Sunday, June 28, 2020

Some notes on Teaching Poetry in a Crisis

—by Cole Bellamy

“We’re rebuilding the plane in the air”

That was the metaphor administration kept using—it would be said at least once, in every one of the twice-weekly meetings—from March, when we closed the campus, until graduation in June.

In my dual-enrollment English class, the shutdown coincided with the end of a unit on Hamlet, and beginning a unit on poetry. The plan had been a straightforward end to the semester: something my high school seniors could handle amid the mad rush of prom, graduation, and the rest of the ceremonial dog and pony show. Of course, as we all know, that was not the case. When the order came to shut down and move to online learning, I was faced with the prospect of quickly changing everything to fit into a Zoom window.

The job of a teacher, much of the time, is to be an advocate for the material—to sell students on the importance of the subject—this is already a fraught prospect when it comes to poetry. In my nine years in classrooms, I’m not sure if I’ve ever fully managed to convince students of the importance of poetry; not for lack of trying, of course, but in the nakedly transactional age of Trump and Tik-Tok, it can be an uphill battle. Add in the obvious limitations of distance learning, and the looming global crisis, and I wasn’t feeling terribly optimistic.

Even in the best of times, online teaching can feel like shouting into the void—the organic flow of classroom discussion is lost, replaced with videos, message boards, and infrequent Zoom chats. Poetry has always been a staple of my classroom—it can be an excellent tool for education, as it distills so many of techniques of effective communication into a concentrated form. It’s also a natively communal medium, something that should be read out loud in a small group, as opposed to prose, which is best read silently to the self. Losing that ability to lead face-to-face discussions, and to emphasize the experience of reading and listening to poetry, presented a major difficulty. I tried to substitute with brief video lectures, discussion questions, but it couldn’t replace the experience of the classroom—when a class discussion is really “cooking” there’s nothing quite like it. Still, I woke up every morning, put on a shirt and tie, went out to my back patio, read poetry to my laptop, posted follow-up questions, and waited for the message boards to fill up.

Feeling out and responding to the needs of students can be difficult enough face-to-face, and nearly impossible at a distance. We always hope that students will let us know what they need, but it isn’t always so simple. It was in our discussion for the poem ‘Lineage’ by Margaret Walker that the character of the class changed. The poem is one that I’ve taught many times, it looks into the past, into the speaker’s ancestors, searching for strength in a difficult time. It ends with a pointed question “My grandmothers were strong. / Why am I not as they?” I asked for students to discuss how the author created an emotional reaction in the poem, and that opened the flood-gates. Students began sharing their anxieties about the pandemic, their doubts about the future, and the feeling of being suddenly derailed right on the cusp of the rest of their lives. That was my cue to shift focus, away from what we can learn from poetry—how it can inform our sense of language and helps us become better communicators—to what poetry can do for us—how it can provide us with words to fit what we might already be feeling, how it can let us know we are not alone in those feelings. I shifted my focus to poems that deal with isolation, grief, disappointment, and the possibility of hope in difficult times. I also moved toward covering and discussing more contemporary work-—recent poetry that I had read and enjoyed. My students particularly liked ‘February and my love is in another state’ by Jose Olivarez, ‘Ruminant’ by Clodagh Beresford Dunne, and ‘America’ by Sarah Maria Medina.

I would love to say that my online poetry unit was a glorious life-changing experience for everyone involved, a spark that starts a life-long love of poetry; realistically though, I’ll settle for the possibility that I was able to provide some comfort and stability during a difficult time.

Cole Bellamy is a writer and educator from Tampa, Florida. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Lancelot’s Blues, The Mermaid Postcard, and American Museum, and his work has been featured in The Louisville Review, Penumbra, Defenestration, and most recently in Muse/A. He teaches creative writing at the Morean Arts Center, and blogs about Florida history, nature, and culture.