I've never been a writing person and my son is now struggling through a poetry unit in school. How can I help him when this is something I don't enjoy myself?


Lisa Hiton, poet, filmmaker, professor, writer

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I do understand and empathize with many of the questions and answers above. However, as a poet and arts educator, I'm going to do my do diligence to respond to this with a slightly firmer hand:

Whether or not a person "likes" and content area is worth nothing for or against the content area. I tell my students this often when they don't "like" a novel or poem that is on the syllabus; it's of no consequence to, say, Toni Morrison that you do not "like" Beloved, it's of no consequence to Sylvia Plath that you do not like or even understand "Lady Lazarus", the texts are beyond reproach.

I'm not sure of the age of your son, but here are some ways you might begin to enter poetry with him: Poetry was born of an oral tradition. It would behoove both of you to read the poems aloud. Have him listen without looking at the page. Ask him what he heard. Who does he think the speaker is? Why is it the speaker has the urge or urgency to say this? Why in this tone? Why now? Poetry is a rare form because it is SLOWER. IT REWARDS SLOWNESS! What a great counter to our multi-tasking, fast-paced, ADD-prone way of life! Read the poem over and over. Think of it more like listening to a beloved song.

You might also find poets reading their work aloud: - America's Favorite Poem Project was begun by Robert Pinsky during his tenure as Poet Laureate. There are many resources online and in text that you can order of people simply sharing their favorite poems. When it begins with love and passion instead of resistance, that seems to be less pressure. - Poetry Out Loud is another program started by a Poet Laureate (ok, it's Billy Collins, and I'm the opposite of a fan of his, but this program is one good thing he has done...) which has young students all over the country reading poems out loud. There are many online materials and videos of students performing some of the most famous poems out there. - LOUDER THAN A BOMB. This may single-handedly be one of the most relevant grassroots movements in the country right now. There is an amazing documentary about the program, which to my knowledge, can still be screened on instant Netflix. Youtube videos of students doing slam poetry performances of poems they wrote are abundant. There are also team poems. Two years ago, when Rahm Emmanuel closed a huge amount of CPS schools, he attended LTAB only to discover a class of second graders performing a slam poem about their school closing. Now that is potent!

For younger children, here are a few books I always recommend as early reading anthologies:

  • The Random House book of Poems for Young Children
  • Poetry for Young People by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Ballad of the Harp-Weaver by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children by Theodore Roethke
  • Rose, Where Did You Get That? Teaching Great Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch

I would also encourage you to take a look at poetry worksheets that professors of poetry (poetics, but also, more accessibly, those who teach the writing of poetry) use for workshops. I find that there is minimal access to the work poets truly do for those who are not enrolled in a workshop with a poet. There is too much an air of mystery. One new resource for that is Lightbox Poetry at http://lightboxpoetry.com/

Writing is an art that is not appreciated like other genres for many reasons. For example, non-musicians rarely complain about having to listen to it or even study it. If you can alleviate yourself of stigmas and treat it the same way you would visual art or music (everyone you know, no matter how anti-art they are, has a favorite song...) you and your son might be able to FEEL a poem's ability to rule you, even just in the instance of its reading. And that feeling is the whole point. The big problem in this country seems to be that we don't just hear a poem for love first. We never encounter poems and then out of nowhere we are given one and asked to analyze. By simply approaching it as any other encounter with art--with a voice, with a story, with a sensation--a lot can be achieved quite quickly.

I'm happy to follow this conversation and continue adding resources as I hear more about what's being asked of your son (writing or reading) as well as his grade-level so I can curate the resources to it. GOOD LUCK!

Joelle Renstrom, BU professor and former AP teacher

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I've always been surprised by people's resistance to poetry. We all grow up loving nursery rhymes and songs, both of which are poetry. So what happens to change people's views on poetry? I think it's school--or more specifically, being told by a teacher that one's interpretation of a poem is "wrong." Sure, it's possible to miss the mark about what a poem means (for example, if you were to argue that in "A Dream Deferred" Langston Hughes suggests that people shouldn't follow their dreams), but the beauty of poetry is that it supports multiple interpretations and more importantly, that it makes different people feel different things.

When I teach poetry, I tell my students that we all bring something different to a poem--our own history and experiences, our imaginations, our thoughts and feelings about a subject. Those personal details allow us to create our own connection to a poem--for example, "A Dream Deferred" would resonate particularly strongly with someone who put his or her dream on hold to, say, work a full-time job. I encourage my students to share their different responses--there's no better way to see the power of poetry than to have a roomful of people talk about what a poem makes them feel.

Instead of talking about what a poem means (your son will do that in school), try talking about what a poem looks like. What images does it conjure up? Can he draw any part of the poem? What in your son's life do those images or ideas remind him of? How do they make him feel? If a poem seems like a happy poem to him, why is that?

Look at the lyrics of a song your son likes. On the page they look just like poetry. What do those words mean? What is the song about? How does it make him feel? If he can answer those questions, he can analyze a poem.

Another way of making poetry fun is to write it. Your son could write a pretty simple poem--what he wants for dinner or for Christmas or a poem about his best friend or a fun afternoon he had. You could even write little poems back and forth to each other. You don't have to enforce any rules--the point is that anything can be a poem and that they're not scary. Once students get over this fear of poetry, then it becomes fun and accessible.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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I struggled with poetry as a student ... and with teaching it when I started my teaching career. What helped me was engaging in other forms of creative writing. The more I read and wrote narrative nonfiction, and the more I read and discussed short stories, the more my resistance and, quite honestly, "fear" of poetry subsided.

I suggest getting your son involved in a writing program. If he is in high school, perhaps he can enroll in a writing elective. If he is younger ( or older, for that matter), consider a one-day writing workshop or one week summer writing program. The National Writing Project offers these through hundreds of site locations around the country. Those who teach these workshops love to play with words and strive to create writing communities where even resistant young writers can feel comfortable being themselves.

Once your son learns to read like a writer, he'll be able to approach poetry with less resistance.

Kathryn deBros, Special Educator, English Teacher

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It's hard to teach your child something that you can't stand yourself! I would recommend finding something enjoyable to do together - showing your child that you are willing to learn and explore something you don't like will make a HUGE impact, no matter what that activity ends up being, or whether or not either of you get good at it. Play rhyming games together, read gross or silly poems, or try a found poem - choose a fragment (3-5 words) out of several pages of one book, or several books and put it together into a funky poem.

For an older student, focus on what images pop up in your mind when you read a poem, close your eyes and let the words "paint a picture." If a word or phrase seems like it could be important, ask your son "what else does that make you think of?" A lot of poets use words with more than one meaning on purpose in order to cram as much into as few words as possible. Or sometimes all you get from a poem is a feeling or color....which is all ok.

Don't worry - a lot of kids get frustrated with poetry, and even poetry-inclined students don't understand everything. Try to have fun with it, one way or another. As I said, the fact that you are trying so hard to help your son with a topic you struggle with is already a huge step, and your son will see that.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Your question is a great one! It can be hard to support your child with a subject matter when you don't feel comfortable with it yourself (I see that in my future when it is time to do Algebra). I think the first thing you could do is tell your child that you didn't really love learning poetry when you were younger but now you see that it is everywhere and you would like to learn more along with him. Perhaps you can consider ways that poetry is in your lives, as suggested above, and go beyond the assignment. Maybe when he sees poetry everywhere, he might look at the assignment with fresh eyes. Also, it is okay to tell him that he will like some subjects better than others, and that it is important to work on subjects that challenge him. My hope is that both of you come through the poetry unit with a deeper understanding of poetry! If you need some ideas about arguments you can make to him, here's a great piece on why poetry matters in schools.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher, Author, and Artist

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Poetry is a particularly difficult subject for some because it is typically abstract, and forces people to "read between the lines," "find hidden meanings", or be able to translate imagery into practical meaning, or romance/fantasy into reality,etc. There is no specific way to teach poetry, and in my experience, people who "get it", just seem to "get it," and those who don't really seem to struggle. You may not have to teach your child at all because they might turn out to be one of the former, and you, being the latter might end up learning from them! This is completely fine - the important thing is that you just introduce it to them as an art form that involves using words in a different way than usual. As some of these other experts have pointed out, just be prepared to go on the journey with them because they may well need guidance when reading the complexities of these lines, or even a sounding board if they start to write their own poetry. "I am From" poems are frequently taught in schools, and those are very fun. They give a student the basic structure of a poem, but gives them the freedom to add their own style and touch to it using the environment and the things they know the best. There are other sensory and meditative exercises you can do when writing poetry as well, and of course, it is everywhere in music as well. It may not be as difficult as you think, just start using more of your creative side and start thinking outside of the box along with your child. It's fun! And good luck!

Lisa Hiton, Poet, Professor, Filmmaker, Writer, Arts Educator

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To CITIZEN OF THE WORLD. I just wanted to let you know there is an outstanding anthology, The BreakBeat Poets, which offers the world an understanding of hip-hop's profound influence on poetics--this of course includes rap music, hip-hop music, DJ ideology, remix culture, and hip-hop culture at large. I've given you a link to the anthology below.

You could make that argument about any subject. There is value in learning things about each subject for literacy within the content areas (which you're making a case against), but more importantly, when braided together, for one's larger literacy. If you have the skills to read and or write poems, perhaps your moral capacity will expand, your inclination to empathize will be larger, your ability to write coherent sentences and be understood out in the world will be better, etc. There's a larger idea at work in education, which is larger than your own appreciations subject by subject...

The BreakBeat Poets: http://www.amazon.com/The-BreakBeat-Poets-American-Hip-Hop/dp/1608463958

Anonymous, Citizen of the World

I'm not sure writing or appreciating poetry is actually a useful life skill for most people. Not everyone likes rap music; it doesn't make sense to me to teach everyone how to rap and how to appreciate the genre. Likewise, if someone doesn't like poetry, it doesn't make sense to me to teach them how to write it and how to appreciate it. Not sure why we teach poetry nearly universally but not rap; to me, they are equivalently useful as artistic genres. If it were my child and they were uninterested in poetry, I would frankly say to them and to their teacher than it was OK for them to fail at this. If on the other hand they are having trouble but genuinely want to get into the craft or just want to get good grades, then I would start exploring the advice given in the other answers to this question.

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