The practices of exemplary teachers of poetry in the secondary English-language arts classroom
Harris, Karen Lee
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Teachers of poetry to high schoolers must navigate special challenges and balance competing tensions, including analysis “versus” appreciation, their status as both novice and expert readers of poetry, and differing conceptions of poetry “mastery” that are historically at odds. What does it mean to be an exemplary teacher of poetry in an era of high-stakes assessment, when poetry itself and poetry teaching have been marginalized? Though existing research highlights poetry’s capacity to cultivate students’ higher-order habits of mind, this mixed-method, phenomenological study fills a research gap by creating a rich portrait of exemplary teaching of poetry at the high school level. For this study, I recruited, surveyed, observed, and interviewed five exemplary teachers of poetry--all identified as experienced, motivated, supported, committed, and reflective--currently teaching in five diverse high schools surrounding Boston, to answer the research question: What are the practices and attributes of five exemplary teachers of poetry in the secondary English-Language Arts classroom? Teachers were observed for three classes teaching three “anchor” poems (one researcher-selected poem, one collaboratively-selected poem, and one participant-selected poem), and interviewed post-observations. The study drew on Elliot Eisner’s conception of students as connoisseurs and critics and Rosenblatt’s conception of poetry reading as a transactional event. It found that these teachers of poetry are specialists who value student agency and share power, make their pedagogical aims transparent and their strategies for reading poetry explicit to students, use multiple modes of representation and manipulate poetic texts to demystify and enrich poetry study, and balance a host of competing tensions. These exemplary teachers, two of whom are published poets, were humble, confident, relational, responsive to both student and text, caring, passionate, and authentic. The most resonant finding was the centrality of the student-teacher relationship to the poetry teaching endeavor. The study found that being an exemplary teacher of poetry is as much about how one is in and out of the classroom as it is about what one does in the classroom. Recommendations are made at the teacher, school, and community level regarding practices and structures that support exemplary teaching of poetry in the high school ELA classroom.