“And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”Walt Whitman, leaves of grass
This week, Wednesday the 21st, I will finally hold the first meeting of my school’s new English Club, and I am very excited. For the first time, I will have complete control over the dialogue and direction of the classroom, and I plan to use this to give my students all sorts of new experiences. If things go according to plan, my club will allow my students to observe and learn from a more genuine and native form of English, but there are no guarantees but those I make for myself. In the spirit of that adage, last week I tested out one of the lessons I have planned for the club in the coming weeks: I taught my Third Years to write English poetry.
When initially structuring the lesson, I wanted to start with a big sample from a great work of poetry. Maybe a Elizabethan Sonnet or a passage from Paradise Lost or excerpt from Blades of Grass, but I quickly realized that I was letting my ambition get the best of me, so I instead resolved to begin simply: I would tell the class about what poetry means to me and why I want to tell them about it; thankfully, this proved to be a much simpler start for the lesson.
In the simplest of words, I believe poetry is the way a person can translate their thoughts into words. Though when I say “thoughts” I do not mean the cerebral thoughts of how to plan or do something, but instead the personal thoughts of how we feel or what we think matters. Poetry is the way that those sentiments can be transcribed and made explicable to the people around us, and I truly appreciate it as a creative medium. This was what I explained to my students, and I began the lesson with this affirmation and the hope that they would be able to see the same value in poetry as I do.
To keep the lesson simple and intuitive, I focused on three simple forms of poetry: haiku, free verse, and diamante, respectively. In each one I explained the rules and then showed easily understandable examples for the class to read aloud and discuss. Haiku made perfect sense as the first form for us to examine, as it was both simple and native to Japan, making it easy for a classroom dialogue to be formed about the style. The students had already learned about and written haiku and written their own in their second year culture class, so it was very easy for them to follow along in the path of the lesson.
Coming from there, we talked about free verse, whose nonexistent regulations made it no problem to find or create accessible examples for the students to read and discuss. I told them how this is my personal favorite style, simply for the creative freedom that it offers the author when they make it, and how it is the best one to start with if you begin to write poetry for yourself.
Our third and final poetic style was one called Diamante. This one was fairly simple, as the style has a set amount of lines, each with a simple requirement and no rhyme scheme needed.
The only requirements besides this are that the first line outlines the topic of the poem, and the final line must be either a synonym or an antonym. With this in mind, when it came time for the class to work together to write a poem, I chose diamante as the format to use.
Because of its bare-bones nature, I was able to use this format to create a workshop of-sorts for each class. Essentially, I would have a different student contribute each word, thereby allowing any students who wished to engage in the creative process and express themselves with their classmates and friends. In total, each class made their own poems, and I am very proud of the work of my students.
My students were able to express themselves through English, and I observed proudly as these self-expressions took form in each class. At the end of the day, my coworker, Mr. Fukuzawa, and I marveled together at how well the students had been able to express themselves in English.
More than a Lesson
To conclude the lesson, I wanted to show the students how poetry is used in English culture. I began with a clip from the 1983 film adaptation of the seminal coming-of-age story The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, in which one of the characters, Ponyboy, recites a poem by Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” I then spoke briefly about how the poem talks about the troubles of growing up and how it relates to the movie, and I then added in how I always enjoyed the way I felt when I read that poem as a teenager.
I then branched off into music, and used the N.W.A. song “Express Yourself” to show how poetry is used in English music a means of self-expression. I played the first verse of the song and gave the students lyrics to follow along with, and then talked about how the central conceit of the song is one of self-acceptance and self-expression; I talked about how that was was Dr. Dre saw in his music when he wrote the song, and how it is a very inspiring tune from a lyrical standpoint.
As a capstone, I finished the period with a personal reading of my favorite poem: “Hours Continuing Long” by Walt Whitman. I love Whitman’s style as he captures the sheer solitude and neuroses that pervade a broken heart, and I wanted to give this poem as an example of how rawly emotional a poem can be, even if the majority of the students could not understand most of the poem. But I did not expect them to, and it was a way for me to express myself to them.
The lesson by itself was about self-expression, and that is the same idea that my English Club will revolve around. I want my students to gain a different form of English literacy, one which will allow them to express themselves through poetry, music, film, literature, or anything else.
So long as they walk away from our time together more in touch with who they are, I will be happy.
Song of the Week
“Express Yourself” by N.W.A.
In keeping with this week’s theme of self-expression and poetry, and in light of using this song in my lesson, “Express Yourself” is the most fitting choice for this week’s song. Though not only for it’s lyrical content. As a lover of speaking fast and furious and, accordingly, hip hop, I love the flow of this song. Dr. Dre’s perfect pronunciation and rhythmic recitations of his lyrics create a nice groove to coincide with the funky soul sample that provides the base for the song’s wonderful beat which keeps up the momentum at a rapid pace. And the lyricism reaches a degree that I personally believe is the apex of the album’s songs. With its themes of aggressively unapologetic self-acceptance and self-expression, I always feel rejuvenated by this song, and completely ready to express myself.
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!