Most poetry textbooks or guides for teachers focus on the elements of the craft—they describe in detail the workings of metaphors, rhyme schemes, and various aspects of poetic traditions. This, of course, is a must for any teacher of the art. But how can teachers conduct workshops for “bored kids”? How can teachers turn problem classes—every instructor’s fear—into memorably beautiful ones?
Kids don’t need to be taught the essence of poetry. No matter whether they are in a rez schoolroom, a Hopi hogan, or a prestigious private school such as Exeter—in New Hampshire, Oregon, or the hard-core but beautiful barrios of San Jose—they understand the language of childhood.
What follows are some illustrations of my experience with students, beginning with my experiences in prison. Though they live in adult bodies, prisoners are often emotional children—psychically damaged emotional amputees, unglamorous kids who’ve committed crimes not only against society, but also against themselves.
My teaching “career” started when, as an inmate, I visited other convicts’ cells. I sat on the concrete with the bars between us, reading them poetry. I’m not sure why poetry was so popular with prisoners, but I have a guess. Many had no books in their homes growing up, yet often family members had memorized poems—Spanish speakers call those dichos, pithy sayings that give a lot of meaning for the few words the sentence uses. Mothers nursed their babies and hummed poetry to them, and when the children grew older, their mothers whispered bandit epics into their little ten-year-old ears. Those epics inspired them to want to become gangsters—in other words, to live flamboyant lives with drama and conflict. Too often, though, these lives were cut short.
I was released from prison in 1979. After having had a couple of poetry books published, I started teaching elementary school students through the New Mexico Arts Division (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts). My students re-introduced me to the imaginative language of childhood—the speech that carries the excitement of images, the fires of unpredictable vocabulary, the surprise word choices reeling with hilarious giants and talking ants and Santa Clauses who are not Nordic or Caucasian but Chicano and who burrow beyond San Felipe Pueblo deep into the nearby Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque. A Santa Claus who has, instead of reindeers, a herd of mules he dresses up like reindeers for Christmas, and who even likes tortillas, tacos y burritos, and beans and chili. When the instructor opens up to this type of imaginative language, the conversation about poetry with children becomes an adventure. But this adventure must first refer directly to kids’ day-to-day experiences—that is essential.
If we turn to a slightly older age group—adolescents, say, in a classroom for students at risk—we find some students who don’t like school, will not study, refuse to collaborate with the teacher, and disregard lessons and curricula as if homework were a terminal disease. At this point, as a poet-teacher I know that I need to surprise them. How can I do this? What teaching tools can help me shake them into wakefulness?
Here is one example: I once asked violent students at a charter high school to consider a poem that asked for forgiveness for beating on poor people, for clubbing down Mexicans in the street for no good reason other than that it was entertaining. All the kids in the room got it, nodded their heads in assent, hung their heads low, and motioned with facial expressions that they appreciated the poem. They knew a woman had written it, and they wondered why. Why did she need forgiveness from them?
That’s when the author—whom I had invited to the class—explained that she had been a police officer in San Diego for 12 years and had routinely beaten Mexicans for no reason. All the students were stunned, unsure how to react. A cop apologizing to them? No way. An ex-cop writing poetry? No way. Every student’s mouth was agape. Their perspective on life was suddenly realigned. Bravo for poetry. The students felt more human after an ex-cop had apologized to them and written a forgiveness poem for them—and after they had accepted it.
Of course, it is not every day that one can bring an ex-cop to recite poetry to an inner-city, high-school audience. But the point here is simple: The work must connect to the audience’s everyday experience, cast a spell on the audience, and teach a lesson—something worth holding on to.
We now fly from the southwest to South Florida, where I’m teaching poetry to a class of middle school kids. I have a list of themes (from my textbook for teachers and students, Stories from the Edge) that I want them to tackle. Among the mostly fun themes is a hard one: Write about a painful experience. On this occasion, everyone wrote for an hour, and when it was time for the students to read their work aloud, one young girl rose and spoke of her father molesting her—that very morning it had happened—and how it been going on for years.
Suddenly it became an emergency. The librarian called the teachers, the teachers called the principal, the principal called the counselor, and the counselor called an off-grounds psychologist. While all this was happening, the kids were hugging the poor abused girl and sharing not only in her happiness that she had finally freed herself of the debilitating silence, but also in the sorrow of her suffering.
Her poem meant a fresh start, a way to begin the recovery process. (The first order of the day was to arrest her father, which the police did.) It was a profound moment in that classroom, and one of the most meaningful and consequential uses of poetry I’ve ever witnessed. Of course, it is not something that happens in my classroom—or any classroom—every day. Nonetheless, one must find a way to teach the work of literature so students can begin to engage their freedom of self-expression, to write poetry that alerts them to their importance in the world.
It is important to make poetry real for kids, available to all their senses. Here’s what happens: I give each kid in my class an ear of corn (you can use anything you wish in yours, this is just an example), and I tell them to close their eyes and imagine everything they wanted out of their lives that had never materialized. Each corn leaf represents a memory. Aggressively tear a leaf from the husk, I instruct them.
Once the corn (their souls or hearts) is stripped bare of bad memories, I ask them to feel and smell the kernels. I tell them to keep their eyes closed and imagine every kernel as a good memory, to find images and sounds and rhymes and rhythms and phrases and nouns and verbs that they think stand for and make up the elements of life—with the sun doing its part, the earth and water theirs.
When the kids open their eyes, I ask them to begin writing their vocabulary for joy, for sadness—to begin to work with language to express their emotions in images, assonances, alliterations, metaphors. This is just the beginning, of course, a starting point—but hopefully also a turning point in their learning to find poetic tools for expresing their voices.
When a kid is caught in his or her version of no-man’s land, with nothing to lose, it usually is interpreted as the kid’s committing some terrible crime, as the kid’s doing something stupid to sabotage his or her chance for a normal life.
Poetry has the magic to transform that crazy energy for the person’s benefit. Poetry can make use of desperation and hopelessness—and once that wild, passionate energy is harnessed, directed, and engaged with focus and purpose, real personal change is possible. No one can anticipate the magnitude of gifts the person will contribute to society’s welfare. When poetry engages despair, it’s a game-changer.
Try it in your classroom with the so-called gangbangers, bored kids, troubled, wounded lads—it works wonders.