In the eyes of the beholder
A closer look at a freshman English poetry project
Poetry has been a topic taught in schools for quite a long time.
Students dissect and analyze poems, pretending to understand their depth. They try to find the reasoning for an out-of-place capital, the possible double meaning in a homonym, and the purpose embedded in the words. They pick apart the work of strangers who are now long gone, trying to find their lasting message.
What if students weren’t forced to cut apart a poem and search for meaning among the fractured pieces? What if instead of hearing the fatigued ideas of past poets, students could present their own?
That is the challenge that the Minnehaha ninth-graders were presented within their English class this spring. The assignment was to construct and perform a 40-line poem using various poetic devices they had previously learned.
The poem had to be about something important to them, something that they thought would impact the audience of peers they performed for.
With the remaining buzz of the project still in the air, students who performed greatly on the project were willing to share their experience creating and presenting their poems.
The first person to give their perspective was freshman Oletha Collins, who wrote about racial inequities that she has faced due to being black and her best friend being white.
“I really enjoyed presenting it,” Collins stated. “I just kind of wish more people were there. I actually had written the poem before she had given us the project. I just reworked it for all of [English teacher Leah Balster’s] requirements. I enjoyed it because I wasn’t just forced to write it. It came purely from inspiration.
Collins was happy with the audience’s reception of her work.
“A lot of people afterwards told me it was good,” she said. “It made me feel good because people actually heard what I had to say, and they weren’t just perceiving me for who I was, which was kinda what the poem was about.”
To conclude, Collins recited a line from her poem: “My favorite part is the last two lines where it says: ‘She was a delicate flower, and I, a knife. I think I found the difference between us now, I am black, and she is white.’”
Freshman Allison O’Leary was another student who agreed to speak about her writing.
“My poem was about some situations I’ve been through that were a little uncomfortable. [Situations] that were not asked for by me,” O’Leary said. “I think writing it was more nerve-racking. I wanted to get my point across without being too wordy or too awkward, and performing was just nailing the work I’d already done.”
She continued on the describe the reaction of the audience on that day: “There was a bit of shock involved that I was up here talking about this.”
O’Leary then talked about what it felt like to be up in front of a crowd: “It was a little bit of getting out of my comfort zone with talking about this. I don’t usually talk about stuff like this very often, but it was kind of freeing to do it.”
She disclosed her favorite line: “You’re strong, sound, and gritty. Not guilty.”
Zarion Irby, a freshman who not only presented his poem in front of his own class but also spoke in front of many students of all grades at the Minnehaha walkout against racial injustice on April 20, detailed his story as well.
“My poem was about navigating racism in the U.S and how it feels as a black African American boy,” Irby stated.
When asked if he preferred presenting at the walkout in class (in terms of what was more anxiety-inducing) he replied saying, “Honestly what was more nerve-racking was in class for some reason. I feel like in class I was kinda just nervous about it. I was anticipating it more, and at the rally I kinda just went up out of nowhere and just did it.”
He then reflected on what the most challenging part of the project for him: “I would say deciphering what I was feeling because I wrote it in a time where I was feeling a whole bunch of different things. So this was all focusing in on the two main things I was feeling, which was kind of like anger and sadness. I saw a lot of people crying yesterday [April 20], which is kind of sad. I just hope to move other people and have them think about the things that are happening in the world right now.”
Lastly, thinking back to his poem, he could immediately recount his favorite lines: “I fight for my life, but they fight for their privilege.”
The last student to share was freshman Anthony Blanchard.
“My poem was about the struggle of mental health in today’s youth,” said Blanchard. “I think I enjoyed presenting it because I really liked just sharing it with an audience. It felt good to not just keep it to myself anymore.”
In reply to a question about his experience performing he answered saying, “Even though I loved presenting it, it was also kind of difficult because you’re sharing something that many people struggle with. So everyone kind of understands it, and they can sympathize with you, which is really exciting but also kinda nerve-racking.”
He then recalled his favorite line in the poem: “I think my favorite line of the poem was: ‘A common occurrence in youth, people struggling while they learn the hypotenuse of a three-sided shape, one that pokes your brain.’”
Blanchard appreciated the feedback he received from his peers after he performed.
“I got a lot of positive reactions,” he said. “What I really loved about it was a lot of people talked about how they felt the same way and they were able to relate to it. Which is kinda what I was going for, to write a poem that people put themselves into and they can feel that someone else is feeling the same things.”
The final person to give their insight was not, in fact, a student, but one of the teachers who conducted the project in 9th-grade classes.
“It’s hard to pinpoint which one was my favorite because I know all of them came from the students’
hearts. I was just impressed with the range of topics,” said Balster, who also teaches AP English 11 and works with students in Learning Lab.
“We had students talking about personal loss, we had students talking about uncomfortable experiences, we had discussions of racial discrimination and equity,” she said. “I loved them all, because they were so diverse and different.”
Balster then discussed the importance of poetry in her classroom.
“I think it’s important because it makes poetry very accessible to a lot of people. Most people think poetry is this obscure, far off, figurative art. Whereas people actually write poetry all the time every day,” Balster said. “I went to a high school where we didn’t do any creative writing, and that was something I missed dearly. So although I love academic writing, I know there needs to be a place in the classroom for creative outlets.”
The final thing she detailed was the purpose of the assignment. The spoken word poem was a stand-out part of the poetry unit.
It allowed students to not only express themselves, but listen, and connect with their peers.
It was a unique way of studying the art of poems in which students didn’t dissect poems, but assembled them.
They determined the reasoning for an out-of-place capital, they doubled the meaning with homonyms, and they embedded their own purpose within their words.
Instead of deciphering the lasting messages of past visionaries, they decided their own.