Student Responses to Poetry

Amy VanDerwater is hosting the round-up: http://www.poemfarm.amylv.com/

Amy VanDerwater is hosting the round-up: http://www.poemfarm.amylv.com/

As an educator, I have a lot of frustration with the latest renditions of standardized testing. Since this is a poetry forum, I will confine my remarks to my frustration with the latest renditions of standardized testing relative to students’ poetry responses.

Just two years ago, students were required to make text-to-self connections within their open-ended responses to poetry. How a poem resonated with them, how it made them feel, how it reminded them of experiences they had—in these in other ways, students were expected to personalize their responses.

In a changed world, text-to-self connections are anathema. Explicate the meaning of the poem using evidence from the text—nothing more; nothing less. Denotation and figurative connotation are fair game. Personal interpretation: I think; I feel; In my opinion—forget it. No one cares about students’ thoughts, feelings, or opinions, as such. Just cite the evidence—objectively. Impersonally. “Just the facts, ma’am,” to quote an old television detective-icon.

For me, the essence of poetry goes beyond denotation and connotation of verbiage. That kind of explication might be appropriate for responding to prose selections but not to poetry. For me, the essence of poetry, the gift it is to humans, requires a personal reaction, albeit, such reactions are exceeding difficult to verbalize.

I read once, but cannot quote the source, that a response to a poem is best (as in most authentically) made with a poem. Surely, we do not expect students to respond in that way, and yet, why not break the exposition rules? Why not accept as an open-ended personal response to a poem a sketch, a poem, word maps, phrases, and so forth.

When it comes to substantive poems, the kind that leave audiences struggling to identify their reactions, and then groping for adequate words to express their reactions, how can words best describe a poetry encounter that touches the soul? What is the nature of the discourse it engenders?

deep calls (2)

The first four words of the seventh verse of the New International Version of Psalm 42 epitomize for me the answers to these questions. “Deep calls to deep.” Some responses cannot be put into words…at least not without considerable thought, a time for pondering, for letting the meaning of the words resonate–fall— deeply within to the core of one’s being. The time needed for that kind of reflection likely exceeds the limits and constraints imposed by timed testing.

So, as poets, what do you think? Since personalized poem-responses are difficult to articulate, are testmakers doing students a favor by eliminating text-to-self responses? Or should poems be respected for the text form they are, and should a variety of personalized response-formats be required?

Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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12 responses to “Student Responses to Poetry

  1. I think you are a hundred percent correct! If we want students to love poetry, to carry it with them, we can’t take their connection to it out of the equation!

    • Amen! Thanks so much for reading/responding. Can poets band together to demand that their work be respected; that tests stop cheating students. What happens in testing (particularly because of teacher evaluation tied to student test scores) is spilling out into every day, every classroom–students are being required to practice their “stay objective; cite the text” directives. Inane and inhumane. What can we do to get their connection back into the equation as you so rightly pointed out? God bless you. Thanks again. I respect and appreciate your validation.

  2. amyludwigvanderwater

    “Deep calls to deep.” It is vital that we make space in our classrooms for children to respond to poems as the young humans they are, exploring their own depths and questions. Our testing culture is negating our humanity, and I am so grateful to teachers who are offering children and young people the gift of finding their own deep… Happy Poetry Friday. xo

    • Thank you so much, Amy, for reading/responding! …I like that you “broke the rules” as you explained in your post to children. Problem is that testing/teacher evaluation is affecting what happens outside the testing days, since teachers feel compelled to prepare students for testing. I’ve heard teachers disallow personal response, reminding students to keep their comments objective based on citing the text. Tests are cheating students. And they are cheating the poets whose work is not being read/responded to as it should. What if poets banded together, demanding that if their work were going to be used in testing, that there be provision for students to be able to respond subjectively, as well as “objectively.” The whole inane/inhuman testing/teacher evaluation situation makes me sick and sad. Thanks for providing students with a place/space for truly enjoying poetry! God bless you!

  3. I expect you’re preaching to the choir here. That’s one of the main reasons that I (and others) have come to poetry later in life. Because we needed time to heal the wounds of quantifiable poetic analysis and find our way back to how a poem makes us FEEL.

    • Sorry it has taken me so long to thank you for reading/responding, Michelle….Amen! How sad…Can the “choir” demand of testmakers that their poems not be quantified to death? ..Or, even if the qualitative responses remained ungraded, could students be asked/permitted to make such responses, so that their instincts to respond thusly are honored? So that it seems to them that such a response is appropriate? How I wish there were some way of stopping the degradation of poetry (at least, for starters) in the testing environment…..Thanks again! God bless!

  4. I taught at an independent school with no testing, & I am grateful, but sympathize with those who are pressured to prepare their students. I do wonder why both can’t be taught, the love & personal connections along with “this is what the tests will ask you”? In my poetry groups one thing I asked for each meeting was that students bring a poem by someone else to share, & to tell (if they could) why they chose that one this time. This showed me much about each student, what they brought & why, & the sharing broadened the outlook of the rest of the group more than I ever could by just sharing only one poem. The possibilities of poetry in teaching are endless, & it’s sad that they are not accessed. Love hearing your thoughts about this. I didn’t know about the change.

    • Oh, Linda! I am in total agreement (and apologize for taking so long to acknowledge your comment). I love what you did with your students to give them the chance (& the necessity) to get in touch with their mind & heart reactions to poems. Apart from their teaching/testing constraints, it is unfortunate that so many teachers feel intimidated by poetry and incompetent to “teach” it. If only, as students, they had mentors who gave them opportunities to respond to poems the way you do. One of the reasons I love “A Child’s Garden of Verses” DVD so much is that the children-commentators do the “teaching,” showing other children how they might respond. Using the DVD gives teachers a tool that removes from them the burden of “teaching” poems that they feel unqualified to teach. if only there were other practical solutions… There just is nothing like poetry; it’s always a sad thing to me when children (and adults) steer clear of it. At least you’ve doing your part! Thank you! God bless you!

  5. I am not an educator, but I have been into poetry since I was in 5th grade and the beauty that I found in poetry is to be able to see my own self in the poem I was reading—to connect with the experience. As a poet, I had an opportunity for several years to post my work in a poetry site, I enjoyed reading the interpretation to the poem. I never felt the need to right or wrong their response to the poetry, because I always felt that the moment one puts a poem out there, it is no longer mine. It is the reader’s. Their affinity for it has nothing to do with the original meaning. And isn’t that the point of art? To connect ones experience without a need to prove our interpretation of it. I don’t know, I’m just babbling. -iphigene

    • Iphigene–I love your “babbling”–though it didn’t strike me as that! I love that idea of “the moment one puts a poem out there, it is no longer mine. It is the reader’s.” I envy that you were able to read others’ interpretations of “your” poems, especially since you were able to appreciate the responses, without being personally offended or feeling the need to defend your interpretation. How interesting and gratifying that must have been! …Your comment about various interpretations vis a vis the artist’s intended meaning reminds me of that song from years ago about someone who went off a bridge and all the speculation it engendered, even though the artist said their was no backstory. …Now I’m babbling, so I’ll end saying thank so very much for sharing your thoughts. Your insights are very masterful; I feel privileged to be the beneficiary. God bless you. And thanks!!!

  6. What Linda Baie suggested is exactly what can be done! If you have to teach in a situation where there is testing, you can teach the testing like it’s a foreign language.

    • Thank you so much for entering into the conversation. Sorry it has taken me so long to acknowledge your comment! Teaching poetry as if it were a foreign language…group/paired…speaking/listening/sharing, acknowledging that much will be unfamiliar, but still the cadence, the sound, the gleaned meaning through inflection, tine etc–I love the thought!…If I have misinterpreted, could you please elucidate, maybe even in a post! Has anyone ever expressed that take on poetry? You could make a valuable contribution! God bless you. Thanks!!!

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