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Virginia Journal of Education


Poetry Up Front


by Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda

I attribute my love of words to my mother, who read Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses to me as a young child. My parents-both schoolteachers-encouraged me to rely on my imagination for entertainment. In the foothills of southwestern Virginia, my tree climbing adventures fueled daily jottings. Although these initial attempts at writing poems never amounted to much, the act of creating kept me immersed in the world of images and nourished my desire to become a poet.

As Virginia's current Poet Laureate and a veteran educator, I value poetry instruction as a vehicle to sharpen students' analytical and creative thinking skills while also helping learners of all ages refine their written expression. In an age which demands effective writing skills for nearly all careers, we should provide learners with opportunities to write frequently and in a variety of forms. I'm convinced that poetry belongs at the core of writing instruction. Its tightly woven pattern inspires students to marvel at its crystalline design, while challenging them to analyze and appreciate how the structure of a poem enriches its content.

There are a wealth of programs and activities designed to advance students' understanding and appreciation of poetry. During the past 18 months as I've traveled around the state to conduct workshops and readings, I've encountered after-school poetry clubs, which offer critique sessions and information about publishing outlets. I've given PowerPoint presentations at schoolwide writing conferences. I've judged writing contests, and I've led art-inspired writing sessions that have culminated in ekphrastic poetry booklets. Last June, on my website (www.carolynforonda.com ) I featured fourteen poems by students of varying ages and ability levels who had participated during the school year in one of these programs. Each experience in the schools was a dynamic step toward my goal to spread the spirit of poetry statewide.

Given the time constraints of the profession, most teachers may not have the time or energy to organize a schoolwide writers' conference or to sponsor an after-school poetry club. Yet, there are other effective ways to interweave poetry into the curriculum to enhance learning. In addition to the obvious choices-reading and analyzing poems by the great masters-teachers can use the genre to hone research skills. Paintings, sculpture and other forms of art can inspire student-produced poems. Classes can memorize, perform or recite favorite poems during National Poetry Month or at other times during the year. Teachers can weave poetry into interdisciplinary units, which explore connections or bridges of learning.

Research Skills
I constantly remind students of the role research plays in writing a poem. Know your subject well, I advise them, before you start writing. Given the availability of facts in today's information age, I encourage students to write about subjects that initially seem far removed from their comfort zone. I explain my own inclination to go to extreme measures to collect facts for a poem.

Recently, before writing a dramatic monologue in the voice of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, I read an armful of books about her life and painting techniques before traveling to Coyoacán and San Ángel, Mexico to visit the homes of Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Although I obviously don't expect students to include travel as part of their research, I do expect them to consult primary sources to learn as much as possible about a topic. And I expect them to be meticulous in amassing facts to ensure accuracy of details in a poem.

High school teachers can introduce the dramatic monologue through the work of Robert Browning. Most literature books provide a comprehensive description of this poetic form. Here's the definition I use in workshops:

A dramatic monologue is a poem in the voice of a character (not the author) at a decisive or critical point in time. The speaker addresses one or more people who remain silent, and the speaker unintentionally reveals something about his/her temperament or character.

Together, the class can brainstorm a list of historical figures who led admirable or colorful lives. The list should include people whose voices can be traced through letters, speeches or other documents. Two figures frequently selected by students are Georgia O'Keeffe, whose letters to friends are accessible in libraries, and Martin Luther King, whose speeches are readily available from reliable Internet sources. Other possible choices, appropriate for both high school and middle school students, are John F. Kennedy and Anne Frank. Students who select the same subject can conduct their research as a team. Using a rubric based on the characteristics of the monologue form, the class can peer evaluate the poems, followed by the teacher's in-depth critique.

Students in elementary school can write a simplified version of the monologue in the voice of an animal-such as a zebra, lion or wildebeest-by imagining daily encounters in an East African savanna. Recently at a school in Richmond, I used a tiny handcrafted sculpture of a fisherman to inspire kindergarten through second graders, who surprised me with their knowledge of Virginia's rivers and the sport of fishing.

This research-based approach to writing poetry sharpens students' knowledge of a historical figure or even a wild animal while steering them away from producing self-absorbed musings, often filled with abstractions.

Ekphrastic, or Art-Inspired, Poetry
In Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, James A. W. Heffernan defines ekphrasis as "the literary representation of visual art." An ekphrastic poem imagistically describes a piece of art. Well-regarded examples include John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and W. H. Auden's "Mus�e Des Beaux Arts." Thematically, Auden's poem offers an array of lessons, inspired by Pieter Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Teachers can locate additional examples of ekphrastic poems by contemporary writers either in literature anthologies or in nationally recognized poetry magazines. I admire Peter Cooley's full-length volume, The Van Gogh Notebook, for its sustained effort to explore Van Gogh's inner world. Sometimes I rely on my own art-inspired poems to further students' understanding of the form.

I recommend creating a PowerPoint presentation of powerful visual images to prompt ekphrastic poems that convey a scene or narrate a story. Teachers can also use postcard reproductions by prominent painters. Students enjoy experimenting with a poem's typography-its visual display on the page-by first examining the well-honed work of formalist poets and other skilled practitioners of free verse, who astonish us with their clever syntactical arrangements. At its best, a poem's form supports its content.

Classmates can share their work, followed by student and teacher suggestions for improvement. A culminating project might be an ekphrastic poetry booklet. Last year I conducted a workshop for a class at Henrico High School. Priscilla Biddle's students amazed me by their insightful responses to works of art by Sandro Botticelli, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh, among others. At the end of the school year, Priscilla and her classes prepared an exquisitely-designed booklet, enhanced by black-and-white reproductions of the visual art that had inspired the accompanying poems.

As a practicing artist, I am constantly discovering ways to integrate art into my lessons. At times I use my own abstract paintings or pieces of sculpture to inspire poems. English and creative writing teachers might feature the work of young artists in ekphrastic workshops. This is a meaningful way to recognize the mastery of visually talented students.

Poetry Recitation
I vividly recall suffering a memory lapse as an eighth grader while reciting William Ernest Henley's "Invictus." Somewhere between "Out of the night that covers me" and "I thank whatever gods may be," the rest of the poem vanished. I darted out of the room and hid in a bathroom stall until my composure returned. If it weren't for kind-hearted peers and an understanding teacher, who reassured me that this sort of forgetfulness occurs often, I don't think I would have stood in front of classmates again to recite poems, ranging from Shakespeare's sonnets to a few of my own. I respect the art of memorization and attribute my own ear for rhythm and rhyme to performing poems out loud.

Spoken word poetry is thriving in cities throughout the commonwealth. Poetry slams are a popular means for talented performance artists to break into the scene. A movement which I strongly endorse is Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest, created by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005. This inspirational program encourages high school students to memorize and perform poems. As a judge of last year's statewide competition, I was in awe of the participants' confidence and speaking skills. Riveting performances included renditions of Langston Hughes' "Harlem" and Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." For more information about this program, see www.poetryoutloud.org .

It is not uncommon for a young child to recite Dr. Seuss's memorable rhyming text. But as children age, more in-school time is devoted to analyzing poetry and to searching for the so-called "hidden messages." I applaud the efforts of middle and high school teachers who require that their students memorize poetry by both the masters and by contemporary writers, whose distinctive voices capture the musical nuances of language. In some classrooms native Spanish speakers or Japanese speakers commit to memory poems by Pablo Neruda or Basho. In the process, the entire class gains an appreciation for the musical sounds of another language.

Designated as National Poetry Month, April is the ideal time to encourage students to memorize a poem by a favorite poet. For students who lack the confidence to perform in front of their peers, they can individually recite a poem to the teacher after school.

Bridges of Learning
I have always been fascinated by connections. As a young girl training to be a classical pianist, I delighted in studying the connections between music and mathematics. As a graduate student, I wrote a paper linking Kandinsky's and Klee's expressionist doctrines to Hermann Hesse's philosophical treatment of Rosshalde and Klingsor's Last Summer. My interest in the existentialist condition led to a project, centered on connections, for my Advanced Placement English 12 classes. This type of unit can be adapted to all grade levels by substituting age-appropriate literature selections, disciplines and themes.

After studying William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Tom Stoppard's masterful dark comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the students looked closely at the historical and philosophical contexts out of which Stoppard's play emerged. They discovered a logical connection between Stoppard's play and the existentialist philosophy of the Theatre of the Absurd. They also noticed a connection between the play and the historical period when nuclear weapons loomed on the horizon as a pervasive threat, causing some people to view existence as futile and meaningless.

After exploring these connections, students grouped themselves according to the bridges they wanted to examine in depth. Some chose surrealism as an artistic philosophy linked to the dilemmas in Stoppard's play. Others focused on the poetry of T.S. Eliot and the common themes of aridity and hollowness in his poems and in Stoppard's play. Still other chose to develop Web pages that would connect various disciplines to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. These students used technology as a tool to enhance their understanding of the play, while strengthening their own cognitive skills.

The classes conducted research in both the library and on the Internet. I served as the content expert and facilitator of learning. A follow-up timed writing and literature quiz tested students' knowledge, comprehension and analytical thinking skills. During group presentations, they revealed an ability to recognize the interrelatedness of all knowledge. Although I am not a technology expert, I am convinced that the use of the computer solidified learning for students while reinforcing concepts explored in Stoppard's play. The group materials served as study guides to strengthen the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Beth Huddleston, an English teacher at Daniel Morgan Middle School in Winchester, endorses integrated teaching. According to Beth, one of her recent units focused on "several of the social studies objectives that regard early exploration and the beginnings of imperialism." Students examined Edward W. Lull's narrative, historical book-length poem in blank verse, Cabin Boy to Captain. Lull visited Beth's classes to talk about how writers develop a distinctive voice and style. Student projects included Elizabethan sonnets, ship diagrams and battle plans.

The lower grades likewise benefit from interdisciplinary study. Students can learn about insects in a science unit, read Chris Van Allsburg's Two Bad Ants in a language arts unit, draw their own versions of "bad ants" in an art unit, research another type of insect, and then create a rhyming poem that includes well-documented information about a beneficial or harmful insect.

Another lesson could center on learning Spanish words-zampona (panpipe), quena (flute), or arpillera (a folk-art wall hanging). The teacher can read aloud Arthur Dorros's Tonight is Carnaval, a story about a young Peruvian, excited about the festivities of Carnaval (carnival). Illustrated with colorful arpilleras, the book introduces a cultural tradition of the Andean people. The teacher can project images of wall hangings, easily found on the Internet, to elicit poems that interweave Spanish words into the text. A follow-up activity can include reading Arroz con leche, a bilingual collection of Latin American songs and rhymes, illustrated by Lulu Delacre.

Interdisciplinary units provide enrichment for all students. They encourage the discovery of connections between the various disciplines, and they can introduce other cultural beliefs. They strengthen higher order thinking skills and serve as a viable way to integrate poetry into larger units of study. Ideally, the hope is that students will transfer this learning and use it in their future careers for the greater good.

Influences
In graduate school, I imitated the poetic styles of those whose work I admired: Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda and James Wright. Eventually, I discovered my own voice and developed a writing style, rich in visual description and thematically tied to art, nature and the Andean world of my husband. Students also learn best how to write by studying the styles of accomplished contemporary poets and by examining the thematic concerns that captivate them.

The suggestions I've offered encourage teachers to select works by a variety of artistic, historical and literary figures to use as a basis for (1) research, (2) inspiration, (3) poetry out loud activities, and (4) interdisciplinary units. A teacher's dedicated guidance can lead students to appreciate the intricate design of poetry and to derive pleasure from shaping words into arrangements that dazzle readers.

Kreiter-Foronda ( www.carolynforonda.com ) was selected in 2006 by Governor Timothy M. Kaine to serve a two-year term as Poet Laureate of Virginia. She is an award-winning writer and educator who worked in the Fairfax County Public Schools for 31 years as a classroom teacher, language arts resource and English specialist.

 


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