Why I plan to bring poetry into my classroom

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This winter semester, for the fourth time in two and a half years, I'm going to be a teaching assistant on a first year writing course. Basically, I help teach new university students how to write properly. Most of them think they already know how. They mostly don't. Even though most of them have spent their entire lives operating in English, going to school in English, and reading and writing to what's defined by government curricula as an appropriate level of English proficiency, they just don't yet know how to operate at a university level. That's totally fine. One of the things you learn in university is how to read and write at a higher level than what's considered adequate for a high school graduate.

For reference, to get into a university in Ontario, an Ontario resident (which is what most of my students are) needs to have completed a course called ENG4U. That's grade 12 University Preparation English. That course follows three other academic-level English courses. Like any course, it comes with a set of expectations and learning outcomes. These are classed in four general categories: Oral Communication; Reading and Literature Studies; Writing; and Media Studies. By all accounts, the curriculum for ENG4U is pretty solid. The expectations for the four areas map closely to things that really are relevant in a university context. There's some great stuff on the importance of flexibility and skill building. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of seeing limitations in understanding, identifying areas for improvement and recognizing how skills from different areas can be applied to reading and writing. It's not the curriculum that's the problem.

The problem, to my mind at least, is the way current expectations about a university education colour the attitude students have towards learning. The increasing focus on employability as an outcome of a university education is a well documented and hotly debated problem. Some people think it's great that universities should focus on skills relevant to the current job market and useful to the economy. Some people think it's a shame that universities are becoming a source of vocational training, with specific, job-related skills being prioritized over more general critical thinking and research skills. Whichever side you come down on, there's one thing I think is less contestable: some skills are really difficult to teach in a routinized and measurable way.

Writing is a tough skill to teach and learn. Yes, English grammar has a huge collection of rules. But the rules aren't actually exhaustive. There is no one definitive book a student can read in order to become a competent writer. Writing is delicate and contextual. Writing is based on both an understanding of rules and a sensitivity for the situation in which it's being employed. Though I hate the word "intuitive," because it normally stands in for a whole collection of other desirable traits, becoming a good writer is a process that has a lot to do with intuition. We develop that intuition and contextual sensitivity by exposing ourselves to other competent writers. In other words, we become good readers and writers by practicing. We learn to discriminate between different kinds of writing by reading widely. That's how we learn what's appropriate in different contexts and, crucially, how we learn what we like.

One of the biggest influences on my writing when I was in high school was Douglas Adams. He's clever, spare and sarcastic. He's brilliant at incorporating a diverse set of influences into books that, even a couple decades on, still feel current. And he introduced me to the Romantic poets.

What's more, reading has always given me ammunition. When I was told in grade school never to start a sentence with "And" or "But," I ran to an example I found in an L.M. Montgomery book. What authority could my teacher possibly have when she was directly counter-indicated by the author of Anne of Green Gables? Reading helped me question rules and received wisdom. Reading allowed me to compare facts and form independent opinions.

Now, neither Douglas Adams nor L.M. Montgomery appear to directly explain why I think my students should be encountering poetry more often, especially since the two are known for their contribution to prose. What those two figures are, in my life, are examples of reading without a clear learning outcome. I read them both for fun. From their fiction, I not only got entertainment, but a lot of indirect learning. From both, I got an understanding of vocabulary and diction that I would not have encountered in my normal life. From Montgomery, I got a kind of English that hasn't been spoken in Canada in a hundred years. From Adams, I got words like "lucite" and "estate agent," terms that refer to concepts I know, but which were utterly foreign to me when I first read them. In short, the books and authors who have been most seminal in my life have been the ones who have broadened my horizons. I learned about different ways to approach and see the world, and it was fun.

I recognize that seeing reading as fun is not a universal. The increasingly practical nature of a university education makes it even more difficult to explain to students that having apparently aimless encounters with the written word can be useful. Getting them to do assigned readings, which have a clear relationship to the course content, is tough enough. They're overburdened and haven't yet developed the time management skills they need to accomplish what we ask of them. Generally, unless they can see an outcome or happen to have a passion for a particular subject, getting them to do more work than necessary is a tough sell.

This is where poetry comes in. Though I won't categorize all poetry as aimless, at the very least, it comes with fewer overt learning outcomes than most of the things my students read. By its nature, it is well crafted, walking a careful line between formal rules and creative interpretation. It requires careful diction. And it is determinedly foreign. For the population at large, poetry is not part of life. It is distinct from the kind of reading that most people do. This foreignness is the most compelling reason I see for bringing it into my classroom. Every decision in a poem is clearer. The deliberate nature of the language in a poem is highlighted by its deviation from the prose of assigned readings. It's distinct from the journalistic writing in the papers they read on the subway, from informational writing and from prose-y status updates.

This semester, I plan to bring more poetry into my classroom. Short, sweet poems that highlight careful choice and decision making in writing, while being so utterly foreign as to jog my students out of their normal way of reading and understanding. 

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