Monday, February 2, 2015

Guest Post: Inspired by the Favorite Poem Project

By Kate Crosby

"Poetry connects us with our deep roots, our evolution as an animal that created rhythmic language as a means of transmitting vital information across the generations. We need to communicate not only with our peers but our ancestors and descendants, and the arts of poetry, writing, print, and digital media serve that communication.”
—Robert Pinsky

I first learned about The Favorite Poem Project (http://www.favoritepoem.org) at the 2013 NCTE Conference in Boston. Sitting in the back of a very crowded conference room, I listened to Robert Pinsky speak of poetry as a uniquely intimate art form. He emphasized the importance of participation. A poem does not live on the page. It lives in the body, through the voices that give it breath and sound. As his words reached across the wide space, insisting on engagement, I was reminded of Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.” In this poem, a speaker laments his students’ inclination to beat meaning from a poem, to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” He encourages a more visceral response, telling his students to “press an ear against its hive,” to “walk inside the poem’s room / and feel the walls for a light switch.”

Recently I had been groping for such a switch. I longed to make the study of poetry less of an academic exercise and more of an authentic experience. I wanted students to understand the poems that moved them, and I wanted them to understand why they were moved.  I wanted them to equate analysis, not with dissection, but with illumination and life.  As I watched the 5-minute videos on the Favorite Poem Project website, I realized I had found that switch. My students would create videos, like these, that conveyed a chosen poem's importance to them.  I knew the project would require a shift in my approach to teaching poetry - I would have to employ tools beyond the text and page - but perhaps that shift was not unlike the one I was asking my students to make. Together, we would reenter the world of poetry with fresh eyes.

Step 1: Getting Familiar with Tech Tools

I began by consulting my tech-saavy colleagues like Kerry for advice on how to facilitate this project with students in my Grade 12 class. I saw how digital technology could enhance students’ expression, and I needed some direction when it came to choosing the right tools. I did not want the emphasis on technology to detract from the project’s goal of authentic and intimate interaction with a poem. I wanted the technology be the tool, not the focus.

We determined that the project could be done using iMovie, and we spent several days watching tutorials and getting acquainted with the program. Students worked together, filming short video clips with iPads and iPhones and importing them into iMovie, familiarizing themselves with its editing features. Once we had a handle on the software, we turned our attention to choosing poems.

Step 2: The Assignment

For one full week, students immersed themselves in poetry. I told them to read, read, read without preconception and without agenda. They returned to the works of poets they had read before, and they explored new ones. They rediscovered Ozymandias. They found Prufrock. They began each class by sharing phrases and lines and images that impacted them.
“And indeed there will be time
To wonder “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” 
They handwrote lines they liked.  They committed them to memory. I saw them pressing their ears to the hive. I watched them run their fingers along passages, searching for a switch. 

Step 3: The Writing Response and the Storyboard

Once students chose their poems, they wrote a 400-600 word response about why the poem resonated with them. This was a chance to reflect upon the poem's significance and articulate why it mattered.  The reflection would inform the choices they made in the video - choices that involved the inclusion of sound, visual imagery, narration and sequence of clips. From here, students plotted the video’s narrative on a storyboard. This storyboard became a rough template for the direction of the video; however they were free to revise as reroute as their videos came to life, as they began to take their own serendipitous shapes.

Step 4: Publication

Students published their videos on YouTube and shared them with the class. I was overwhelmed by their candor and by the quality of the final product. With the students’ permission, I have included two of the many worthy submissions. 

Julia chose e.e. cummings’ “[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in]” 





Kiera chose Billy Collins' "The Parade." 



I'd say they found the switch.

About the Author

Kate Crosby is a high school English teacher, cross country coach, and director of The New Currency, the literary arts magazine at Reading Memorial High School. She shares her passion for language and literature by seeking and creating educational experiences that foster students' connection to texts. She writes and publishes short fiction. Recently, her short stories have appeared in Pleiades, The Journal and Beecher's Magazine.