This semester I’m teaching two sections of a children’s literature course at a local university. I’m still teaching third graders full time and I’ll admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed lately. Tonight was week five for my Wednesday night section and the students participated in their first literature circle, reflected on that experience in a journal, and then we explored poetry. I prepped for tonight over the weekend and had decided that I wanted to kick off our poetry exploration by listening to some poets read or perform their poetry. Hearing poetry, especially when read by the poet, is powerful. I wasn’t assuming my students have any great love of poetry or even a ton of experience with it and I wanted to pull them in.
So I started with some poems that wouldn’t fit in the category of children’s literature. I greatly enjoy Billy Collins’s poetry so I began with his Introduction to Poetry. At the end, one of my students said, “Ummm…I thought poems were supposed to rhyme.” We had a brief discussion about how many poems for children do rhyme, but that much of poetry does not. (For the record, I so appreciate students who are willing to speak up and share their confusion. I’m confident most don’t feel comfortable doing so and therefore I’m unaware of it. Especially in the virtual setting.)
Next up, I shared Langston Hughes’s I, Too.
That was awesome. Having the text there as we listened to his voice was fabulous. The chat in our virtual classroom was flying with students responding to this poem.
Finally, I offered them Maya Angelou performing Still I Rise.
I had watched it before. I wouldn’t have shared it if I hadn’t. But tonight? Tonight I listened to it from a position of just an hour earlier having listened to NPR with stories about the indictment, and more importantly, lack of indictments in Louisville and about RBG. I haven’t been listening to NPR much because it’s normally an in-my-car activity and I am not often in my car these days. I listened just before class began and, until sharing these poems with my students, hadn’t realized how much it had hurt to hear those stories. Then Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou literally shared their voices and the power and strength of them was exactly what I needed.
After those poems, the same student said, “I don’t think I know what poetry is at all.”
What a gift that was for me tonight. Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes and students who were open to new learning.