Teaching Students to Think Big With Poetry

People often ask me why I love working with teenagers. And my answer to their question is usually the same—teenagers are still figuring out what to believe and think. For me, helping my students to find their own opinions and views on topics, especially the difficult ones that they might have thought had only one right answer, is really my most important job.

If you were to walk into my class on any given day, you might witness my students discussing the unique yet universal pain that an immigrant mother feels when she can’t communicate with her own kids; you might see my students in small groups answering questions on race and a dream deferred; or you might observe a full-class discussion about whether we should fight death or accept it gracefully.

What might surprise you is that in each of those instances, my classes would be completing one of my lessons on poetry.

By analyzing those issues through poetry, students gain an appreciation of the complexity and ambiguity of different viewpoints, experiences, and ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong.

These are some of my favorite poems for getting my students to think big:

Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again” is a perennial favorite with my classes. They like the accessibility of the poem, but they also appreciate its unique mix of anger and hope. Even though the speaker of the poem says that “America never was America to me” he still holds out the possibility that the disenfranchised groups he describes in the poem will unite to make the country what he dreams and thinks it can be.

When it comes to getting students to recognize how ambiguous some issues can be, Adrienne Rich’s poem “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” is one that gives no answers or easy solutions. In this poem, the immigrant experience is one that is dangerous, possibly hopeful, and ultimately unsure. I’ve found that pairing it with Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus,” from which the famous quote on the statue of liberty was taken, truly highlights the difference between the experience that many new arrivals have here verses the beacon of hope that we’d love for our gates to be.

Another theme that is a bit taboo to discuss in our society is death. We tend to see it as simply something sad that we try to avoid for long as possible. Yet when it is viewed in the right light, death can be both sad and beautiful at the same time. For me, the poem that best captures the complexity of this tricky topic is Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year Thou Mayst In Me Behold.” In this poem, the speaker looks for the best metaphor to describe the way he feels about his impending death. The image that he chooses, of the warm, peaceful embers of a dying fire, is one that highlights the beauty of a gentle passing.

I often pair it with Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in which the speaker begs someone to fight against death and live to the last moment. Which poem has the correct view on how we should handle old age and death? Of course, there is no right answer. What I want when I study this and every poem with my students is to help them develop and clarify their own ideas.

Which means that when we discuss these and other difficult topics, we usually find many right answers. We often find a few wrong ones. We always end with more questions that we began. And yet somehow, we have more clarity on our own views. That’s the beauty to me of a great poem.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.