Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: A Surge of Language

During my student teaching, I was lucky enough to work with Baron Wormser for a couple of weeks. He had been invited to come and hold poetry writing workshops and I signed my classes up for every single one of them. Truly, it was an invaluable experience. I learned so much about poetry and about bringing poems out of students in those sessions.

I have read some of Wormser's poetry and a book on teaching poetry before, but I have never read a book like A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day By Day. For this book, Baron Wormser and David Cappella created a fictional teacher, Mr. P. This book is written as if it were Mr. P.'s teaching journal. He reflects about how is day went, what poems were read in class, which students responded to the words and lines of the poems, and what he learned from his day.

The main message that I received from this captivating read is that poetry needs to have a place of importance in our curricula. We cannot include a poem here and there or "do" that poetry unit once per year and call it good. Because of this book, I've started a new practice of having students copy a poem down from dictation every Friday. I call this new practice Poetry Fridays.

At first, I did not think that students would be at all enthusiastic about copying down a poem from dictation. I did not anticipate that they would engage in this process, but I was completely wrong. Certainly, some students groan when I remind them that every Friday is Poetry Friday. This is not a cure-all for normal teen behavior, but it is a way to get students talking about words, word choice, punctuation, structure, imagery, and a whole variety of poets.

One way that my new practice differs from A Surge of Langauge is that I am choosing poems based on what we're already reading and talking about in class. I want students to make leaps in their thinking by connecting the words of a poet like Anne Sexton to Ophelia's situation Hamlet or relating the reclusive life of Emily Dickinson to the main character in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I do not want to interrupt their engagement with our main text by stuffing in poems that have no relationship with the literature we're reading in class. I want to deepen their critical thinking skills and have lots of conversations where we make connections between seemingly disconnected writings.

I highly recommend this book for any teacher who's interested in making language a priority in the classroom. There are many, many more ideas contained in this book than I've listed here. This is a highly engaging and thought-filled read. I look forward to reading more selections from these talented authors.

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