“Is that the bell?” A student asks in shock.
“Yes, it is,” I reply, picking up papers and pencils.
“This happens to me everyday,” he continues as he hastily gathers his belongings. “I barely finish my poem and the bell rings.”
“You know what they say – time flies when you’re having… fun?” I ask.
He pauses and gives me a stern look.
“Mr. Singer, you know I hate this stuff.”
Then he blushes and stomps out of the room.
The next class comes trickling in and the first student there throws her bag and thermos on her desk and cries out, “Are we doing poetry again!?”
“Yes,” I reply.
She collapses to her seat and sinks her head into her arms. Then she looks up and says hopefully, “What kind?”
After numerous interactions like this, I’ve come to a shocking revelation.
My middle school students like poetry.
Not only like it; they love it.
Oh, they’ll protest from homeroom until the afternoon announcements, but between all this whining and fussing, you’ll find classrooms of kids playing with words and language like toddlers with clay or blocks.
And I think that’s really the reason for our classroom renaissance.
Somehow we’ve made poetry something other than a lesson. It’s play.
And that’s when the deepest learning takes place!
This year I teach two different poetry classes – a 7th grade course focusing on writing it, and an 8th grade course focusing on reading it.
It’s not entirely exclusive. We do some writing in 8th grade and some reading in 7th grade, too. But each course is centered more on creation or explication.
My 8th graders seemed hooked when I introduced poetry by reading them a Shakespeare sonnet in a stuffy British voice.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bard. After all, my wife and I named our daughter Desdemona. But you might as well lean in to the expectation that Shakespeare is elitist with a question like, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Then follow it up with some video clips from Def Poetry Jam.
My students loved the idea that these street verses by Lamont Carey, J. Ivy and others were both instantly relatable and yet qualify as poetry.
When I told them that rap also met our literature book’s definition, they were floored.
We read Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and even Tupac Shakur before looking at Tennyson and Whitman.
I’ll never forget the excitement on their faces as we read about the Light Brigade’s charge against the Russian gunners. Nor their looks of remorse as we read about Our Captain! Our Captain! Lying cold and dead!
I recited the Whitman poem aloud, and as my voice shook and my eyes watered, a student in the front row said I should have been an actor. But it wasn’t acting. Many of us felt that same emotion. It was right there on the page.
Today they were wrestling with Poe and Dylan Thomas with a kind of seriousness of purpose you rarely see in 13- and 14-year-olds.
In years past, I often had to point to this or that, guide them to consider one thing or another. But this morning, I could have gone to get a cup of coffee, and I don’t think they would have even noticed my absence.
My 7th graders took a bit more convincing.
When I announced we were starting a unit on poetry, they almost all lamented about how much they hated it so much. So I made them write a journal about why they felt that way. No public performances. Just put it down on paper.
Then as an extra twist, I had them take their prose and turn it into a poem.
It was funny how verbal complaints melted away in the face of stanzas and verse. Many admitted on the page that they liked poetry – some poetry – but they felt scared of getting the wrong answer.
So we began writing a series of about 18 poems – each in a different style. So far we’ve written cinquains, clerihews, list poems, haikus, alphabet poems, and today even a limerick.
The things they write about!
The very first poem brought out such emotion and turmoil. One girl wrote about the recent death of a family member. A boy wrote about how he felt he was never good enough no matter how high his grades.
Some showed off real talent with figurative language – personifying colors, using vivid imagery, perfect similes, a gift for rapid fire rhymes.
They still complain. Every day.
But you can tell its more route than real.
We’ve settled into a groove, and as long as I reassure them that their best effort is always good enough, they are willing to try almost anything.
Today I had them sing the rhythm of the limerick with me. I lead a chorus of:
Da DUM da da DUM da da DUM,
Da DUM da da DUM da da DUM,
Da DUM da da DUM,
Da DUM da da DUM,
Da DUM da da DUM da da DUM.
They laughed. (I did too.) They looked at me like I was crazy. (Perhaps you have to be to teach middle school.)
But they did it.
And they tried to write their limericks.
I’m not saying the results were all perfect. Few of them were. But the kids tried and some will continue trying.
There’s a word for that.
You try to climb to the top of the monkey bars…. You fall down. You get right back up and try again.
It’s play. Pure and simple.
That’s what’s been missing from so much of my kids school days recently.
After how many years of disruptions from the Covid pandemic and then number crunchers demanding this pretest and that standardized benchmark, the kids just want to get out there and play.
They want to be creative.
They’re yearning for it like a drowning swimmer yearns for air.
The opposite of standardized testing isn’t routine lessons. It is creativity.
I’m not saying I’ve somehow cracked the code – that this is the only way to do it. I’m as surprised as anybody that what I’m trying seems to be having these effects – or at least to this degree. It’s a matter of rapport meeting childhood need.
These kids want to be creative.
That’s what we need to prioritize and provide for them as much as possible – now more than ever.
Meanwhile, we’re still being warned against learning loss – a bogeyman designed by testing companies, book publishers and tech bros. Who out there is decrying creativity loss – vanished childhood – missing chances to be a kid?
These are what we should be worried about.
There will be plenty of time to catch up with academics. You can always learn, but you’re only a child once.
Your mind is only that malleable, your personality that open and willing to try new things – once.
Moreover, play and creativity are not antithetical to learning. They are the very heart of it. They are when we pick up, master, review the best!
So let my kids swim, paddle and glide in verse. Let them dive, bathe and wade up to their shoulders and beyond.
Because when they do, they transcend school and learning.
They become poetry, itself.
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