This year I wanted to try something new when it came to teaching poetry, so I made a strange connection. I thought about what I like to eat when I go out. I realized that most the time my favorite items to order are appetizers; they are smaller portions, you get a variety of choices, and when you put the right combination together, you are rewarded with an experience that is filling.
I decided to present poetry from various classes and movements to my students in the same way. I used three to five poems from the Romantic, Victorian, Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary eras of poetry. I found that my students were more engaged when they got to read through and pick the one that stood out to them, rather than sit down and talk about them all.
One poem that really topped them all when it came to student engagement was Tupac’s "A Rose That Grew From Concrete." I present this poem with no context of who Tupac was (or still is, that is up for debate) and just focus on language and the use of metaphor. After reading the poem aloud twice, I ask students to dig into the imagery and symbolism of this poem. The beauty of this poem is it impacts students of all backgrounds and upbringings.
This year I had a number of students connect with it, one of whom discussed the idea that, “the only person who needs to believe in you is you, " a rather sophisticated reflection for a middle school student to have. I let the students carry the discussion, and when I see it fit, I end with providing a little background as to who Tupac was, the idea of West Coast rap, and how language can be used to examine various social issues.
Additional fun: I focus a lot on the questions, “Is all music poetry? Is all poetry musical?" With Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for literature, the question begs to be answered or at least discussed. After showing students "A Rose That Grew From Concrete," we play a little Kahoot game that requires students to read a line of verse/lyric and determine if it is poetry or hip-hop. Students find themselves recognizing some of the lyrics but not all. They realize that the distinction between hip-hop and poetry is more complex than we may originally think.
Zachary Sibel is a hip-hop fan and an eighth-grade English teacher at Tohickon Middle School in Bucks County, PA.