Why is it useful for students to learn about poetry?
A former teacher asked me this question this afternoon. This led to a rather heated debate about the utility of teaching and assessing students in poetry and the overall function of poetry in the landscape of language arts curriculum.
The teacher argued that poetry draws student attention away from the task of learning to read and interpret prose, which is the most common form of writing that students will encounter in throughout their lives.
With all the renewed attention to core skills training as a part of the new Common Core Standards, she pointed out that valuable teaching resources—and thus money—are better spent focusing on improving basic reading and writing before paying so much attention to higher level cognitive tasks like reading comprehension.
This point of view floored me. I could not and cannot fathom teaching students of any age how to read without introducing them to the myriad of ideas that are expressed through verse form. Never mind that so much of poetry is arguably more accessible than prose for its simplicity of form and stark presentation of ideas.
Ever since I scribbled my first haiku at the age of 9, I have been drawn to poetry for its creative form and for the endless possibilities of expression it allows. Somehow, it has always seemed to me an easier way to express core ideas and feelings.
Yet, this teacher’s attentiveness to the practicality of specific parts of English/Language Arts curriculum reminds me of the fundamental nervousness that is now a seemingly permanent part of the education environment.
If teachers and administrators are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of teaching anything that is not mandated within a prescribed curricular framework or is not specifically geared towards test preparation, then I have to wonder what we are doing to students.
Isn’t an instructional system supposed to be like a business plan in laying out 1, 2, and 5 year goals for student learning outcomes rather than a voice-enabled GPS system telling teachers where to turn and drive?
The second a former English teacher tells me that she thinks that teaching students poetry and its fundamental elements of grammar, syntax, and the differences between literal and figurative language—in other words, what I consider the building blocks of human communication, then I think we’ve got a problem.
So, I have to ask, with districts in many states, such as Florida, determining the cost and, therefore, relevance of the arts and other elective subjects in schools, are current efforts to focus on fundamental skills pushing creativity out the window?