Poetically Speaking: One Teacher’s Experience with Poetry in America in the Classroom

Stephanie Yewdell, an English teacher at Success Academy Harlem North Central and a Poetry in America alum, wrote the following post for her teaching and beauty blog “The Beauty Guides: A Teacher’s Notebook”. She graciously allowed us to re-blog it here. Read on for her reflections on the fear and joy she encountered teaching poetry in the middle school classroom– with a little help from Poetry in America.

As a teacher you must be a jack-of-all-trades. This requires that you sometimes have to teach subjects or genres that you are not comfortable with. Well, for me that was poetry. When I decided that I wanted to be a Middle School English teacher it did not cross my mind that I would need to do that. Then I got my first teaching job and was required to meet all the standards by the end of year. There she was standing: poetry. The other ELA teacher at my old school actually published her own book of poetry, so I was excited. However collaboration was not a corner stone of my “wonderful” experience at my first school. So, I resorted to the Internet and found a one day crash course lesson in poetry using a Katy Perry song. Done, I was successful. My kids “learned” poetry.

Then I moved back to New York and started working at a school with a rich, almost complete English Language Arts Curriculum. This meant I was going to have to teach poetry; teach poetry every unit. There was even a whole unit devoted to poetry. As this approached, I started to get nervous. Someone was watching out for me because my prep was during another ELA class. Every day I would sit in the other ELA teacher’s class and watch her teach. As she as taught, I took notes. Then I would go across the hall and mold her class to my teaching style. That is where I fell in love with teaching poetry. Through “Fat is Not a Fairytale,” or Locomotion or “The Ballad of Birmingham,” this is where I slowly came to understand poetry. More importantly, this is where I fell in love with teaching poetry.

Last year, I was asked to participate in a course on teaching poetry. Who, me? Couldn’t be.”

Something must have stuck. Last year, I was asked to participate in a course on teaching poetry. Who, me? Couldn’t be. But yes, it is true. About a year ago, last April and May, I worked with Poetry in America  in partnership with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education to help create content on how to teach poetry. The beauty blogger in me started flipping out because this was being filmed. How should I do my hair? My make up? What black outfit is the most flattering? Color, seriously? Do you know me? After that hurdle, I spent a Saturday with Harvard Professor Elisa New and another 6th grade ELA teacher. There we prepared for our lessons on Rita Dove’s “My Mother Enters the Work Force” and made sure we had a deep understanding of the poem. This was vital for me because I completely read the poem differently. It was so nice to work with the group so I could best use my understanding to help my students understand it. We went our separate ways, and then that Monday we went live with my students. To say the experience was next to perfect would understatement. Instead of waxing poetically about it, here is the clip.

Now it is finally live for teachers to learn from. Currently, the first semester of Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop is happening, but this summer the course will be offered again. It is a wonderful experience that I strongly consider you look into if you are looking to improve your practice. Tweet me @BeautyGuide616 or comment on my page if you have any questions. It will be worth it, TRUST ME!

Stephanie Yewdell is an English teacher at Success Academy and the creator of “The Beauty Guides: A Teacher’s Notebook” — find her on Facebook and on twitter.