Could Poetry Start an Educational Revolution?

Dorothea Lasky is a force of nature. Not only has she published three full-length books and numerous chapbooks of magnificent poetry, she is also a fierce advocate for placing creativity at the core of childhood education.
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Dorothea Lasky is a force of nature. Not only has she published three full-length books and numerous chapbooks of magnificent poetry, she is also a fierce advocate for placing creativity at the core of childhood education. She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney's, 2013), and is the first Bagley Wright Lecturer on Poetry, delivering a series of lectures around the country with titles such as "On the Materiality of the Imagination" and "The Beast: How Poetry Makes Us Human."

In this conversation, we talked about how poetry can change minds and lives in schools, as well as a fascinating new endeavor called The Ashbery Home School. As Dottie has said elsewhere, "Poetry is not the project of a poet -- it is the very life of the poet." She is a true believer in the power of poetry, and the challenge at the heart of this conversation is how to make the life of poetry available to everyone who has the potential to be open to it (which is everyone).

There are almost 60 full-time performing arts high schools in the U.S., but no schools that focus primarily on poetry. How do you think kids could benefit from using poetry as a primary learning tool?

Poetry is a great learning tool for students of all ages, but especially children -- for the sake of poetry itself and also for learning deeply in other subjects. When you write a poem, you make new language, and this act helps children see that they can construct their growing ideas in school within new phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in an infinite amount of ways. This helps them become excited about learning how to speak and write well and that their voices matter.

Also, poetry is helpful in learning other subjects more deeply. Studies show that learning in any subject is aided by mnemonics and the creation of narrative. I mean, who of us hasn't benefited in school by making up a poem or song and/or funny story about a historical fact or set of scientific principles? Learning in and through a poem can help children learn facts more deeply and with more meaning.

Are there teachers or schools that are trying to teach a general curriculum through poetry right now? Do you think they should?

As far as I know, there aren't any. (But I would love to learn about any that are!) I think that there definitely should be classes and schools that teach all of their subjects through poetry. Not only is reading and writing poems fun, a poem can be a wonderful place to start a lesson in any subject.

Integrating poetry into a general curriculum seems useful and easier than we might think. For example, if a teacher is teaching a class on a biological process, like say photosynthesis, it might make sense to have her students write a three-part poem about each step. I once visited a fourth grade geology class and had my students write poems dedicated to a particular rock. Their poems deepened their relationships to the scientific properties of the rock. In a history class, instead of simply asking students to read about the American Revolutionary War to prepare for a test, a teacher might have them write a poem about a particular battle. It seem unlikely that they wouldn't have a more meaningful relationship to the material and do better on the test.

In this moment in the history of our educational system, student performance on standardized tests is very important. But I often think about how a whole school that uses poetry as a way to teach every subject might help students learn the material and do better on their tests. I often wonder: could poetry start an educational revolution?

You talked about this at the Library of Congress earlier this year, and I thought the people in the room would react as if you were proposing giving LSD to school children, but instead everyone was extremely positive. If you could make a school like this happen, what would it look like -- in material terms?

I am so glad you were at my table talk last spring at the Library of Congress. In it, I proposed a Poetry School, where all subjects are taught through the lens of poetry and where poets run every function of the school. This is my dream and I am always trying to think up new ways of making this happen. One important element of a poetry school is that it would use object-based learning as a way to get students writing and thinking about poetry. I am actually making part of this dream happen, as Adam Fitzgerald, Timothy Donnelly, and I are starting a poetry program, called The Ashbery Homeschool, which will run next August 10-16, 2014. Drawing from the idea that visual art has been a lifelong inspiration to the great American poet John Ashbery, our week-long program uses the priceless art objects in his Hudson, NY home as a way to jettison students' creativity and poetry. We will also have workshops daily, talks and readings by poets, movies handpicked by poets, and tons of poetry exercises steeped in object-based learning.

Do you have ideas about how poetry could be used in educational settings outside of creative writing classes? Tell us about it in the comments!

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