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Poetry in the Language Classroom 2

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Most people do not associate poetry with the AP® Language course, but for some years my province's curriculum required poetry study in Grade 11, as well as a study of the origins of the English language. So a colleague and I, working on the course together at the time, devised an assignment that we felt not only provided our students with the requisite poetry study, but also exposed them to the different styles of language and the rhetorical concerns of poets in different eras and different stages of English society. Since, in our school, most of our Language students also progressed to the Grade 12 Literature course, it further provided them with what amounted to a quick survey of the English poetic canon.

The idea was not to spend a lot of time analyzing the poems, because that wasn't our mandate, but instead to give the students at least a passing familiarity with some significant names in English poetry and a time line to attach to their knowledge when they later studied drama, fiction, and poetry of different periods in the Literature course.

After much deliberation about which poets and poems to include and which to leave out (I think this was the hardest part of developing this unit!), we decided on this list (which also originally included some American poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who had to be dropped from later versions of the project due to time constraints). Most of the poems were available in a textbook we imported from the UK, which also had excellent introductions to the different historical eras we covered. However, much of the same material is available on the internet. You can start at the University of Toronto's Representative Poetry Online, and this  "A Brief History of English" page is just one part of Dr. Kip Wheeler's superb Web site that also includes a ton of resources about rhetoric.

We started with about 10-12 70-minute classes, in which we discussed significant developments in English history, society, and art, from the Anglo-Saxon invasions to World War I. Along the way we read the representative poems, parsed them briefly, talked about their poets' styles and philosophies, and even tried our hands at Anglo-Saxon kennings, Metaphysical conceits, mock-heroic couplets, and other distinctive features of the different poetic styles.

The assignment itself began at the end of this brief survey with a library visit to introduce the literary criticism and history resources available in book and electronic form. Based on interest, trying to make sure each era was covered, the students signed up to focus on the different periods.

The conceit that governed the assignment was the idea that a "lost poem" by a representative poet had been lately discovered: The ultimate goal was a poem written in the relevant style, reflecting the concerns important to that period or poet; a scholarly "justification" arguing the poem's place in the canon; and an annotated bibliography evaluating the sources used to support the observations made in the justification. Finally, students presented their poems in the role of a person who lived during that period (not the poet), and explained whether they liked the poem or not, based on accepted styles and social or political beliefs of that period. By no means did every character like the poem—the most fun were those starched Victorian gentlemen who objected to the suffragette poetry or the ramrod-straight brigadier general incensed by anti-WWI poetry!

From a Language study perspective, it's possible to consider many poems as arguments. I've found that students in particular love to dissect the intricate logical fallacies woven by the Metaphysical poets, see Shakespeare's sonnets through new eyes when they're understood as metaphorical arguments, or enjoy seeing the links between the political climate of their day and Milton's or Eliot's work. If you'd like to take an even more formal approach toward poetry as argument, check out this Web site describing a rhetorical approach to poetry.

Also from a Language perspective, this is an assignment that stretches the students' synthesis skills, requiring them to create not only  an argument based on multiple sources, but also an original work (the poem). The annotated bibliography is also a useful exercise in source evaluation, a skill necessary for determining content and relevance of a source selected for a researched argument. Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) has some good material on annotated bibliographies.

Things have changed, and I am no longer required by my local curriculum to examine either poetry or the history of English with my Language students; but while it lasted, the project was lots of fun. We began the survey itself just before the exam, then had students do the research and work for the assignment after the AP® exam, when we still had about three weeks of school. The presentations that represented its culmination were a great way to enjoy our last couple of periods before the summer break. Finally, each year I compiled an anthology of the students' work, took photos of them in costume to illustrate it, and distributed an e-copy to the students before they took off for their vacations.

Some former students pose in costume at our Lost Poets' Reading, May 2007

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