Category Archives: Standardized Tests

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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