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NMSI Blog

September 11th: Using Poetry to Process Tragedy

Some things aren’t easy to talk about.

As a teacher, it's not always clear how to help students recover from hardships they may face outside of school. When circumstances arise that seem too heavy to tackle in class, how can educators equip students with tools to help them grapple with the world around them?
 
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, something extraordinary happened as the nation grieved:
 
The events of 9/11 occasioned a tremendous outpouring of poetry; people in New York taped poems on windows, wheat-pasted them on posts, and shared them by hand. In Curtis Fox’s words, 'poetry was suddenly everywhere in the city.' — "Beyond Grief and Grievance," Philip Metres
 
The Poetry Foundation shares the following advice on how teachers can encourage students to read, engage in and wield poetry against troubles they may face in the future.
 
Help Them Connect:
"Eliciting initial student response is the best way to begin. Often I simply ask students to mark a question mark, a heart, or an exclamation point next to lines or phrases that strike them (curious, loved it, so true). Having students use these initial markings to generate two or three interpretive questions or one descriptive sentence can ignite a robust discussion of a poem with any group of students, because this approach offers texts as public works of art, not proof of a teacher’s interpretation or the subject of distant, erudite discussions." -Eileen Murphy, Nurturing the Omnivore: Approaches to Teaching Poetry
 
Visualize Together:
"Consciously practicing visualization opens incredible discussion opportunities for students. It can be as simple as saying, 'If you were to make a movie of this poem, what would it look like?' Giving students an opportunity to approach a text with the purpose of visualizing puts them in a refreshingly creative stance as they read." -Eileen Murphy, Against Slogging: Engaging Poetry in the Classroom
 
Affirm and Encourage:
"If individual students get stuck, I may say, 'Sometimes our memories are a shield, protecting us from reliving bad things that happen to us, or sadness we’ve experienced. Sometimes our memories are a green light, leading us to a certain place where we need to go. Sometimes they are a friend that keeps us company when we’re alone. Sometimes they can be an enemy, keeping us from doing what we need to do, stalking us with fear of a past failure.'" -Opal Palmer Adisa, Memory Is a Cozy Old Blanket
 
Poetry is not a cure for sadness nor a solution to the world's tragedy, but it is a tool that can help students process, cope with, reconcile, and – ideally – thrive in the world around them.




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