The Power of Poetry and the Teachable Moments related to Amanda Gorman

When Amanda Gorman read her poem The Hill We Climb (or did Spoken Word in a sense) at the Inauguration of Joe Biden, a nation stopped and listened. Well, at least most people did. Poetry at an Inauguration is not something extraordinary (although this young poet is). I still remember Robert Frost reciting a poem at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration.

But, when Amanda Gorman read a poem about the 3 honorary captains appearing and being celebrated at the Super Bowl, the reaction was very different. First, some people noted this was the first time there was poetry at the Super Bowl. Shocking seemed to be the attitude. I am not convinced of that statement as I think much of music is poetry that is sung or played. So, there has been poetry before — just not spoken. Some people were on high alert when the Super Bowl became a place for poetry; the manly sport was being invaded by the “poetic” touch. Some people thought it was the Super Bowl highlight. One title to an article emphasized that the poem was “original;” if a poet is reading her own work, is there a question about its authenticity?

I think, in these oh so trying times, that we need role models. We need people who can speak truth to power, who can express more ably than we can, how we feel. And, this is a youthful role model — not an old white man. And, this is a poet who speaks with her hands too — not just her voice. And, this is a woman of color and she commands our attention and pulls at our heart. She is like the National Anthem well sung; she represents the best in us and she wants to bring out the best in the rest of us.

For students, many of whom are learning online, her poetry presents remarkable teachable moments. And, as someone who specializes in trauma and its impact on education and psychosocial success, I hope we are using our Poet Laureate’s words and readings to help our students. Here are some suggestions:

1, Online learning requires good auditory skills, something many students lack. Suppose a teacher read 4 lines of one of Ms. Gorman’s poems and then asked students to recite it back to them. Most could not unless they were forewarned in advance to listen differently. Most of us can’t remember all that we hear, assuming we are listening at all. (Too many students are present but not engaged.) But, once students were read the passage again and told to try to remember some or all of it, they could focus on the alliteration and the pacing and perhaps remember more of the poem. That’s amazing learning with a powerful impact on ongoing listening and learning.

2. Ask students to read one of her poems and illustrate it. (Her book of poems is illustrated). Imagine how students would take up the opportunity to share what the poem meant in another medium. And, ask some students to set her poem to music — something that for many students would be a welcome change of pace in terms of educational assignments.

3. Have students look at the work of other poet laureates; that would be an amazing journey, one that I might take myself. The current poet laureate is Native American. Do you know her name? Do students know her name? Shouldn’t we all know her name? We know the name of the QBs at the Super Bowl. These might be names we could get to know, like we are know Amanda Gorman’s name. (Answer: Joy Harjo)

4. Have students write alliterative sentences. And, try tongue twisters too because alliteration is not always poetic; it can literally be mind-bendingly hard to say. Try: She had shoulder surgery. To be forthright, I wrote a book called Tongue Twisters and Beyond: Words at Play. (It is downloadable off my website at www.karengrosseducation.com under book header.) To be sure, what I wrote isn’t poetry but it is playing with words and making them dance for you. (Yes, I have published a book of poetry for children: Flying Umbrellas and Red Boats so poetry has special meaning for me.)

5. Enable students to listen to many poets reading their own words. There is power in that, just as there is power in student voices. Let students read their own words — a short paragraph they write about something that responds to a prompt given by a teacher. Those prompts can be creative and evocative. Imagine the sound of student voices. And, a teacher could read one of his/her own poems — math teachers too. Biology teachers too. Poetry is not limited to a class in “English.” How about poems written in a foreign language. Perhaps not Baudelaire which is a tad bit haughty but there are many Latin American and Spanish poets whose work is stellar. Lorca is my choice for students. There are other Spanish poets well worth our time and attention. And, Japanese and Korean poets. And Icelandic poets.

Here’s the point: Amanda Gorman’s entry onto American’s scene can be a catalyst for our students if we use her presence, her work, her role modeling, her words, well. To quote from her inaugural poem, “if only we are brave enough to see it; if only we are brave enough to be it.”

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