Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry

Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry

Edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan
The Poetry Foundation and McSweeney’s (2013)
400 pages; $21

Reviewed by Kristin Fitzsimmons

Poetry sometimes occupies such a small space in the world in part because of how we’re introduced to it. Very young children come to poetry through song and nursery rhyme—many of us still know these by heart. Something happens by the time we become teenagers and young adults. For many of us, poetry becomes a list of terms—iambic pentameter, alliteration, rhyme scheme, BORING. This idea of poetry sticks with us throughout adulthood, and many who love reading and writing do not extend this love to poetry because it remains boring, confusing, or intimidating. Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry reaches out to educators so that they might instill a love of poetry in children at an early age and thus not fall prey to Adult Poetry Apathy and Hater Disorder. By giving children permission to experiment and play with poetry instead of analyzing, knowing that the analysis will come, poetry becomes something one can infuse into food, exercise, and history class, to name a few examples given in Open the Door.

Open the Door is not a book most people would read from cover-to-cover unless they were, like yours truly, reviewing it. This is because Open the Door is a collection of inspiration, information, and encouragement intended for those teaching poetry to children. It’s divided into three sections: Essays, Roundtable Discussion, and Lesson Plans. Explicitly, the intended audience is poets who teach, educators who want to teach poetry, and those who’d like to set up community poetry programs. However, this book could work just as well for those teaching poetry to adults. Beginning writers will benefit by examining the example poems by published writers suggested in the Lesson Plan section, while more experienced writers will be challenged by the unconventional writing exercises.

The essays in the first section follow two main thematic roads: 1) first-person narratives of writers who’ve had good experiences being teaching artists in public schools; and 2) helpful tips for how to engage children with poetry and arguments on why you should. Many of the first-person narratives call on Kenneth Koch’s experience of teaching at PS 61 in 1968, and an excerpt Koch’s book, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry is also included. Koch offers useful example exercises and advice for teaching poetry to children, the best of which is, “Teaching really is not the right word for what takes place: it is more like permitting the children to discover something they already have.” If you treat children like poets, Koch says, they will be.

The other essays in this section are equally uplifting—they include moments of questioning and insecurity, but never complete and utter failure. Even though horror stories can be entertaining and/or allow fellow teachers to commiserate, Open the Door’s straightforward language and optimism reflect the way many teaching artists prefer to teach poetry: with positive reinforcement.

The Roundtable Discussion is a gathering of responses to questions sent to leaders of eighteen U.S. organizations that “offer meaningful guidance, opportunities, and instruction at the intersection of poetry and kids.” The questions range from asking about the benefits of teaching poetry to children, to questions about how writers and teachers can bring poetry into their classrooms or start their own nonprofit poetry programs. Sandwiched between inspirational essays and unique lesson plans, this section was my least favorite, as I’d already been convinced (well, I came to the book convinced) that children are worthy of poetry and vice versa. Part Two will most interest those who want to start their own nonprofit poetry organizations.

Part Three is a collection of lesson plans from various poets of note, including, to name just two, Yusef Komunyakaa and Dara Wier. As an instructor and writer, I found this section the most useful. The lesson plans are, for the most part, ones I’d never heard of. Many of them focus on shrinking the world, having kids focus on an image or a title; there were also more visceral exercises such as Vicki Vértiz’s “Eating Couplets and Haiku,” in which children bring in their favorite foods and after sampling, write down their observations. Each lesson plan comes with objectives and suggested readings, as well as the resources and time needed.

As I am not a public school teacher, I don’t know how feasible all of the exercises are in the classroom. I do know, as most of us do, that schoolteachers are overworked and underpaid. More simply, anyone who’s been busy in a job knows that integrating new curricula or just change in general can be exhausting. This book will appeal to teachers who want to engage their students with poetry and are looking for a curriculum that is challenging and new, but not necessarily easy. For example, CAConrad’s lesson plan, “(Soma)tic Poetry Exercises,” challenges the notion that is a thing to be done sitting at a desk with a pencil. For example, in his exercise “Human Hibernaculum,” meant for groups of five to six students,

Students stand in a circle with their backs to the center. The last student [sits] in the middle to take notes. With the right hand, each student should find the carotid artery in the neck of the person to the left; everyone should feel a pulse and have his or her pulse being felt. Tell the students to hum, deep and low, from time to time to connect to one another. This rope of blood pulsing in a circle over the seated person who is taking notes shifts every five minutes as each person takes a turn sitting in the center and writes.

This exercise involves the body, which for almost all of us is a vulnerable place. It’s what makes these exercises so good, it’s also what makes them scary. Sometimes as teachers, we have to remind ourselves that challenging our students inevitably means challenging ourselves.

The afterword of Open the Door, “A Call to Action,” acknowledges that these are only a few ways to teach and understand poetry when working with children. The afterword calls on readers to take these starting points and run with them. It echoes a line from the first essay in section one, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” by Jim Trelease, who ends his piece:

If we wish children to believe poetry is important, the worst way to teach it is to develop a two-week poetry block, teach it, and then forget it-because that’s what children will do with it. The best way is to incorporate meaningful poetry throughout the day.

This attitude reflects that poetry is both special and integral to our daily lives and the lives of children. Open the Door assumes some knowledge of poetic/grammatical terms, but is extremely accessible to any teacher. It’s also accessible in another way: it’s free online from The Poetry Foundation. In a world where poetry is often accused of beinginaccessible, the editors of Open the Door have started the process of loosening the imaginary tie of poetry and starting a dance party we can grow into.

Kristin Fitzsimmons is the author of a chapbook, all these empty bone bowls (dancing girl press, 2013) and a co-host of the web series What Did You Look Up on Wikipedia?