Poems can be puzzles. As densely packed arrangements of words and ideas, they offer a challenge to even the most intrepid critical thinkers. But there are significant rewards that come with being able to “unpack” a poem, among them the opportunity to consider the world from a new, and perhaps unexpected, perspective.
Fay’s schoolwide theme, “Gaining Perspective,” has infused new energy into the Upper School’s focus on poetry. This fall and winter, students are exploring the work of poets from a range of eras and cultural backgrounds. And, according to English Department Chair Paul Abeln, while students are certainly benefiting from the exposure to a wealth of new perspectives and ideas, they are also honing essential critical thinking and writing skills that they can apply across every discipline.
Seventh and eighth graders are reading selections from A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, while ninth graders are reading from A Turning Back to Poetry, an anthology edited by the poet Billy Collins. Paul Abeln explains that the department selected both books for the diversity of authors represented in each—a breadth that reflects Fay’s own student population, which this year includes students from 21 countries. “It’s important to hear voices from multiple backgrounds,” Paul notes, “because it helps our students understand who we are as a school culture.”
Paul explains that the poetry unit also affords the opportunity to develop key skills essential to good expository writing—developing a compelling thesis and supporting it with concrete evidence—on a smaller scale. “The challenge is intense,” he says, “but the quantity is manageable. With poetry, we can show students how to put a microscope to a single line of text, take apart the language, and look for patterns of meaning.” Then, Paul explains, by the time students read more complex works that are also rooted in poetic language, like The Odyssey or Macbeth, they have a toolbox of skills that they can use to understand the material on a deeper level.
Choosing more obscure poems for close reading offers another unique benefit in the Google age: it’s harder to crowd- source the answer. Paul explains: “With lesser-known works, there are no short cuts. Students can’t check their own interpretations against what they can find on the Internet. Instead, they have to grapple with texts that are sometimes challenging and complex in their language. They have to come to their own understanding, trust their judgment, and figure out how to support their opinions with textual evidence.”
So how do students crack open a poem? There are a host of strategies, says Paul, and the goal is to expose students to a wide enough selection that each student can find an approach that works best for him or her.
In Paul’s class, for example, ninth graders this fall examined a poem a day, writing “puzzle papers” where they struggled through ideas independently and then shared their interpretations during class time.
In Deb Smith’s class, students used themes as a way to build their under- standing. They explored poems that shared a common thread, such as nature, travel, or a moment in time, using these poems as a way to learn poetic devices. Then students wrote their own poetry inspired by those themes.
Visualization exercises are another way to help students make sense of a poem. When the eighth graders in Dan Roy’s class examined "The Kingfisher" by Mary Oliver, they created their own visual interpretations of the poem, using colors, shapes, and other representative drawings to emphasize key elements of the piece.
Meanwhile, in Kathryn Maslak’s class, students dove into spoken word poetry, focusing on the work of poets like Sarah Kay and Donovan Livingston, and using their work as a vehicle for discussions on identity and social justice.
In the end, Paul says, the goal is to support students as they become independent, careful, and competent readers who trust their own ability to wrestle with new ideas. “We want them to have the strength of their convictions,” he says, “but also the confidence to express those ideas effectively.”