Poetry lovers fear its role in schools is in decline
In the state that was home to Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, where Edgar Allan Poe was born and where Robert Frost died, critics of new national education goals fear that poetry will become an endangered pursuit.
The alarm is being sounded by the conservative Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank better known for its white papers lamenting public pension abuses than for its love of the sonnet. But Pioneer has also focused its ire on the Common Core teaching standards promoted by the Obama administration, saying they threaten state and local autonomy and the teaching of verse to schoolchildren.
“We do not read poetry so that we can write better office memoranda later on,” declared a recent institute report. “We want instead fully realized human beings who will read poetry because it is beautiful and because it brings us knowledge of what is true, even if it is knowledge that can no more be used than a sunset or a kiss can be used.”
Fighting words, indeed. The report — titled “The Dying of the Light,” after a phrase from a Dylan Thomas poem — arrived in the waning days of April, which was National Poetry Month. This spring, many Massachusetts public schools are testing out a replacement for the MCAS exam that is more in line with the Common Core, stressing critical thinking and skills to help students in college and careers.
While proponents say the federal standards are no less sensitive to rhyme and meter, the suggestion that poetry’s role in class could be diminished struck fear in the heart of some teachers and poets.
“If we’re expecting teachers to follow in a really homogenous way everything that is dictated by the law . . . and we’re punishing them if they don’t do that, that’s not effective,” said Eve Ewing, outreach coordinator for the Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective, which organizes “Louder Than A Bomb Massachusetts,” a youth poetry slam competition.
Poetry as a form of self-
expression is crucial for students in a world where many young people feel voiceless, she said. “You can teach literally anything through or alongside poetry.”
The Common Core standards were proposed in 2010 so all states would adhere to a uniform set of academic learning goals in each grade, from kindergarten through high school. The standards were created with bipartisan support, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Most states, including Massachusetts, have signed on, but critics have emerged across the political spectrum.
Although the Common Core does not set local school lesson plans or curricula, opponents fear that teachers, school districts, or states will have less freedom to decide what to teach and, in Pioneer’s view, less time for Wordsworth.
But that is a misreading of the guidelines, says Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“Across the grades, poetry is an expectation,” Chester said. “The conclusion that poetry is being diminished in the curriculum does not hold at all.”
The state has added its own standard to the Common Core that includes writing poetry, he said. Although teachers choose their own readings for students, the state included a list of recommended classic and contemporary poets, from Dante and Walt Whitman to Maya Angelou and Billy Collins.
There is more than one way to be literate, he noted.
“One of the things we’ve heard loudly and clearly from colleges and employers” around the country, Chester said, “is that too many of our high school graduates don’t have the ability to read more complex nonfiction text and to write more clearly, to convey ideas, to evaluate options, and to think critically that employers and higher ed expect.”
The Pioneer report argues that reading poetry only to pull it apart and analyze it misses the beauty and the joy of language. “Poetry for poetry’s sake befits a fully mature human being, who is infinitely more than a worker or a voter,” states the report, coauthored by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky.
Even if Massachusetts adds more poetry to its standards, teachers will be less likely to teach it, since it will not appear on the national tests, said Jamie Gass, director of the institute’s Center for School Reform.
“The quality of the vocabulary found in classical literature, poetry, and drama is just much higher than what Common Core offers through informational text and nonfiction,” he said.
At the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, the director of interpretation and programming was more optimistic about the new goals, saying the 19th-century poet will hold up just fine in 21st-century classrooms.
“To me, it’s very clear that Emily Dickinson helps teachers meet the standards of the Common Core,” said Cindy Dickinson (no relation).
The museum is hosting a workshop for teachers from around the country this summer and received more than twice the number of applications as it did last time.
The museum, which includes the house where the poet was born and spent most of her life, gets 12,000 to 13,000 visitors every year. “There seems to be a need for people to connect through poetry and literature,” Dickinson said.
That need for connection also persists in Brookline, which, like Boston and Gloucester has its own poet laureate. (Cambridge hosts a “poet populist” voted on by the community.) Brookline High School recently hosted its annual poetry festival in the basement of a local bookstore, drawing dozens of students and teachers.
Spanish teacher Ric Calleja shared an original poem about his wife, an artist. In “First Kiss, Last Kiss,” senior Naomi Liss shared her deep desire to experience life fully and deeply. Eleventh-grader Shahar Ganani read a poem she wrote inspired by the clock in her English class, including the phrase “life begins and ends with the ticking of a clock.”
“What’s so amazing about this experience is that the children work so hard revising the poetry,” said Alison Frydman Whitebone, a teacher who cofounded the festival 19 years ago. “They’re not doing it for a grade. . . . They’re doing it because they love it.”
Mary Burchenal, head of the high school’s English department, said she is confident Brookline will keep poetry alive in the schools, with or without the Common Core, but “I worry nationally.” The country needs creativity and innovation, she said.
“I’m not against people being prepared for the real world but obviously I feel deeply about the importance of arts in the curriculum,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t see arts as being preparation for the real world. I do.”
But 10th-grader Sophia Pouzyrev, who placed second in a poetry contest at the school this year, has her own reasons for being a poet. “Just the freedom of it,” said Pouzyrev, who performed her poem, “Post-apocalyptic Survival Guide” before the crowd. “When you’re sitting down, you have the freedom of time to figure out the right wording and make things sound beautiful.”