I love using poetry in the classroom. We read it, think about it, talk about it, write it. When kids first hear the word “poetry” they usually groan (which truly breaks my heart), but when they’re given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the lyrics of their favorite songs, a tiny shift happens. Suddenly, poetry seems more accessible, easier to understand and more forgiving when we don’t. That’s what I love about the poetic world: it’s accessible to all my kids. It invites them in gently — and is a gateway to longer, more difficult literary pieces.
Like so many educators, I have my “go to” poets. These are the poets who, if given half a chance, I would have over for a meal of soup and crusty bread. We would toast language with good wine and aged cheese. Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, and Sarah Kay have become like family in my classroom. We go back to them time after time and they instruct us in the way of language, lead us to discover the world. Their poems also serve as a springboards for writing. We borrow their patterns, lend them our own voices, and make them our own.
As I was cleaning out my files yesterday, I ran across three copies of Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry.” Three because I can never find it when I need it, so I’ve saved multiple copies (God bless the internet and my buddy, Google). I teach 7th grade and use that poem at the beginning of the year. It doesn’t take the kids long to understand that Collins is exploring the tension between something he is passionate about and how others approach the subject, people who “just don’t get it.” We don’t spend too much time on the poem analyzing because we understand that Mr. Collins would just be rolling his eyes at us.
Instead, I give the kids one of their first assignments. I instruct them to think about something they are passionate about and follow Collins’ pattern of what they want others to know versus what happens when people “just don’t get it.” Students write about soccer and dance, drawing and gaming.
Of course, following my mantra of not asking them to do anything I haven’t tried, I also must give it a whirl. My subject? Photography.
I have dabbled in photography for as long as I can remember. I took a couple of classes where I learned how to develop my own film. It’s a medium I love. Film. But then digital came along and I was like your grandma who is confounded by the new technology. I resisted and grumbled. Initially I resented that digital photography made everyone an artist.* Here’s what I wrote, modeled after Billy Collins poem:
Introduction to Photography
by Barbara Ganias Comstock
I want them to use a camera as an extension of their eyes, their heart —
Look through the viewfinder to find the center, the art of the moment.
I want to ask them to look for the treasure and hold it
within the lens, to frame the world within perfect light,
Click the shutter a second before they sense the whiff of time
passing, before the art of the moment becomes banal, before the subject
evaporates into puddles.
But all they want to do is exchange film for a virtual canvas,
fine lenses for cell phones, perfect light for pixel manipulations.
They stretch out their arms, holding the camera as if it is a foul thing
snapping strings of self-framed shots, missing the magical
moments at the tip of their lashes;
Dashes of ordinary —
transformed into Art.
*I have to ‘fess up . . . I now love my digital camera for the immediate feedback and easy storage, although I am still conflicted and torn between that and film.