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Using Pop Culture to Hook Students on Poetry

posted: 3.15.11 by Traci Gardner

3418717701_d2276363e8_mNational Poetry Month is still a few weeks off, but I feel like talking poetry. Recently, Holly Pappas asked about strategies for discussing poetry with general education students. The answer I’ve stumbled upon is to use pop culture to hook students on reading and discussing poetry.

Like many teachers, I’ve struggled when helping students to analyze poetry. I think the problem is fear. I’m afraid I won’t be able to convince them of the beauty and delight a poem can hold, and they’re terrified they will never be able to find the secrets hidden in those poems.

I address those fears directly by having us read and discuss Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” together. The juxtaposition of the speaker’s playful intentions and the students’ torturous interrogation perfectly mirrors our situation. With a little luck, students see themselves (and me) in the poem, and we’re off to a great start.

The pop culture connections come next. I share a favorite Dr. Seuss book with the class, asking them whether the book qualifies as poetry. A rousing discussion follows, touching on nursery rhymes, rhyming jingles, and song lyrics. We return to the Collins poem. None of them feels like beating a confession out of Dr. Seuss or the latest pop diva, and they can make observations about themes, images, and rhythm and rhyme easily in this context.

Song lyrics are my secret way in. I turn to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” next, pairing it with the Simon & Garfunkel version (lyrics) of the piece. I share why I liked the poem when I first read it. We compare the two versions, and I again encourage students to make personal connections to the speakers in the poem.

Next, we discuss a song and published poem that share a common theme or subject matter (rather than the entire narrative). I try to choose older songs that aren’t in students’ daily playlists. For instance, the consideration of memory and aging in Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends/Bookends” (video, lyrics) works with Billy Collins’s “Forgetfulness,” and as a bonus, keeps the course focused on the same writers that we have already explored.

Having modeled the analysis and comparison process, I ask students to choose a song they like and to find a poem to compare it to. Their writing project will present the similarities and differences and talk about the images, themes, and other poetic features.

It’s a rather simple assignment, but it’s been one of the most popular and successful writing activities I use. Even I was surprised the first time I tried it. I sent students off to find a song and a potential matching poem or two in the class anthology. During the next class session, I told them they would share their choices in small groups.

As I visited their groups, I found nearly every student approached the activity in the same way. Students had chosen a favorite song or two from their favorite bands, and then gone on to read dozens and dozens of poems anthology in search of a match.

Listening to students’ conversations, I typically overheard sophisticated comparisons as they talked about the various poems they had read, the ones they favored, and those they had rejected. Nearly every student read and discussed more poems for this assignment than I would ever have assigned. They dropped all interest in torturous interrogations and were deeply immersed in reading and exploring poetry.

This success is what sold me on using pop culture texts in literature classes. In truth, students already know a great deal about poetry—but they have labeled it as music and often haven’t explored it formally in an academic setting. Given the chance to apply that out-of-school knowledge, they find that poetry becomes much less scary—and they’re hooked.

[Photo: Pole by Arnob1_1998, on Flickr]

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Categories: Teaching with Technology
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