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HomeFeaturesThe Challenge of Teaching Poetry

The Challenge of Teaching Poetry

Paul Cummins suggests that all teachers share the joy of poetry

As Franklin Roosevelt famously stated in his 1932 inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” These ringing words probably also apply to the teaching of poetry. For a whole host of reasons, many people—not only teachers but general readers as well—feel intimidated by poetry. For teachers, a fear of this kind either inhibits their teaching or leads to their not teaching poetry at all. Often, English teachers just “don’t get around to it” during their courses.

I sympathize with this fear, having experienced it myself. However, I want to offer this appeal: the very act of throwing oneself into the teaching of poetry can lead to all sorts of joys and a lifetime of discoveries. It doesn’t really matter where you begin. Just begin. This book is meant to help that process of beginning and advancing. So, begin by jumping into a favorite poem, or even a brand-new one, and tell your students that all of you are going to experience “how it means” together.

The reading of a given poem often travels through deeper and deeper layers of understanding; it can traverse from the simple (though not necessarily inaccurate) to the highly complex (though this is not necessary to enjoyment) sense of the poem’s meaning.

One must, however, engage with the poem, gaining some reasonably accurate understanding of “what the poem is about.” It is a long journey from Mother Goose to Ezra Pound, though the journey is exciting because the pleasures are never-ending. The journey in the classroom begins with the teacher’s comfort level and willingness to learn and to grow.

Thus this book offers teachers several different ways to introduce students to the reading, memorization, and writing of poetry. Not every chapter or activity need be used: teachers may pick and choose whatever they wish.

Perhaps it may be helpful to offer a mini-catalog of obstacles or trepidations some teachers—and students—could feel, which might prevent them from immersing themselves in the teaching or learning of poetry.

1. The big question is, almost always, what does it mean? I don’t understand it.

2. Why is it [the poem] arranged on the page the way it is?

3. Why do some poems look so different from others?

4. The poem [we are looking at] seems to have a sort of rhythm to it. What is that about?

5. Does the so-called rhythm of the poem contribute in some way to its meaning? If so, how?

6. Do we need to know the connotations of words as well as their denotations?

7. How can we teach (or should we?) distinctions among sense, feeling, tone, and intention?

It’s a mission of mine now to help students, teachers, and readers get beyond such questions and beyond specific areas of intimidation or insecurity they may feel in confronting a given poem.

There may, however, be other reasons that students don’t enjoy poetry, and one of these may be the curricular dictates imposed upon teachers by state curriculum boards, Common Core curriculum requirements, and the like: definitions to memorize, difficult “classic” poems to analyze, and so forth. In this scenario, as poet William Logan writes, “it [poetry] becomes another way to bully students into feeling ‘compassion’ or ‘tolerance,’ part of a curriculum that makes them good citizens but bad readers of poetry.” And, I would add, students turned off by poetry for good.

No, the teaching of poetry is best served in an atmosphere of joy; of exploration, by student and teacher alike; of creative and sometimes goofy assignments; and mostly of imaginative activities.

I’ll just mention one example from my own experience. I once hired a professional juggler to come, as a surprise, to a class where I was teaching Richard Wilbur’s poem “Juggler.” At the moment I said these lines…

It takes a sky blue juggler with five red balls
To shake our gravity up

…in walked the juggler in a blue shirt juggling five red balls. It was a memorable moment and an unforgettable class.

There are some lofty goals for poetry in the curriculum, but they should not be where the classroom teacher launches the study of poetry. When students are hooked and feeling comfortable, beginning to love the interplay of words and sound and sense, then perhaps these goals can be examined, but only later in the game.

Finally, I would like to offer an example of poetry’s ability to transform lives.

For 14 years, my nonprofit organization and I have been involved in bringing arts electives to incarcerated juveniles at Camp Gonzalez in Southern California. One of the most influential classes has been creative writing: usually beginning with rap, but almost always evolving into other forms of poetry. Boys who have never liked school find they love these electives. They gain opportunities to discover and hurl their voices out into the world in a positive way, many for the first time, and the results are stunning. They live their lives no longer as a “broken-winged bird that cannot fly” but as dreamers who leave their cages transformed and inspired to rebuild their previously dysfunctional lives.

Poetry, for example, led J. to leave camp, enroll in a two-year college, transfer to UC Berkeley, graduate in June 2016, and receive a full scholarship to a PhD program at Duke University in September 2016. Poetry can make things happen.

Presented with Mary Oliver’s profound question, “What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life?”, J. found his own “wild and precious answer.”

This is an excerpt from Dr. Paul Cummins’s new book, Voice & Verse: Joys and How-To’s of Teaching, Reading and Writing Poetry.

Dr. Paul Cummins is a visionary educator, poet and tireless protector of the art of verse. He received his bachelor of arts from Stanford University, his MAT from Harvard, and his doctorate from the University of Southern California.

In 1971, he co-founded Crossroads School in Santa Monica and built it into one of Los Angeles’s most successful educational institutions and a national model for innovative, independent schools. In 1995, Cummins stepped down as headmaster there and formed New Visions Foundation (now Coalition for Engaged Education) to offer opportunities for engaged education to all youth.

The first venture was New Roads School, a diverse K–12 independent school in Santa Monica that has a deep commitment to social justice. Since 2016, Cummins has helped co-create two new progressive schools: Pine Ridge Girls School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and Tree Academy in Los Angeles. Both schools serve grades 6–12 and are diverse, providing substantial financial aid.

Cummins has published several books on education. His two latest books, Voice & Verse: Joys and How-To’s of Teaching, Reading and Writing Poetry and The Collected Poems of Paul F. Cummins, are now available via

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