It’s my belief that poetry, once queen of the arts and an important component in man’s rise from the caves, has fallen on hard times, at least in Western culture. We pay muscle-bound football players millions of dollars to kick a bit of pigskin around, but not more than a handful of poets can live by their art. In Japan, Emperors write poetry and are proud of it; in Russia poets may be worshipped as Rock stars are in the U.S.; but only one president in my lifetime has called on a poet to be a part of an important ceremony, and none that I can recall has singled out any poets for special recognition in other ways. Even that kiss-of-death job, U.S. Poet Laureate, seems to have decayed into disuse. Poetry, which once was culture-bearer, historian, myth-maker, legendkeeper, and entertainer, all rolled into one, seems to have very little place in this society.
Obviously, no unit, however stellar, and no teacher, however gifted, can ever single-handedly do much to restore this art to its former state of glory—much less me, a humble 4th grade teacher in a typical city school. I struggle with the attempt to raise reading scores to a respectable level; hoping at the same time to provide some of the glimpses into those things that can lift horizons and give direction and meaning to life, among which I include poetry. Still, perhaps I can come up with an experimental unit that will give some New Haven children, for one school year, some sense of what poetry can do to enrich, celebrate, and liberate our daily life.
In the typical classroom, and mine is one, we use the basal reader system, with its constant check-tests and heavy record keeping. There is also a Language basal system with the same burdens. Struggling to bring all your charges up to “level” leaves little time for excursions into realms not provided for in the texts. It is true that recent texts try hard to provide for different forms of enrichment, and there are even small units on poetry in some of them. But I propose, in my 4th grade classroom, to try to recreate in microcosm some of the roles poetry has had in larger society. As real poetry is part of life, I want to make it an integral part of the curriculum. I want it to infiltrate reading, writing, math, social studies; I want it to give expression to my student’s emotional and social exchanges.
And I want them to know that poetry is FUN.
This unit, then, is meant for use throughout the school year. It is designed to have a three-strand approach, which will sometimes overlap. Weekly lessons might employ any or all of the three strands. These weekly lessons, built into one subject or another, will pursue three overall aims: the intelligent reading and understanding of poetry; the acquisition of confidence in the ability to write poems; and the memorization and recitation of some meaningful poetry from our common culture.