Teachers of poetry have always had many reasons to teach it. Poetry can enrich instruction in reading, writing, speaking and listening, capture students with its musicality, and spark their creative and critical thinking.
But during the pandemic, and a painful national soul-searching on racism, an often-overlooked reason has quietly resurfaced: Poetry can sustain both students and teachers during tough times. That power is fueling renewed explorations this month, the 22nd annual National Poetry Month.
“Poetry just looks like a bunch of rhymes on paper, but it can save lives,” said Terrain Small, a junior at Miami-Norland Senior High School in Miami.
As COVID-19 ravaged his community, shutting down his school for long stretches, Terrain turned again and again to “Invictus,” a poem by William Ernest Henley, mining its lines in search of a steadying force. He even memorized it, reciting it over and over to burrow into its meaning and rhythms.
Henley was only 26 when he wrote “Invictus” in Edinburgh in 1875, after losing his left leg to the complications of tuberculosis. But his search for bravery reached through the years and miles to Terrain, reminding him that even amid pain and chaos, strength can find its roots.
“It really made me feel more confident, like I know things will get better,” he said. “It’s always gonna hurt, but nothing negative will last too long.”
Precious Symonette, Terrain’s teacher, dives deep with her students in Creative Writing II, a year-long course on poetry. They study a diverse array of poets, from William Shakespeare to U.S. poets laureate Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Joy Harjo. They analyze hip-hop lyrics and watch spoken-word performances. They learn to write in classic forms such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas.
And, of course, they perform their work in readings and slam competitions, such as “piano slams” that incorporate keyboards, dance, and spoken word. Seven of Symonette’s students collaboratively wrote a poem that was published last month in “Dear Freedom Writer,” the latest in a series of collections of writings by young people that grew out of a project launched in the mid 1990s by California high school teacher Erin Gruwell. The piece, “Poetry is Our Poker Face,” is a paean to the life-saving power of writing.
“Poetry reminds us all that we are whole, that we are human beings, and it is so important that students know that, even in the midst of everything that’s going on in the world,” Symonette said. “They have all these emotions that they are going through, and poetry helps them make sense of all of that.”
After the murder of George Floyd, students gravitated to one poem in particular: Renee Watson’s “This Body,” which uses the dictionary-definition format—something students know well—to explore racism and affirm Blackness. Symonette read it to students over Zoom. They kept asking her to re-read it. They flooded the chat with thoughts and questions. They wanted to discuss it over and over.
“I think what really resonated with them is the fact that it’s written with a series of definitions, and it gave them the idea that we could write a poem where we are defining things for ourselves,” Symonette.
Sydheera Brown, one of Symonette’s 12th grade students, loves reading poetry. She finds strength, too, in the poems she’s written herself. Again and again in the last year, she re-read her poem “My New Normal,” a piece that details the pain of racism, and the isolation and fear of the pandemic.
“When I go back to re-read it, I’m looking for hope and courage, because I really needed that during that time, and I’ll continue to need that in the future, with how things are changing,” she said.
Even as Sydheera takes on difficult experiences in her poem, she finds her way to an uneasy kind of hope:
Three thousand miles away, a student in Los Angeles wrote herself into calm and connectedness by exploring her cultural roots. Andrea Mejia Garcia, a 10th grader at Belmont High School, wrote a poem detailing the vibrancy of her family’s homeland, Guatemala.
The poem began as a class assignment by her English teacher, Elizabeth Bush. It asked students to research and write a poem using sensory details from their cultures.
Like many of her classmates, Andrea had been dealing with hard things: family members falling ill with COVID, her grandfather dying from the virus. As she explored her thoughts, the poem morphed into a kind of rescue. “It let me express feelings I’d been holding back, and that gave me an inner peace,” she said.
Exploring the work of established poets, Giselle Sanchez-Vasquez, one of Bush’s 11th grade students, stumbled on writing by S.C. Lourie, and found messages of self-care that she needed to hear.
Bush covers the whole gamut of language-arts skills and knowledge in her class. She can use poetry to address academic standards such as figurative language and evidence to support a claim. But well-chosen poems also have a way of getting students’ attention, she said.
“A powerhouse poem can compete with a phone,” she said. “They like to take poems apart, peek between the blinds, and look for insights into life that will remain with them.”
Bush has long had a list of poems she likes to study with her students. But with racial debates and pandemic fear roiling, she dug back in to find pieces that would connect to students’ lives now. Here are a few that proved popular:
- Ada Limón’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up” uses the emergence of spring leaves as a symbol of humanity’s power to go on living, “despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.”
- Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” The final two lines are the famous and most-quoted ones: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” But Bush likes to focus her students’ attention on Oliver’s lush, natural imagery for solace and presence of mind.
- Gary Soto’s “A Red Palm.” This bittersweet tribute to family and back-breaking field work often grabs students’ attention with its striking imagery.
- Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion.” Students are charmed by this romantic take on a common vegetable. Bush assigns them to write their own odes to everyday objects.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘It Can Save Lives’: Students Testify To the Power of Poetry