by Brett Vogelsinger
Some poems are so simple and beautiful that overthinking them, as English teachers are prone to do, can risk losing the potent, raw effect of the words.
I first discovered Nikki Giovanni's poem "Quilts" in her illustrated children's book I Am Loved. I was next to my sons, reading them the book at bedtime, when the poem suddenly seized me, choked me up, sent chills down my spine.
To allow students to have this experience with poetry, it is sometimes necessary to minimize our intervention and discussion of the poems. We must also unabashedly share our own unexpected emotional responses to a poem. For me, it was the closing lines that move me the most:
When I am frayed and strained and drizzled at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm
And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers
So when I share this poem with students, I tell them it is new to me, and the first time I read it, it almost made me cry in front of my sons. I do not try to explain why this happened, just share that it happened, and that I hope they find a poem like this in their lives at some point, maybe even in the course of our class.
After hearing the poem twice, read aloud the first time by me and the second time by one of my students, I asked the class only one question: "What's this poem about?"
This simple but excellent question about poetry invites divergent thinking early in the class period. In this case, students brought up that the poem is about aging, usefulness, love, timelessness, change, and comfort. The question avoids killing the poem with over-analysis, and the student observations are varied.
Try this with "Quilts," or with a poem of your own choosing that speaks to your heart.
And welcome to our second year of Go Poems. I hope you find some intriguing ideas for reading daily poetry in your classroom.
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA. He is the faculty adviser for the school literary magazine, Sevenatenine. Besides his annual blogging adventure on this site, he has published work on Nerdy Book Club, The New York Times Learning Network, and Edutopia. Follow him on Twitter @theVogelman.