I’ve agreed to sub for another instructor at TCC tomorrow morning. She was hoping for a long weekend to go biking in a neighboring state and needed someone to cover two of her classes. Since my Foundations class is over, I could take her morning class, and she sent me the lesson plans for it last night.
She’s starting a unit on poetry tomorrow, and I’m really excited about the prospect of teaching an introductory lesson. While poetry isn’t my MOST favorite thing to teach – I’m still not 100% certain of all the rules and the meters and all – I’m confident enough in what I DO know to have a really good time with it. The thing I love most is disabusing students of their notions that poetry is somehow “above” them, that all “good” poetry has already been written, and that poetry has to be a highly formal exercise. Convincing students that they can write GOOD poetry about a carburetor or about stubbing their big toe or about watching a cat sleep – and having them come to believe me by actually DOING those things – is one of the great joys of teaching.
One of the things I love to do with poetry classes is to come up with limericks and haiku on the fly. Both forms of poetry are highly accessible – their rules are simple and their rhythms almost instinctual – and, once we get past the “there was an old man from Nantucket” crap, the exercise turns up some really great, often hysterically funny stuff. I went on a limerick-writing frenzy a while back, and wrote pieces about waffles, excentric old women and an ill-advised marriage – I can still recite the waffle effort. Vanx did a bit about haiku back in the spring, and I answered his challenge with pieces about Syracuse basketball, snow days, and my sleeping children. Whipping up “real” poetry off the cuff is a great way to illustrate to students that the genre is not the sole property of the past.
Since I’ll only be teaching the one class, though, I won’t be able to get to the part of teaching poetry that REALLY matters to me – the idea that poetry means whatever it means to the student. There is no right interpretation to a poem, and we’re supposed to filter every piece through our own experiences and beliefs to come up with a meaning that works for us as individuals. I’m still working through this idea with my own children – my eldest, in particular, is interested in what things mean and wants to know “the answer.” She’s still struggling with the idea that SHE gets to decide what the poem (or the song, or the story) means. Once she works that out, though, she’s going to find that the entire literary world just opens up for her, and she can mine it for all it’s worth. That’s what I want my academic kids to learn, too. Poetry belongs to them, if they can only work up enough courage to approach it with a sense of authority and a willingness to work their own selves into the words.