My Teaching Philosophy

“But, teacher, I don’t get it,” a student in my 11th grade regular English class wails. “What does this mean?” another says, shaking her head. Most of the others just look befuddled as they stare down at their open textbooks. I have just finished reading Poe’s “The Raven” aloud, their very first exposure to the poem. I can understand their confusion, because that was me, just a few years ago. Even after an AB in literature from Harvard (where I ran away from poetry), an MA in Comparative Literature, where I dabbled a bit in poetry, both in English and in Spanish, it wasn’t until I started teaching high school English that I finally came to terms with my dislike of poetry: what I had deemed abhorrence, was merely a strong aversion to ambiguity, to feeling confused by text.

After all, I have always been a good reader, an avid devourer of texts. I love stories, and I naturally gravitate towards novels, the longer, the better. I had little trouble decoding these long narratives, keeping characters straight in my head, tracing flashbacks and foreshadowing. I was a master reader. So when I butted against poems in high school and didn’t immediately understand them, I copied my teacher’s attitude – poetry is hard, poetry is passé. You don’t NEED poetry. That’s how I got to Harvard, and through Harvard, without a single poetry class.

But I have grown, and I have learned, not just as a reader of poetry, but as a teacher. I explain to students what I have learned myself: it’s okay not to understand. Some texts –poems, for example—require multiple readings. I even use Hershey’s kisses to illustrate that “big things come in small packages” and that the effort we must spend as readers to understand the meaning of a poem is worthwhile.

The reward comes from the delighted smile when understanding dawns, the excited whispers when the students are sharing their own feelings about a poem with each other, when they all want to read aloud as a performance, trying to express the nuance of feeling they have just understood through their own voice, rhythm, intonation.

But most of all, the reward really comes the next time they face a poem, read it once, and know that they will understand it – with a little time, a bit of effort, and a lot of confidence in their ability to deal with confusion and ambiguity.

That’s why I am a teacher. I want to grapple with the poems and discover new ways of approaching difficulty and ambiguity, of appreciating the beauty of meter and metaphor, to experiment with strategies to convey the poet’s text to readers who are still hesitant, but willing to let me lead them. That’s what I want, to become a better leader (and reader) through the wilds of poetry and convince my colleagues and my students to come with me, because I believe that all students can learn, that they want to learn, and that my job as their teacher is to understand who they are, where they are, and show them the way forward, to model for them the behavior and attitudes of a good learner, a passionate person, and a caring adult.

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One response to this post.

  1. wonderful post. so true that one must make efforts to understand all that must be understood or that maybe even remotely beneficial, although i believe all sorts of knowledge come in handy one way or another. the problem I’ve with poetry is my thought that why this (any piece of poetry) needed to be said this way and why not in a straight way (i consider prose as a straight way of saying things), which is more powerful and hence effective way to get the message across, but then i think that this (prose being more powerful) is subjective as there have been, are, and will be a lot of people of the thought that poetry is more powerful than prose, and it is not quite possible to compare these two forms of writing this way in the first place. in any case, i think that poetry should be optional in syllabus, not a forced sub-subject

    Reply

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