It Was A Guessing Game Turned Magical

by Lillian Son

This post is one in a short series of reflections by students at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, CA, who enrolled in a blended-learning version of Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop in Spring 2017. Click HERE for more.

Signing up for this course, I knew it would be a struggle since, in my mind, poetry did not have concrete evidence. It was a guessing game where you had to hack through the emotions of an author. Lacking the knowledge and skills to ‘open up a poem’ and find the key to the real treasure, I felt compelled to finally understand what a poem meant. This class was my catalyst to a new understanding.

Each week, we were assigned a new set of poems to analyze and write a discussion post on. In addition to this, the units contained videos to watch and comment on in an online discussion board within our learning cohort. Also, the face-to-face classes with Professor Bellows that we had once a week allowed us to annotate, collaborate, and delve into individual perspectives of reading poetry. As a group, we would look over the lesson and poems for the week and make a plan on how we were going to tackle each assignment. Being together helped my understanding of each assignment and also gave immeasurable support from my peers and instructor. Further, twice during the semester, we wrote analytical essays. Instead of struggling through the drafting process alone, we had writing workshops to help conceptualize poems, articulate ideas, and apply the information in the teachers’ videos into our writing. It made life a lot easier to collaborate and get immediate feedback. After those sessions, I would go back home and be able to refine my wording and feel confident in the purpose of my piece.

When I saw that our final was teaching a class I was confused. How was I, a student,  supposed to teach something I struggle with? I had no idea, but while my group and I were planning for our lesson, I knew we had the tools needed to teach the lesson. Professor Elisa New of Harvard and our professor at HSHMC, Khriseten Bellows, had taught us many skills for reading and understanding poetry. Some of these skills included making observations in a poem –noticing what human senses would be highlighted, what type of poetic structure or form an author would use, finding out why authors use certain poetic devices like alliteration, imagery, etc…, trying to figure out when in history certain poems were written, and how that affected the meaning behind a poem. With these skills in our tool belts, we realized that we were able to teach a lesson of poetry to a group of students who had little to no experience of interacting with poetry.

In my group’s final project, we highlighted the poem “The White City” by Claude McKay. When planning, we had to encourage a group of forty kids to explore meanings and develop conclusions about a poem, explaining the timeframe and the author, as well as strategies for  dissecting a poem. In the course, there were videos of teachers instructing their students in poetry analysis. In leading the class in a specific direction, they asked students questions to look more deeply into the text. To get our students to peel the multiple layers of the poem, we followed those teachers’ lead and came up with questions like “What is Claude Mckay trying to express in this poem?” and “What is his heaven?” Each student would have to look at the metaphors in the text, considering the time when it was written (the 1920’s), to find what Claude Mckay was expressing in his poem. While finding the clues in small groups, we teachers checked in, as Professor Bellows did during our in-person meetings throughout the semester.  She would have us, as a group, tackle a poem by telling us its properties and giving us a question  to answer with evidence from the poem. Using her modelling, we challenged our students’ answers and pushed them to apply reasoning and evidence to analyze more deeply. These skills really became clear when they shared out to the whole class.

With the tools I learned from the class Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop, not only was I able to grasp a new understanding of poetry and enjoy debating with my classmates about it, but I was also able to successfully teach a class about poetry. What an invaluable experience!

Watch Lilly’s poetry lesson here:

Click HERE to read a post by Lilly’s classmate, Max.

Click HERE to read a post by Lilly’s teacher, Khriseten Bellows.