Authentic Teaching – Poets and Poetry

Illustration by Eyen Johnson

I just attended an on-line poetry reading where the iconic Robert Frost Poem The Road Not Taken was shared.  I love Robert Frost and I love this poem.  Listening to this poem made me think about what a great idea it is to teach elementary and middle school students using the poetry of Robert Frost.  Ummm…NOT!
Let’s be honest – there are very few children who are mature enough to appreciate Robert Frost.  Maybe by high school, but I can assure you I didn’t appreciate him when I was in high school.  I had no use for his poetry.  I hated memorizing his poems.  And I honestly had no idea why this was anything but a waste of my time.  I pretty much hated poetry.

So fast forward to my teaching career and good old Robert is part of the 5th grade curriculum.  Now I am not one to fight city hall…so what to do?

Well, enter authentic teaching, learning, and projects.  We introduced the kids to Robert Frost and all the other poets that were in the curriculum. But then, instead of memorizing a poem, or writing in the style of Robert Frost we turned the kids loose to write their own poetry.

In one class the kids were working on a Martian Colony, so they wrote Martian Poetry.  Their poetry covered every topic possible – sports on Mars, monsters on Mars, weather, friendship, loneliness…  Some of the kids modeled their poetry after a Robert Frost poem, others looked to different poets. (The most popular choice by far – Shel Silverstein). 

The class ended up publishing a book of Martian Poetry that went home to every family. 

So, the kids really learned about poetry, they learned about different poets, and they had fun writing poetry.  The curriculum was covered. The project was authentic. The learning was authentic

Authentic Teaching – Poetry

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I had a great conversation the other day with a girlfriend about authentic learning.  I was explaining how it makes all the difference in the world when the project is something the student is interested in – if the students are not interested, then it really isn’t authentic.  Having fifth-grade boys read Robert Frost’s poems, and then write poetry in that style has never been a very meaningful or successful endeavor.  (I am a Robert Frost fan, but for some strange reason most fifth-grade boys are not.)  Exposing students to many different poets and styles of poetry, then having them pick a style they like, and you are moving into the authentic experience.  They can then write poems in that style about an interest they have, and you can watch the engagement happen.

I mentioned that, of course, most of my boys were passionate about football.  Most of them wrote poems about football.  She asked if I knew a lot about football.  I confessed my knowledge was limited, mostly things I picked up from my Miami Dolphin fan brothers and son.  (Cue the violins here for the long-suffering Dolphin fans.)  I am a “Dolfan”, but certainly don’t have a ton of football knowledge. I wore my turquoise and orange, and professed my true love, which the boys fell over laughing about.  (I taught in Redskin territory so it’s not like they had a lot to laugh at me about!)  Honestly, my background knowledge about football didn’t matter.  I knew how to teach poetry, I knew how to guide children through an authentic learning experience, and the boys certainly knew enough about football to take it from there.

*If you give this a try – after the poems are written, continue with a poetry reading, complete with refreshments (party planning/math budgeting), or create a poetry newsletter to be shared with people at a retirement home, or sell that newsletter and raise money for charity….the authentic options are endless.