smile. After that, I let the poetry do the talking.

As a student-teacher, I implemented Poetry Friday in my first classroom at Laguna Hills High School, and the concept was simple: Once a week, I would read a poem sans discussion, sans dissection, just for the sheer pleasure of listening to it out loud. Each year since then, I usually start with Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” (“I ask them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide / or press an ear against its hive. …”), followed by a Charles Bukowski or a Frank O’Hara poem, then pick and choose from my personal library according to occasion, whimsy, rediscovery, or workshops I’ve attended. Second semester, I offer up the reins, asking students to take over Poetry Friday by bringing in works they’d like to read to the class.

Strange things happen when one starts to read poems. My own education in poetry was delayed, yet swift when it finally arrived. I was a voracious young reader of all books, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I really woke up and found my passion. With some guidance from my older, worldlier brother, I became infatuated with Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, and Amiri Baraka. In college, I plunged into the collected works of O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda, and a slew of other postmodern poets who left me feeling enthralled, ecstatic even.

Last December at the UC Irvine Annual Literacy Conference for Teachers, I had an epiphany. Acclaimed author and speaker Carol Jago talked about how poetry fundamentally makes people “smarter and nicer” and how in these troubled times, “empathy is in short supply.” She shared with us Wendell Berry’s nine-line poem, “What We Need Is Here,” and I started thinking about the relationships I have with my students, son, husband, neighbors, and friends. Jago’s words struck me to the core. Her implication was that we all need a hefty dose of an antidote to the failure, doubt, and selfishness that have come to pervade our country, our cities, our schools, and our homes. Poetry provides some of that remedy.

I have noticed poetry’s magical hold in my classroom. I will never forget the time a Laguna Hills student named Connie got up to read a poem she’d written. Regarded by most as something of a wallflower, Connie stood at the front of the class and proceeded to read a poem about the day when she, at 17, found out she was pregnant with a boy. Midway through, her voice caught and tears welled in her eyes as she described the ultrasound, the press of her mother’s hand on hers, the shock and joy of seeing the life that would be. When she retook her seat, the boy sitting directly behind her slowly reached over and squeezed her shoulder. 

Another memory: At our end-of-the-year Ultimate Poetry Friday event (for which every student must read a poem they’ve written over the course of the year), I call on Eldar, a painfully shy transplant from Ukraine. I honestly didn’t know if Eldar had even completed a poem, but up he got with a crumpled piece of notebook paper in his hand. He cleared his throat once, then started to read. In his poem, an emulation of Ruth Gendler’s “The Book of Qualities,” Eldar unpacked his heart. It was honest, concise, yet read with bravado. By the time he came to the final line and looked up, the class had already made the decision to throw out all poetry decorum and erupted in loud, raucous applause. I had never seen Eldar so happy, so connected, so part of something larger than himself.

So why poetry? Why now? I believe that poetry is so powerful because it makes us more human. I am now a teacher at Corona del Mar High School, and the school is emphasizing integrity, empathy, and resiliency as our new mantras against the ills of a cold, cold world. When we read poetry aloud—as it should be—it elicits a sense of calm and communion among all who listen.

Poetry Friday has fostered a sense of unity and compassion in my students that I’ve been hard-pressed to manufacture any other way. Students look forward to it. They get upset if I forget to read a poem and love to tell me about new poets they discover on their own. Students who bring in poems second semester take ownership of the works they select, proud to share something that’s still so sacrosanct in our throwaway society. Poetry is special that way; it brings us together with very little fanfare.

One week, I decided to show a video of poet Terrance Hayes reading his, “God is an American.” I gave a brief bio, acknowledging that “I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a hip poet, but if there is, Terrance Hayes would be it,” before turning up the volume and clicking play.

A reverent hush came over the classroom as everyone listened. Nobody moved. All eyes were glued to the screen. By the time Hayes reached the dramatic end of his poem, every student had grown perfectly still, waiting. “Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives / alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.”

I stopped the video. The students snapped their fingers in appreciation, breaking the spell. “That was not what I was expecting,” one said, and I smiled.

I am not naive enough to think that a poem will cure what ails us. I’m suggesting that words—thoughtful, beautiful, simple—seem like a good place to start.

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