I have had the good fortune to have spent the last three years teaching theater to middle school children. The Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School was designed to use the arts; music, dance, visual arts, and theater to introduce students to alternative experiences for learning. Writing this paper has helped me to develop a unit using poetry with sixth, seventh and eighth graders to strengthen language skills and to activate their imaginations.
In order to gain focus, I have directed my ideas to a particular class of eighth graders whom I have worked with for 3 years already. This is advantageous for me: I know these students well and can tailor this unit to their strengths and limitations. I will be most confident experimenting on them.
As I began thinking about poetry I was reminded of times in my own life when poetry was exciting to me. There were many instances when a poem felt important for one reason or another. Using my own various memories made it difficult for me to focus my unit yet I knew that remembering how it felt to be transported by a poem was key to my understanding how to get poetry to my students. The thread I found to hang onto was the feeling that the speaker was talking just to me. I remember a poem by Emily Dickinson:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’ll banish us—you know!
Even today when I read those lines I feel the kinship offered by the poet. All the feelings of isolation and invisibility I felt as an adolescent come rushing back.
In the theater we try to establish another world. This is what I believe people come for when they buy tickets to a play. We all need escape from the anxiety of daily existence. It is the sense of being someplace else that I want to try to create in my classroom.
During my adolescence I became excited about the performing arts. It was easy for me to personalize a song or a poem. Comprehension was not an issue for me; I had a natural confidence that I understood the intention of the writer. I sensed I had a special friend. The intimacy I felt was one I longed for and responded to. I felt trust at a time when trusting my peers was confusing and threatening to me.
Poetry has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember: my mother and her sisters would write poems and alternate lyrics to songs for family occasions, the camp I went to for five summers encouraged us to submit poems for our “end of the summer” magazine. But it was the creative dance class I took Saturday afternoons where I really freed myself with the help of poetry, and it is this experience that I have found the most to draw on for strategies in this unit.
Truda Kaschmann’s dance class met for an hour and a half, she devoted the last 20 minutes to different kinds of improvisation. One form of improvisation was dancing to poetry. Mrs. Kaschmann would recite a poem to us, allowing time between lines for us to move about. Each interpretation was correct in her eyes, and so we valued our own interpretations and our self-confidence and creativity grew.
During high school I wrote poetry and I created a performance piece using the poetry of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, and others as an audition for Dance college. I recorded myself reciting the choreographed movement to the words. I would like my poetry unit to culminate in a similar kind of performance piece.
I read from a lot of anthologies as preparation for writing this unit. By using collections I was able to look for poets I’d heard of, and to respond to titles that interested me. I also found the poems that we each brought in to share in our weekly seminar meetings extremely helpful because we examined many of them together. Books that gave writing exercises and those written by theater artists and educators who used poetry for performance pieces and for classroom activities were good sources for specific strategies. I found many poems that moved me, but I tried to limit my choices for this unit to poems which described experiences my students may have already had in their own lives.
I had another reason for wanting to develop a unit using poetry. I see 12 to 23 students for one hour each week. If they have chosen to take theater as their “choice” class I work with them two more separate hours a week. Poetry has many characteristics which make it ideal for this one hour format. The game of discovering the rhyme, meter and form of a poem, creates a sense of adventure. By choosing poems no longer that one page in length I hope to create class hours in which a student can experience a sense of success.
Metaphor and character engages one’s imagination immediately. As students read a poem, they create pictures in their minds without even being aware that they are “working” on the poem. It is the role of the teacher to discuss and hear the many reactions students have to a poem so that the students develop an awareness of the many “right ways” to read it.