Monday, May 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Poetry Units

Recently, two of my kids completed poetry units.

In one unit, the students read a lot of poetry, and they had a lot of poetry read to them. Sophisticated poetry. T.S. Eliot. William Shakespeare. William Blake. e.e. cummings. Gwendolyn Brooks. William Carlos Williams. From books, and from sheets the teacher copied. They learned about meter, rhyme schemes, odes and sonnets. They wrote lots of poetry, including a sonnet. They performed their poetry.

In the other unit, the students had to go to several poetry web sites. They had to read poetry online to find 4 favorite poems. They had to write reactions, and type them on google docs. There was a small amount of class discussion. They had to listen to audio. They had to write one or two poems.

Both of these kids enjoy poetry, both reading and writing it. The one who had the first unit was affirmed in loving poetry; the one with the second unit was completely turned off (despite getting an A on the unit--and that's not really the point, is it?).

I use computers all the time. Obviously, I'm writing on one now. But they are a tool, and they are not a good tool for everything. I was, and am, completely perplexed by the idea that "browsing" for poetry on a web site is useful unless you know what you are looking for. [Are you looking for the Dylan Thomas poem that has the line The force that through the green fuse drives the flower? A web search could be the ticket. But if you are just browsing for poetry? No way.] In the first place, as my own child pointed out to me, poetry web sites are not organized for browsing. They're indexed (by author's name, by topic area, maybe by first line) but they are hard to browse when you don't know what you are looking for or even what you like. In the second place, we don't read on the web the way that we do books. At least, I don't, and I think most people don't. I tend to be a skimmer anyway, and the web speeds that up for me. Poetry is full of nuance, and to get that nuance, you need to read slowly. Which is why, for me, poetry (which I love) is challenging. On the web, is a student more likely to understand William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience or Emily Dickinson's I'm Nobody! Who are you? Even though I feel pretty sure that most high school students would like, and understand, both of them, I also feel pretty sure that--online--I'm Nobody! Who are you? is much more accessible.

There is a better way--bring in BOOKS for students to browse through and discuss, to choose "favorite" poems. It's ok to require students to type their work, and once a favorite poem has been discovered, audio might be best accessed on the web. But for r-e-a-d-i-n-g p-o-e-t-r-y? BOOKS are the way to go. And not only that, but the Ann Arbor library has an excellent selection.

I sometimes think that now that teachers have technology, they think that every assignment should use technology. Of course that is absurd, and I hope they come to their senses soon! I am not at all sure that the technology my kids use makes their papers better than they would be without them--although their papers are probably neater.

The big question for me--do I approach the teacher of the second unit, and share my thoughts? Note that I have not spoken to him yet about anything yet this year. I hate to come off too critically, but--English education and curriculum development is something I have a lot of training in, and--I really hate it when a student who loves a subject is completely turned off by it due to the way it is taught.


  1. Yes, I would absolutely share your thoughts and observations with the teacher! Without a doubt.

  2. And here is an interesting, related tale from the Electric Educator blog: