In the high school English classroom we rely on expository essays as the dominant means of reflecting on texts and demonstrating understanding. This college-writing-focused mode requires that students make claims, carefully select textual evidence to support and develop those claims, and integrate that evidence gracefully into a succession of paragraphs which forward ideas and arguments. I’m not here to decry the form, which is a useful way of developing and assessing student comprehension and ability in reading and writing. But I do want to suggest there are modes of student writing that can develop these same skills while also allowing students to express passion, make connections to lived experiences, and develop authentic relationships with texts and writers.
Love of text and author can feel impossible and unnecessary, incompatible with the reality of student/teacher life. I feel this especially keenly in the trimester system, in which I have just 12 weeks to introduce themes and ideas, read a variety of texts to support a broad understanding, and write enough to establish metrics to assess student growth and learning. When provided a series of objective measures in a performance-driven environment, it can be difficult to remember the more subjective ideas of passion, curiosity, and interest, which take time to develop and build. Yet I want students to become passionate readers with their own tastes, able to articulate what they see in texts and how that relates to their enjoyment. I’d even love for them to see literature as personally relevant to their lives.
In the sophomore English sequence I teach at a private high school in San Francisco, there are two trimesters devoted to “American Voices,” most of them modern and contemporary, living in and writing about the United States from a variety of backgrounds and points of view. The first trimester focuses on poetry, essays, and plays, shorter pieces which allow for more of the slow work of deep engagement. As part of this work, our department has developed an independent poetry project that helps students build academic skills, pushes them to take positive risks and try new things, and engages their tastes and preferences. After a standard introduction to poetry, our students choose a single poet and exclusively study their work to develop a nuanced idea of poetics and practice. To ensure students have time to find a poet they are genuinely drawn to, they spend several class days and homework nights reading widely and with abandon. Student investment and choice is key to the success of the final product.
Once students have chosen a poet, they read deeply: at least one whole collection of poems and a few primary sources—interviews, podcasts, craft essays, etc.. The goal is to develop an understanding of the poet’s style, ideas about craft, and contributions to the larger conversation of contemporary poetry. Students steep themselves in the poetic work, writing poems of their own as emulations, variations, and in response to certain lines or ideas (appropriately attributing, of course). As a coalescence of all these efforts, students create a chapbook that contains:
- A table of contents.
- 5-7 of poems by the poet.
- At least 2 “variations” or poems inspired by the poet, written by the student.
- 3 original poems, revised and reworked.
- A picture of the poet.
- A works cited/consulted page should show a LARGE variety of sources, print and online.
- A foreword, in the form of a letter.
It is this letter that carries the weight of the more traditional skill-building and assessment, that hearkens back to the expository essay but endeavors to make it a real-life application to encourage academic growth along with a personal and genuine connection to the author. The expectations for the letter are that it include: Specific and meaningful references to at least three of the poet’s poems.
- A specific and meaningful reference/quote from the poet about their work and/or their life (taken from the primary sources).
- An explanation of what is distinct and meaningful in their particular style, techniques, and themes.
- Genuine reflection on what the poet/poet’s work MEANS to the student.
On the skill-building side, it’s easy to see how this letter embraces the expository essay. Students are encouraged to engage their audience, which is more specific and easy to determine than in a more traditional essay, with an anecdote or two and a genuine voice. References to specific poems and primary sources involve solid quote selection, integration, and analysis. And like all good writing, the letter should have coherent organization and polished grammar, mechanics, and punctuation. By centering the writing around a personal connection, the letter does this academic muscle building in the context of something more intimate and personally relevant than an academic paper. It makes the writing we do in literature classes applicable to a establishing a human connection.
There is other skill-building at work in the chapbook project: strong research skills to find primary sources, reading and assessing via interpretive and evaluative questioning, and collaborating with peers and workshop groups in writing poems. Additionally, students dabble in the hands-on craft of bookmaking, making aesthetic choices around size, binding type, and overall palette to create something that represents their poet’s style, themes, and approaches. After some bookmaking instruction and a trial run, the chapbooks students produce are high-quality. On the day the books are due, we also address and stamp the poet letters and walk together to the mailbox to drop them in.
In my most recent iteration of the project, I specifically tweaked my list of suggested poets to add poets who haven’t been deeply studied or written about to the list of perennial beloveds such as Sharon Olds, Terrance Hayes, Ellen Bass, and Yusef Komunyakaa. These newer poets tend to be closer in age to my students and appeal to their vernacular and concerns; they are also more physically accessible, coming through town on book tours, active on Twitter, visible in the world. I was also hoping these younger poets might write back more readily than the more widely celebrated, though I do have to say Ted Kooser and Gary Soto have never failed to send back a postcard or letter. Last year I focused on poets with recent books, among them Morgan Parker, Jason Koo, Javier Zamora, Danez Smith, Jenny Xie, and Ysra Daly-Ward, along with local Bay Area poets such as Kim Addonizio, Sam Sax, Solmaz Sharif, Matthew Zapruder and Chinaka Hodge, who responded at length and by hand. Other memorable responses to student letters have come from Reginald Dwayne Betts, Matthew Dickman, Kwame Dawes, August Kleinzhaler, and Tracy K. Smith, who invited her correspondent to a reading and has maintained contact with her throughout her high school career. The responses we get from any poet are shared and celebrated widely, and they energize the whole class. Students see first-hand the relevance of their critical work in a wider sphere.
Beyond all my students reap, one of the best parts of this assignment for me is to be able to connect poets with their young fans, to show them their work is alive in high school classrooms and being read, passed around as a beloved text. As a poet myself, I think of this as a gift to those who toil as I do, sometimes in the face of little recognition. My students deeply love the work of the poets they choose and are in touch with me for years after about their poet’s new book releases and sightings; it is often the project they most remember from their English studies. I’ve heard from poets how meaningful the communication is to them as well. It’s a thrill to moderate this two-way street of communication.
Amanda Moore's poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZZYZVA, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Best New Poets, and Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Board member for the Marin Poetry Center and 2019 fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. More information at https://amandapmoore.com/.
Photo by Alex Perz.