Friday, March 27, 2020

2020 Post #13 -- Shel Silverstein and Poetic Nostalgia

by Matthew Johnson

Three years ago, in an attempt to get students excited about an upcoming poetry unit, I asked them to bring in their favorite poems. I expected that most would bring in favorite songs or little poems that had grabbed them along the way, but instead nearly 30 of my 60 ninth graders independently brought in a poem by Shel Silverstein. Volumes of Where the Sidewalk Ends populated my desks, and while I have my own fondness for Shel Silverstein, I was at first deeply annoyed by this. Bringing him in felt like a mockery of the class and the assignment. Obviously, “Peanut Butter Sandwich” has no place in a high school–or so it seemed to me at the time.

I was stuck though, so I begrudgingly let each student talk about his/her/their favorite poet, and as I listened to them, it quickly became clear that the vast majority of students who brought in Shel Silverstein weren’t trying to be funny or to make a snarky statement about the class. They brought in his poems because reading them was the last time that they truly connected with poetry or felt that it wasn’t over their heads.

This day was a revelation for me. Up until that point I’d been the sole selector of poems in my classroom, and while the poems I selected undoubtedly worked for some students, I’m sure others didn’t connect with them as much as I’d like. But by asking students to help me supply poems, I could broaden the reach of the class and form interesting and novel bridges between what the students already love and the curriculum.

Take for example the Shel Silverstein poem “Whatif,” which several students identified as their favorite. I decided to use this poem to discuss how poets use rhyme and repetition in the next class, and I have never seen so many students so quickly identify nuanced craft moves around rhyme and rhythm, moves like the purposeful capitalization of Whatifs to emphasizing their bigness or that Silverstein uses an AABB rhyme scheme in the vein of a nursery rhyme until the line “Whatif they start a war?/Whatif my parents get divorce?”–potentially showing the narrator’s fear of her family falling apart. Further, and even more amazing was that every single student–even those who’d told me they didn’t like poetry–leaned forward, amazed to see me taking this suggestion from one of their childhoods so seriously on the board in a high school class.

So this National Poetry Month, definitely share your favorite poems with students, but when trying to plan poems that will excite and engage students, don’t forget about the best co-conspirators possible: the students themselves!

Further Reading: 

Matthew Johnson is an English teacher from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also a husband and father, and over the last decade he has read, thought, and written about how teachers can balance teaching with all of the other important roles they play in their lives. His work has been published by Principal Leadership, Edutopia, ASCD, The National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English, and his weekly thoughts on how to be a better teacher of writing in less time can be found on his website When not teaching, reading, or writing, he can often be found in the kitchen, his garden, or out on a run through the gently rolling hills of Southeast Michigan.

1 comment:

  1. the story about the student was aweome i think it was a good story.