Poetry in the Classroom: The Beecher Experiment

by Paul H. Fry and Jean E. Sutherland

By Paul H. Fry

One pleasant spring morning this year, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Director James Vivian and I attended a gathering called "International Fiesta Day" at the Beecher School in New Haven. We had been invited because the four teachers presenting the event had attended my Summer 1994 Teachers Institute seminar called "Poems on Pictures, Places, and People." These teachers, Francine Coss (K), Geraldine Martin (l), Patrice Flynn (3), and Seminar Coordinator Jean Sutherland (5), had applied for the seminar as a "team" intending from the outset to work toward a Fiesta Day. They hoped to emphasize the diversity of human cultures for the benefit of their students, nearly all of whom are African-American. Coss wanted to prepare a unit on the American Colonial Period, Martin on ancient and modern Mexico, Flynn on Japanese culture, and Sutherland on African-American traditions. Their having joined forces, both in the seminar and in an interactive, cooperative approach to teaching in their school, was envisioned by the Institute as a prototype for future group projects.

I think the experiment was a wonderful success at every stage. My first response, though, when I saw the applications, was skeptical. I wondered whether poetry would really prove necessary or even useful as the teachers' plans developed; and I wondered whether a "team" with its collective aims could contribute the focused individuality of perspective on weekly topics that is needed in a seminar of twelve persons. But I saw right away that my doubts were unjustified. Not only did poetry prove to be an unforced and natural point of focus for the curriculum units these four teachers prepared, but in fact they hewed more closely to the announced issues of the seminar (pictures, places, and people) than did most of their colleagues. So diverse were the units apart from these four that I decided to rename my volume of units (Volume II, 1994) "Poetry in the Classroom: Incentive and Dramatization." Nearly all the units produced by the teachers in this seminar were excellent, but I recommend reading those of the Beecher team in particular as models of the way in which the ecphrastic, regional, and social specificity of poetry can bring multicultural teaching to life in the classroom.

Francine Coss used early American hornbook verse, especially illustrated Alphabet Rhymes, to teach her kindergartners both the alphabet and the rather stern yet kindly-disposed virtues inculcated by such rhymes. Geraldine Martin devised a "counting train" (uno through diez) to teach the geography, daily lives, and social practices of the ancient and modern Mexicans (Mexico is one­uno­country, for example, but it has harbored three­tres­ancient civilizations, etc.): and each number-coded lesson was illustrated and augmented with poems written by Mexican adults and children. Patrice Flynn's challenge was to emphasize the unfamiliar in Japanese culture, and for this purpose, in addition to haiku and other forms, she chose poetry written and compiled into books by Japanese school children. Jean Sutherland, finally, worked with traditional folk verse (jump rope rhymes, field songs, wedding poems) to illustrate the language and values of her students' native cultural tradition. I hope this brief summary will give some sense of the ingenious and exhaustive research efforts undertaken by all four teachers. Apart from some of Jean Sutherland's materials, I the poetry professor had never encountered or even known of the poetry (published in pleasing English translations yet languishing unread and out of print) that the Beecher team's curriculum units make available.

And then came Fiesta Day. Francine Coss's children, in early American headgear and enunciating at the top of their lungs, recited a book of alphabet rhymes, each responsible for a letter and holding up the pertinent picture. Focusing on poetry throughout, Geraldine Martin's Counting Train in serapes and white blouses recited and sang poems chorally, with interspersed solos. Patrice Flynn's class did relatively little with the poetry they had been studying but chose instead to stage a short Noh play about the wedding of a princess and a commoner forbidden by the cruel king on earth but celebrated among the stars. And Jean Sutherland's fifth graders, boys and girls in some cases nearly six feet tall, recited poems they themselves had written in praise of parents, caregivers, and friends singled out from the audience. Many were in tears, and one poet was so overwhelmed that she just stood with her aunt, unable to speak a word. The event lasted nearly the entire morning (we adjourned for the food of our cultures), but all the teachers, administrators, children, and parents were spellbound to the end, hardly aware that time was passing.

By Jean E. Sutherland

"I cried, but inside I felt proud. I thought everybody was crying sadness, but they were crying happiness. To me the assembly was very important not because I was in it but because all four classes worked hard and did well."

These words, written by one of my fifth grade pupils, typify the reactions of children, parents, staff, and other guests lucky enough to experience our festival of culture through poetry. This was a combined production, the culminating event of curriculum units written and taught by four L.W. Beecher classroom teachers representing kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grade. As members of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, we had been enrolled in Professor Paul Fry's seminar, "Poems on Pictures, Places, and People."

The idea of working as a team started about a year and a half before the final program. Since the Institute's steering committee had encouraged school colleagues to apply to seminars as a team, the Beecher group met to discuss possibilities. Our idea of using poetry as the basis for studying Colonial American (kindergarten), Mexican (first grade), Japanese (third), and African American (fifth) culture was born. A key objective of our team was to encourage interaction among pupils and teachers across grade levels, with an eye toward involving other staff members. Parental involvement was an absolute must.

In our Yale seminar, a group of twelve teachers studied and discussed poetry which was primarily far beyond our pupils' grasp. At the same time, we developed our individual teaching units geared to our particular grade level, but motivated largely by our seminar experiences. Throughout, we met individually with Professor Fry, who provided comments and suggestions on the various stages of our unit writing. Independently, the Beecher group met regularly, checking their progress as a team.

During the school year that followed, our team's writing was put into action. First, we developed a schedule for teaching material and staging culminating events and also planned for cooperative activities across grade levels. Individually we began teaching our material to our pupils as we had prescribed in our own units. Some of our most successful lessons involved two classrooms working together. My fifth grade paired up with first graders. Together each couple wrote and illustrated a poem patterned after a short Mexican piece presented by the first grade teacher. Fifth graders taught first graders hand games based upon traditional African American rhymes which, after being presented at our festival, became a school-wide fad. For that festival the parents planned, shopped for, prepared and served an overwhelming buffet of food representing each of the cultures the team had covered. Parents also sewed costumes, taught a Mexican dance, wrote and presented a poem, provided martial arts entertainment during the buffet, and some, including a hundred year old grandmother, were honored in person through their child's original poem.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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