Monday, April 18, 2011

National Poetry Month Guest Blogger: High School English Teacher Rene Ohana on Poetry in the High School Classroom

Thank you to Rene Ohana, a high school English teacher in Santa Cruz, Ca., for today’s post.

I met Rene my first year at Smith College in the nineties.  She was a lovely and kind person then and, while we mainly “see” each other on Facebook instead of in-person, this post makes it clear that she must be the same kind of teacher as she was friend. 

I think you’ll enjoy reading how she integrates poetry reading and creative writing into her very structured high school classroom.

Poetry in the High School Classroom

For better or worse, with the increasing emphasis on standardized testing, public education has been moving toward practical literacy, such as how to read and write a newspaper article, and away from things like poetry. Yet, there is no denying that students gravitate toward the emotional intensity of poetry, and so I find that poetry is an exceptional tool for teaching the same basic skills needed for reading a newspaper. In both cases, we ask ourselves the same questions: What is the topic? How does the author feel about the topic? Then from there we can discern the theme, which opens us up to deeper questions, such as how does the author express his or her message and why is it expressed in this way?

Of course, not all poetry is equally accessible to all students (or maybe it’s that I can’t make it all equally accessible). Over the years, I’ve discovered that certain poets seem to resonate more significantly with different age groups. For example, there is nothing like the irony of Billy Collins’ Flames to help a high school sophomore realize that there is poetry doesn’t just mean Shakespeare, which while beautiful, often leaves young readers feeling as if they need a translator. Similarly, juniors, connect with ee cummings’ irreverence as if it were their own. Through him they discover not only the connection between style and content, but also the ability of art to reflect concerns about the larger social and political world.

With poetry, I’ve found ways to help student writers believe in their own potential. Perhaps one of the most effective finals I ever gave was the year that my American Literature class, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and discussions about the connection between place and voice, wrote poems about their hometown. It took weeks of work to push passed clich├ęd phrases and static language, but when we did, each student had created a depiction of home that reflected their unique relationship with the place they grew up.

Then, for the two hour finals period, my 35 very squirrely, never-sit-still-in-their-seats class, sat in a giant circle and read their poems out loud, offering critiques of each others’ work, and treating each other like serious writers. Perhaps it was interest in how each of them had captured the same place in such different ways, or perhaps it was respect for the work they had put into their poems, but it was a memorable moment for all of us; a moment when students who did not see themselves as serious writers, much less as serious students, saw themselves as just that. And as we moved into the next semester, we were able to capture that same seriousness in other, perhaps more “practical” writing.

Rene Ohana is a high school English teacher in Santa Cruz, Ca.

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