Why Every Teacher Needs “How to Read a Poem” with Billy Collins
I stopped by the school yesterday to see my son’s English teacher. We talked about Common Core and standardized tests, research papers and the medieval mural an art student had painted on her wall. And we talked about the Quatrain Wreck, a “how to write a sonnet” infographic we published at Tweetspeak a couple of years ago. It turns out she uses the graphic in her senior literature classes. My older son told her I made it. She was new in the district, we hadn’t met, and she didn’t believe him. (It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d pulled her leg about something.)
There’s a bad word in the sonnet. I apologized for that, but she laughed, saying that it actually helps her students remember, noting that it is the scandal in the works that they read that stays with them the best. Human nature, I suppose. What I hadn’t realized was that she found the Quatrain Wreck by Googling sonnet teaching resources. (I thought my kids had shown it to her.) She wanted resources that would make learning fun and interesting, avoiding what one of our young publicity interns calls “the grim art of teaching poetry.”
Many of us were first exposed to poetry via that grim art, and suffered for it. Many students still are. And teachers are looking for ways to make that art not so grim. Even to make it the playful art of teaching poetry. The fun art of teaching poetry. The delightful art of teaching poetry.
I brought my son’s English teacher a copy of Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem, and gave her a second copy to share with a colleague. Runyan uses the imagery and humor of Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” as a framework for learning to experience a poem rather than take a blunt force instrument to it. Her approach is disarming as she invites readers to open their senses to a poem, not to a glossary of poetic devices.
I gave our local teacher the book because I believe it’s a book every English teacher should have in his or her top desk drawer. And today we’re extending a new sort of Poetry Dare: We dare you to give an English teacher a copy of How to Read a Poem. Surely you know an English teacher in your community. If not, ask around. And then order a copy, and hand deliver it. Tell the teacher Tweetspeak Poetry double-dog dared you.
Our Top Ten Reasons to Give an English Teacher How to Read a Poem
1. Tweetspeak dared you.
2. Tweetspeak double-dog dared you.
3. How to Read a Poem could make a student fall in love with poetry.
4. How to Read a Poem could help a teacher change the grim art of teaching poetry to the delightful art of teaching poetry.
5. Teachers work tirelessly to find creative ways to engage students. You could make a teacher much less tired.
6. I asked you to.
7. It would make a lovely end-of-school-year gift.
8. When was the last time you brought an English teacher a gift?
9. Because most English teachers today weren’t around when Shakespeare and Poe were writing poems.
10. Because we want an English teacher in every state to be given this book. Trust us on this: you don’t want your state to be outdone by South Dakota. (Let us know in the comments if you give a teacher the book, along with your city and state, and we’ll pin the book to your state. Once we fill the state by state map, we’ll go county by county and country by country.)
BONUS REASON: Because a student cared enough to make this (can you hear the enthusiasm?):
A few words about How to Read a Poem, from student reader Sonia Joie:
“It makes you all happy when you read it.”
“I like how she gets you to read the poems and helps you go inside them. They’re nice poems to be inside.”
“Can I write in here? I usually don’t write in books, but I want to mark good parts and things I think of when I read the poems.”
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