By Letitia Cain, WITS Writer-in-Residence & SAL Event Manager
It’s a Scottish tradition to open the front door of your house at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to welcome in the new year, then rush to open the back door to let go of the past year. It’s a way of ushering in blessings and letting go of what’s been. Not only does gratitude feel good, but research also validates the health benefits when we reflect on our blessings. This year, I’m feeling particularly grateful for my WITS teaching experience.
The students surprise me each class with their excitement and unique ways of appreciating poems. I tell the class we want to read and write ‘fresh’ poems and they make the poems I teach ‘fresh,’ even if I’ve read them fifty times. I thought I might share some of this gratitude—for you to see what happens in the classroom, as we have much to learn from middle school students’ outlook on poetry and the world.
The following comments happened during the poetry lesson I taught the day before holiday break, December 14, 2017. As part of the lesson, the classes of sixth or seventh grade students chose from a group of poems two that they wanted to learn from—all classes chose as one of their choices “Slam, Dunk, & Hook” by Yusef Komunyakaa.
When I teach a poem to students of any age, I try to get out of the way and let the poem do the teaching. We read this particular poem by listening to Komunyakaa read it from a YouTube clip first. Then I ask, as I always do after reading a poem, What do you notice? What do you like? What delights you, surprises you? What confuses you? What words do you need to look up?
Multiple hands raise and we discuss.
I don’t know what this line means: “Nothing but a hot / Swish of strings like silk / Ten feet out.”
I respond with, Oh, good question, does anyone have an idea?
Basketball hoop is the first guess by another classmate. And then I query what type of poetic device the poet uses to describe the hoop and answers of metaphor or simile follow. See, all I have to do is let the poem do the teaching, I facilitate the process and get out of the way.
Another student states she likes a part of the poem:
In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
and I ask her: Why? (I routinely do this). She answers with, It’s a really good simile, the ‘storybook sea monsters’.
Later in the discussion, another student states she also likes:
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet… sprung rhythm.
When I inquire, What about this section do you like?—she responds with, I just like it…I don’t know, it’s just (pause) interesting. I don’t really understand it but I still like it. And I consider this an accomplishment. It’s hard to like something one doesn’t understand, as the typical reaction is to not like it if it doesn’t make sense. And poems do not always exist to tell a story or to have sense made out of them. Poems are meant to connect to the reader through feelings, the senses and to create reactions—a story is one way to do this, but there are other ways, too.
Another part of the poem discussed is: “We were metaphysical when girls / Cheered on the sidelines.” There is confusion with the word, metaphysical. So, a boy goes to the dictionary to look it up. Metaphysical: of or relating to metaphysics (great, I think, and the kids groan); supernatural; highly abstract. I say: Now, does the sentence make more sense now that you know the definition of metaphysical? Heads nod yes. We reread the sentence, soaking in the language. I love opening up new words to students and also, I learn different ways to define or explain words using a dictionary. We all learn together.
But we are not done with this sentence and come back to it later, when a girl brings up the fact that she does not like this part because she takes offense to it. She plays basketball and does not cheer on the sidelines for boys. Boys cheer on the sidelines for her. Ah, I love where this is going! I ask the class, Girls play basketball just as much as boys, right? And the class responds with a resounding and loud, Yes! I go on to further explain that while this poem is about the speaker’s experience playing ball, we would each have our own ways of writing about it, right? Interesting…
Another standout sentence: “When Sonny Boy’s mama died / He played nonstop all day, so hard / Our backboard splintered.” Students notice the way Komunyakaa reads it, he stumbles over words and reads it differently than what is on the page, then corrects himself. This is always interesting, as the students wonder (and make up stories) about the poet: perhaps he has a different version, or did he recently change it?
They also want to know, Who is Sonny Boy? I love when they pose these questions, as if I know the answers, so I turn it on them and inquire, Who do you think he is? The students have some guesses: A friend; a brother; a neighbor. We talk about naming people in our poems, why the poet might do it, why we might do it as writers and why it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. I remark that it’s interesting this question comes up, Do you want to know more about Sonny Boy? Sometimes the answer is yes, but most often I am told, No, it just surprised me, that’s all.
Another class favorite image in the poem is, “Dribble, drive to the inside, / & glide like a sparrow hawk.” One class has a student that is nicknamed Sparrow Hawk. When this line is read, there is laughter in the class. One boy even exclaims, Wow, he’s mentioned in a poem! Unbeknownst to me, this boy undertakes the looking up of ‘sparrow hawk’ in the dictionary and shares with the class when it’s comment time: It’s a real bird. I thought Liam just made up his nickname, but it’s a real bird…and he proceeds to read the definition of ‘sparrow hawk.’ Gratitude in the details—what is a sparrow hawk, what does it look like, where does it live? New appreciation for a nickname.
There is much to love in this poem and inevitably, we do not discuss every striking image or simile. Alliteration and the sounds in the poem also fascinate the students and we talk about those, too, especially with the ending lines:
Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.
Comments of appreciation resound, followed by an understanding of why this part is so pleasing. Partly image, partly language, partly metaphor and the one that is hardest for the students to name and identify, alliteration. They like the sounds but naming the technique, not so easy. And that’s ok by me, as I love that they can hear the sounds and respond to them. I often say that the poet is wearing their fancy poet-hat, share the terminology and then move on, figuring some of it will soak in with repetition.
This New Year, I am grateful for my students who teach me at least as much as I teach them. I am humbled by and thankful for the wisdom and insight these middle school students give me about poetry.
So, as I make a list of what to open my front door to at midnight—inviting more poems, more learning, more students, more joy in—I cannot help but smile in appreciation of all that has passed through my life this year.