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Sunday, 22 February 2015

The affective force of poetry: A session with poet Deanna Young

This past week, we had the great fortune of having the award winning poet Deanna Young come to visit our class and speak to us about poetry across the curriculum. Leading up to her visit, I mentioned a few times that Deanna was one guest speaker not to be missed; she did not disappoint.   Beginning with taking up Peterson’s chapter on poetry in Writing Across the Curriculum, Deanna noted that in reading it she jotted down many ideas that came to mind, but the one things she felt that was missing was the significance of affect when it comes to the reading of poetry.

Beginning with the provocative question: “Is poetry just about another new tool, to use the cliché in your toolbox, to teach content or is there another reason?”, Deanna addresses what poetry across the curriculum means to her:

            I think if you are a are a teacher if you going to use poetry across the curriculum, the only way you can use it effectively and get the most out of it is if you are seeing it for what it is. To me the article doesn't get at that essence. It talks more about thinking and precision and those kinds of things but it doesn't talk about the heart and the transformative power of poetry. Peterson’s reading does address how to make poetry accessible to students, but it skips over why students will care or bother to use it. My question is how do you turn kids onto poetry and use it so it is something they will actually embrace and are drawn to and are not just dismissing in your classroom as another little gimmick that the teacher is using and she or he wants me to write an acrostic poem and come up with a poem through the letters of my name: “D is for dynamic.” Is that something that really meant a lot to you and turned you into a poetry reader and writer? Does that turn kids onto poetry? I don’t believe it ever has.   Keep that in mind whether you are using poetry in English, Math or Geography – remind yourself of poetry’s essence and what it can do for us as human beings. That is really what poetry should be about.

To help us experience what she was speaking about, Deanna them took us on a little adventure of writing poetry. Writing two titles on the board -  The Beauty of Math or The Trouble with Math - Deanna gave us the rules that you could not use the word “math” in the body of our poems, and you cannot use word numbers or digits 1, 2 or 3 ad infinitum. The poem must be 9 lines of any length. 

As intended, this little exercise did the trick, as we all furiously wrote, challenging ourselves to convey our ideas about math without breaking any of the rules, which of course pushed us to new plateaus of engaging with our connections to math. Not surprising, considering my own math anxiety, I worked with the title The Trouble with Math and here is my little attempt:

            The marks on the chalkboard stare at me
            With symbols and signs I can’t discern
            Oh how I wish I could remember those formulas
            And could magically sweep through each equation
            The grand finale would stand before me like a final bow
            I would feel the exhilaration of a good performance
            I would hear the applause of all those towering teachers in my past
            I would then be ready to take on another challenge
            And feel like Harry Potter all over again.

Even though, unlike the other brave souls in the class, I did not offer to share my own little comic twist on my own feelings of loss and desire around math, our classroom became alive with reading performances that shared a range of perspectives on math that got underneath how, for some, poetry was a means of communicating logic to the hot topic of math anxiety.

Experiencing poetry’s ability to surprise and bring to the surface our emotional experiences around a subject which has a bad rap of being cold and calculating, Deanna then set the stage to share some poems that she had thought could be used across the curriculum.  Bringing us into the wonderful world of ‘what if’, Deanna asked us to consider whether Dylan Thomas’s The force that through the green fuse drives the flower was used in Biology would shake students awake. In Basho’s The petals tremble, students could experience the contrast of the delicate petals on a mountain rose in juxtaposition to the overpowering rapids below.  Asking how we could perhaps see Mary Oliver’s Alligator Poem fitting into the curriculum, ideas of how it could be used in Art because of its imagery, Geography to talk about the ecosystem and the everglades, or a way to talk about Darwinism in Biology all emerged as possibilities. Theodore Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz also applies to a ream of subject area uses such as the Arts or Family Studies where it may be a venue for high school students to loosen their own memories of childhood.

Moving from discussing My Papa’s Waltz’s strict rhyme scheme, we moved to considering another master of rhyme and one of my favorite poets, Dr. Seuss. Reading From One Fish, Two Fish, we talked about an array of uses for the lines of this prolific poet’s work, including The Lorax which many would say has done more to bring ideas of the environmentalism to both short and tall people then any other piece of literature. Turning to another serious subject, we were introduced to Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris, which could be a significant catalyst to talk about mental health if we read the iris as human. Last but not least, Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool was put on the table as a means to inspire students to write about an issue that is important to them in an eight-line poem using rhyme and contemporary vocabulary.

In closing, Deanna implored us to liberally use poems as models for student writing, as we all start writing by mimicking. While she only had about two hours of time to share with us before running off to work her magic as a web editor at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, we won’t soon forget that we need to keep asking the question of what poetry can bring into our lives and what it can do for us as human beings.  


  1. Linda, thank you for posting this. It really reminded me of how much I loved Deanna's session with us. I particularly loved her words about finding the passion in poetry. The challenge is to find the poetry that will ignite this passion in each student.

  2. Thank you, Linda, for this great write up. I truly enjoyed visiting your class and was inspired by the students' engagement with the topic of poetry across the curriculum. The future of education appears to be in good hands.