Volume VI - 2001

Using Poetry to Build Classroom Communities
by C. Hood Frazier

C. Hood Frazier, Associate Professor of English, teaches courses in both education and English at Longwood College in Virginia. A poet and writer, he publishes regularly and conducts workshops on integrating imagination into the English curriculum through poetry and art activities. His research interests include alternative approaches to education and critical pedagogy.

"Indeed it takes imagination to bring people together in these times in speech and action, to provoke them to try to understand each others' dreams. To me, one of the possibilities is that of drawing diverse people together to project, to reach out towards a more humane and fulfilling order of things."
-Maxine Greene

     The foundations of a meaningful classroom community can be established by helping students to see the world through the lens of poetry. That includes, of course, encouraging them to write original poems. It also means that the teacher must make a deliberate, conscious effort to help students feel free to share their opinions and insights with their peers, to take risks, and to make mistakes. If we can do this, then we will have freed students from a frequently encountered pedagogy that involves constant evaluative judgment. Such classrooms are tedious and counter-productive in that they promote conformity rather than learning. In this article, I discuss the classroom as a shared community space in which students take a more active role in addressing their own needs. I ground these theoretical principles by discussing three practical techniques: the poetic interview, the found poem, and the poetic field trip.

The Dynamic Presence of the Imagination

     Like most students, most teachers have unique personalities and interests in which they can become truly alive. If we are willing to share these activities and viewpoints with our students, we can transform the classroom from a threatening and boring place to one where real growth occurs in the dynamic presence of the imagination. Because I am a practicing poet myself and because I teach composition and teacher education, the world I create in the classroom is centered in exploring the possibilities of poetry. It is in this area that I focus my comments. It is important to note that in any subject and at virtually any level, students should have a voice in deciding how the class is structured and how the imagination is to be employed. In my classes, the students and I explore these issues and discuss class rules of behavior. It is not teacher-dictated behavior, but rather collaborative behavior that the group decides is best for the health of the class.

Language Play

     Although I certainly cannot prove them, I firmly believe in two relevant principles. One is that an effective way to activate the imagination is through "language play," that is, through an interaction with ambiguity. For example, in language we can say things like "dry water," "moon in the sun," and "eyes broken like a stone." There is no single meaning for such phrases: often there are more than two interpretations. When we try to explore one of these meanings our imagination becomes alive in a way that seems impossible without this activity. The second principle is that such play, when explored as a group, is a fundamental step in constructing a meaningful community. Consequently, I integrate many opportunities in my classes for the writing, reading, and presenting of poems. I ask students to use this genre in exploring themselves, their peers, and their world. Throughout the semester, we engage in a variety of exercises designed to establish links among individuals and thereby develop bonds with each other.

A Most Reluctant Poet

     If you think that this is well intended but mostly empty talk, consider David, a senior in high school who hated poetry writing and was only putting in time to graduate. He was also older than many of the students in the class, and was known as tough, opinionated and antagonistic. He was enrolled in my class because he had failed Senior English the previous year. He had refused to finish his work and had rebelled outright against his previous English teacher. Other teachers I spoke with said that they did not think that he would make it. But he was back again, needing the English credit to graduate.

     He had come to the class with a strong disdain for English-especially writing-and hated expressing emotion of any kind in his work. He wanted his English class to consist of skill/drill exercises and worksheets that he could complete individually. A weak writer, he had spent most of his schooling in low-level English classes that did not demand him to reflect critically on his own performance nor to express himself. Resistant to all of my language play activities, David and I had a series of confrontations which ended with him being sent to "time-out"-a disciplinary practice during which the student and teacher meet alone to work out their differences. I discovered that David felt strongly that it was wrong of me to ask him to express his personal, private thoughts in poetry and that he would fail the class and drop out of school rather than have to compromise on this point. His moral objections to exploring his decidedly painful life was the source of his resistance. I was stunned: I had not realized that work in poetry could be so threatening. So, we agreed that he would return to class and I would reconsider my assignments.

The Phantom Poem*
The term "phantom poem" was coined by Winston Fuller, professor of English at West Virginia University.

     I intuitively felt that perhaps one type of poetic assignment that might prove important during this period was the "phantom poem"* a poem written from someone else's point of view to a listener who is not there. Similar to a dramatic monologue, the phantom poem encourages writers to create masks. To my surprise, David completed the assignment with a powerful first-person poem from the point of view of a rapist. Though the poem was intentionally disconcerting, it was as if he finally had an opportunity to articulate his anger, to create verbally something that he both despised and hated. By writing the poem, however, he was able to begin a process that not only caused him to think about his own demons but to realize that he had the power to create something that both challenged and moved people. Not only did he shock himself, but his classmates attacked him as if he were speaking about himself. I defended David's poem as an excellent example of a phantom poem and used it to demonstrate how powerful a voice can be created. For him, it was a validation of sorts. In the controlled situation of completing an exercise, he had written about something that we, his readers, found horrifying. In a sense, David had become one of us: he might still have been the black sheep, but he was a sheep. He was part of the community. He not only finished the class but graduated from high school, something that he told me later that he did not feel he was capable of.

     It is this act of transformation that is inherently empowering and that is often lacking in our schools. As we continue to move toward accountability, testing, evaluation and a national curriculum, schools lose sight of the vital transformative power inherent in the creative act-something necessary to the well-being of both the individual student and the future of our culture. It is as Marx articulated: "The only comprehensible language which we can speak to each other...is not that of ourselves, but only that of our commodities and our mutual relations" (Shell, 5). Too often, we do not provide students with opportunities to make learning into a meaningful experience. Without such opportunities, students like David would not realize the connection between self and curriculum, between voice and language power. If we as educators, do not promote real understanding, we deprive our students of making meaningful connections through our collective memory which we call "culture."

     Nel Noddings argues that one of the central components of quality education should be "centers of care: care for self, for intimate others, for associates and acquaintances, for distant others, for nonhuman animals, for plants and the physical environment, for the human-made world of objects and instruments, and for ideas" (xiii). Such a relationship between the self and the world is an essential premise in the construction of the classroom as a community.

The Poetic Interview

     We begin each semester with the "poetic interview" so that students can learn about their classmates and engage in the act of writing poetry. This is also a good diagnostic tool to better understand the students' levels of sophistication about poetry. Initially, it is important to discuss the elements of an interview, a face-to-face, question-and-answer process designed to gather information. Sometimes the class will generate questions. First, there is the normal "Where are you from?" and "What is your name?" Then, we come up with some that are more unusual like, "What is something that you are afraid of?" and "If you were an animal, what would you be?" After brainstorming questions like these, I ask them to develop a question or two on their own and feel free to use any of those generated by the class. Then, working in pairs, students interview each other for fifteen minutes. When they have finished, they are asked to present the individual to the class by writing a short poem. It is informative to understand how they conceive of the poem and to observe their act of writing. Finally, it generates good classroom discussion about what actually is a poem. Below is such a piece:

Brown Hair

Knit, green sweater
Sunlight racing to darkness
Moving within pale blue water
For now.

by Jarod Ambrose
University of Maine at Presque Isle

     Initially, I do not evaluate their poems, but applaud their efforts and ask them to complete a short reflective process log entry on their responses to the exercise. These are usually positive and provide additional insights into both student attitudes and writing skills.

The Found Poem

     After the risk and excitement of the poetic interview, we discuss what makes a poem-emotion, image, sound, and structure. Such cursory comments, however, deepen throughout the semester as we re-examine the question in light of more poems and more kinds of poetry. For example, I read examples of "found poems" such as those written by Margaret Anderson. These are usually composed from words that are collected from sources not intended as poetry but that produce interesting effects when juxtaposed. The sources might be road names, how-to directions, recipes, signs, or other unusual constructions found in everyday life. I also illustrate the concept using found poems that previous students have assembled. Then I ask them to scavenge for their own such poem. Jen Lynds' "Impaled" is a good example of a found poem. It is based on a story from The National Inquirer about a bicycle accident.

Impaled

Riding my bike
on a jagged edge
of a
wrought
fence,
one instant
I was iron
and the next
impaled
through the neck.

By Jen Lynds
University of Maine at Presque Isle

     There are several distinct advantages to approaching poetry in this way. First, it works with important poetic elements-organization, audience, line, image, sound, and surprise. Second, it is non-threatening and "safe" because it was produced by someone else. Our responsibility is limited. All we have done as writers is to change the line breaks. This is important because it encourages students to share their work in the emerging community. Third, finding words and playing with ambiguity tends to make students aware of the potential for creativity that exists in artifacts that are all around them. And there is a deeper purpose: by condoning the creative act in class, students begin to see its value in their own lives and their own learning. Too often in schools, poetry and creativity in general are dismissed by teachers as being untenable and unmanageable. Consequently, students are encouraged to memorize information and regurgitate it on tests.

The Poetic Field Trip

     One of the best methods of encouraging writing is to move the class to an unfamiliar environment and to explore the concept of "place" in poetry. At least once each semester, I make a point of taking the students on a field hike. Before leaving, I have them search the anthologies I keep in the classroom for works that are somehow related to our destination. If appropriate anthologies are not available, I plan a class trip to the library or ask students to bring in songs that illustrate a connection to our upcoming hike. For instance, If we were going on a nature walk, I would select a traditional nature poem by Wordsworth or Emerson and compare it to a poem by Gary Snyder or Robert Bly. If the field trip was to the downtown mall, then city poets might fare more productive. I would cull out some of Frank O"Hare's "Lunch Poems" or William Carlos Williams' "Fine Works of Pitch and Copper." I might also introduce students to a specific writing technique like the "list poem" as a method to shape their work: sections from Walt Whitman"s "Song of Myself," Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and Anne Waldman's "Fast Talking Woman" have proven to be good examples. Or I might actually discuss the songs or poems that the students bring to class in order to identify models for their upcoming poetic writing. In any case, it is valuable for students to find examples of poems they like.

Sitting and Listening

     If we come across an interesting location on the nature walk itself, I ask each person to find a quiet place to sit and listen. After ten or fifteen minutes, I ask students to record what they see, hear, smell and feel. It is important that writers initially engage their senses to perceive the world around them before turning inward to memory, association and metaphor. This calls particular attention to their senses, and it illustrates how certain associations are made to the world around them. For instance, when we smell freshly cut grass, we might be reminded of when we were children and our family had our last cook-out of summer together. As we continue on the trip, I discreetly call attention to persons and things that I had found interesting for an unspecified reason. They would do the same, either to the group as a whole or to the person next to them. After reuniting back in the classroom, I would ask them simply to indicate key words that conveyed a sense of the place and of themselves. Utilizing the "list" techniques we had previously discussed, they could create a "portrait of place" poem, which embodied their feelings and associations as well as the details from that specific environment. Another option is for students to select the point of view of someone who they had seen during the field trip and describe the scene from his or her perspective. This empathetic approach helps student see things as others might see them. The most important part of the lesson is that each student's rendition of the place is unique. So after the poems had been written, we would have a class reading, stressing the point that each poem reflects as much about ourselves as about the place itself.

Making the Familiar Strange

     Poetic field trips are an excellent method of engaging students in both the process of imaginative-exploration and of self-reflection-a essential component of critical thinking. It is the process of making the familiar strange. By looking at the world in this new way, students engage in the process of transforming the ordinary and of realizing that there are strong associations between that which is within us and that which is without. Equally important is the sense of sharing and community that develops slowly over the weeks and months of being involved in a somewhat complex, high-minded effort. Without a focused activity like the writing of poems, it is virtually impossible to identify in a certain sense with one's classmates. With such an effort, the lesson learned cannot be put into a textbook. Neither can it be easily forgotten.

Conclusion

     As students begin the process of exploring the imaginative possibilities of "poetic play," they become better grounded as individuals and as members of their classroom community. They realize that each person perceives the world differently. When a student returns from a trip to the downtown mall with a poem written from the empathetic point of view of an older woman, he has made the imaginative leap from "self" to "other" and has begun the process of realizing the "new order of things" that Maxine Greene mentions. When the student finds that language itself is a powerful method of exploring both the self and the world, then such play takes on a new meaning. One, perhaps more closely akin to that of children who through their play transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and, in doing so, deepen and enrich their understanding of the world itself. When the swing set in the backyard becomes a submarine, when the wooden blocks on the floor become a village or cathedral, the very act of play transforms the objects into something imagined. Poetry writing happens in the same way.

     Poetry connects the inner self to the world through association, memory, image and sound. Poetry provided David, the contentious senior, a way to express himself, to link his own inner demons to the world through an act of imagination. Kutz and Roskelly point out that "for Bruner as well as Bronowski, whether the existing system is a bureaucratic structure, a format for lessons, a poetic form, or a scientific problem, coming to new understandings involves moving outside of the existing system, preconceiving it and seeing it in new ways" (225 ). The value of writing the poem, then, is that it emerges from the twin acts of re-seeing the world and transforming the self-both necessary skills for the health and well-being of our culture in the 21st Century.

"Only when individuals are empowered to interpret the situations they live together do they become able to mediate between the object-world and their own consciousness, to locate themselves so that freedom can appear."
- Maxine Green, The Dialectic of Freedom

References

Greene, Maxine. (1978) Landscapes of Learning. New York: Teacher's College Press.
-. (1988) The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teacher's College Press.

Kutz, Eleanor and Hephzibah Roskelly. (1991) An Unquiet Pedagogy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Noddings, Nel. (1992) A Challenge to Care: An Alternative Approach to Education. New York: Teacher's College Press.

Shell, Marc. (1978) The Economy of Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Spender, Stephen. (1952) The Creative Process. Ed. Grewster Ghiselin. New York: Penguin.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. (1988) "In Search of the Imagination" in Imagination and Education." Eds. Kieran Egan and Dan Nadaner. New York: Teacher's College Press.

back to content page