Interacting with Natasha Tretheway's Native Guard

by Timothy DykeNative Guard by Natasha Tretheway

Timothy Dyke is a first year Masters student at the University of Arizona in creative writing. From 1992 to the spring of 2010, he lived in Honolulu, Hawaii and taught English to high school students at Punahou school. He serves as an Education Intern at the Poetry Center.

Visual art can be a safe and engaging entry point into poetry for young learners.  Students who become confused when asked to say what a poem means can feel a sense of relief and eagerness if asked to choose a crayon that matches the "color" of a poem, or when invited to draw a picture inspired by words on a page.  Poets and visual artists have collaborated for centuries, and some of the best examples of these multimedia explorations can motivate young people to look at the written word through a visual lens.

For years I taught high school English in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Like Tucson, Honolulu is an environment drenched in geographical beauty and rich in language, history, storytelling, and song.  Through good fortune I came to work with Joshua Tollefson, a print-maker and art teacher, and together we developed a project that allowed students to explore poetry through drawing, painting, sculpture, and other fine arts media.  In one particular manifestation of this project, we decided to work with the book Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey.

In English class I led twelfth grade students through Trethewey's pages. We studied specific poems closely, and we talked about the poet's uses of language and imagery.  Joshua met these same students for art class and showed them work ranging from the illuminated letters of medieval monks to the mixed media assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and Barbara Kruger.  When we thought students were ready to explore ways to combine arts and letters, Joshua and I worked together and led students through some introductory activities. We read Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" and asked them to draw. We showed them an Ansel Adams photograph and asked them to write. Our goal was to introduce the idea that art and poetry are both ways of thinking, and that by combining one with the other, insight and understanding can flourish.

When students felt ready we asked them to choose a poem from Native Guard.  Each student altered the page visually in specific ways. Some drew illustrations. Others blacked out words.  Still others pasted glass chips, threads, and photographs onto the paper.  After each student finished demonstrating their comprehension in a visual way, Joshua used his skills as a bookbinder to reattach the pages and reassemble the book.  The final product retains the spirit of Trethewey's vision while displaying student understanding in a striking and tangible way.

Every time I work with students in poetry study, I look for ways to replicate some version of this art and letters project that Joshua and I created together.  Some students think more visually than others.  Art and poetry can each be good teachers, and when they work together, the potential for student learning seems almost unlimited.

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents