Tuesday, April 10, 2018

2018 Poem #27 -- Over Our Heads On Purpose

by Brett Vogelsinger

Teens have an complicated relationship with poetry.  On one hand, we have some students pouring their hearts out in private, personal journals or publicly alongside the Instapoets without even an invitation from a teacher; on the other hand, we have students who perceive the genre as pretentious and irrelevant, who roll their eyes the first time a teacher mentions the word "poem."  How do we bridge that gap and invite students from both ends of this spectrum to learn something new with us? 

One trick is finding a poem with just the right level of challenge. 

As teachers we are sometimes told to "pitch it where they can hit it," encouraged to give students reading and materials that allow them to experience success.  We are also told to "scaffold" so that students can grasp challenging texts and tasks as we gradually reduce our level of intervention and support.  

Students can also benefit by pitching a poem where they cannot hit it yet, as long as the poem is a brief one.  We can then challenge them to join us in building a scaffold. 

One such poem is "Landscape" by Robin Coste Lewis. The poem is approachable in that it is short and none of the words are, in isolation, unfamiliar or intimidating.  The poem itself, however, is not completely understandable on the first read.  Invite students to ask questions of the poem and determine how they might unlock more meaning. 

For example, one of the first questions that arises with this poem for me and my students:  Who or what is "Mamere?' Why the references to borders and fires? Is this a poem about an individual or history or a conflict?  How might the copyright date of 2018 be significant? How might we find answers to these questions? 

We talk about how we might research the meaning of "Mamere" and how the poet's background and biography might influence our reading of the poem.  How might we connect this to something else we have read? How can we reach the poet to ask a question?  Where is the poet being intentionally ambiguous? Where does she want us to be a little confused? 

I will not share my own interpretation or research on the poem here.  I invite you instead to explore it with your students and model with your students what it looks like to be a little bemused and perplexed in your reading and the joy of finding your way out of a more challenging poem.  Both the natural poets and the skeptics may find this approach engaging in your classroom, especially when your own 

Further Reading:

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 and you can follow him on Twitter (@theVogelman).

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