Lesson Plan: Poetry Friday with Juan Felipe Herrera

At first I felt skeptical that my students could handle Juan Felipe Herrera’s challenging poems. They respond to accessibility, rap, images of the street and the addiction-fueled lives they’ve lived here in the Far North. Herrera’s work would challenge them on many levels. In his poems, meaning doesn’t just hand itself over. I was starting to think I would try something else this week.

Then I remembered a dinner between a bunch of poets at AWP long ago, where a poetry grad student at the table said she didn’t think freshmen in college could really get poetry. I held back (those of you who know me won’t believe that) and listened. She said that Ashberry in particular was too difficult for her classes and that she was thinking of not teaching poetry in her English 100 in the future. I got angry. A poet who doesn’t think people can read poetry? Ashberry, really? I turned toward judgment. I had been teaching “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” (a.k.a. The Popeye sestina) to 16-18 year-olds in a public high school for years. How could someone say that Ashberry was too challenging for college students? Poems arrive as they are and teachers prepare students to meet them. That’s our job. My teacher-judgment took over inside my head as we turned the discussion to other things.

Reflecting, I saw that her line of thinking grew from the same root  as my impulse to “try something else.” It was time to turn the teacher-judgment on myself and not underestimate my students, so this week’s Poetry Friday featured Juan Felipe Herrera. Here’s how I prepared my students to meet Herrera.

First I started with a poem they were guaranteed to understand and like, an opening poem in the Poetry Slam world. This Friday I used Shane Koyczan’s “Troll.” My students love Koyczan’s animated spoken-word musical collaborations. During a previous class, I showed them “To This Day,” so another piece by Koyczan quickly engaged them.

We talked about the animation. Koyczan’s use of “troll” and its double meanings.  We talked about the lessons that “Troll” teaches and what Koyczan might have been trying to teach his listeners.

And then I said that our featured poet was a completely different kind of poet. I explained poet laureate, the two year appointment, and mentioned that Herrera is the first Chicano to have the honor. One student suggested that it was “the boss poet of our country.” Yes, that worked. I showed them Herrera reading “Jackrabbits, Green Onions, and Witches Stew.”

They smiled, even laughed. One student asked me if that’s how people get rich being a poet. And I laughed too. We talked a little about his hat (a grandpa hat) and how it’s interesting that his eyebrows and moustache are different colors. “No,” I said, “I don’t think he dyes hie eyebrows black.” Then a student said, “He cares about how it sounds. Not what it means.” That’s the path I took. I asked how it sounds. We talked about rhyme and about the way Herrera reads the piece to stress the sound.

As we prepared for the second poem “Five Directions to My House,” I told them I had a poem that Herrera would explain after he read.

They got his humor. They understood that he didn’t really try to explain. He left them to figure it out. They respected that he put things into the poem because he liked them and that putting sounds and images into a poem because you like them is allowed. Sometimes “a little puzzle” for both the poet and the reader can be good. I told them those were the kinds of poems we were going to write today.

I offered two exercises. The first was to write the numbers 1-6 on their papers. They were to fill them in with five images that they like and let the connections arise through the juxtaposition. The second was to take five random words and write a poem that used them all, allowing the sounds rather than meaning or narrative to carry the piece.

We wrote. Most students chose five directions.  For a few I wrote a list of five words on the tops of their papers. For one, I offered permission to write on anything he wanted. I wrote with them, so did our reading tutor. My poem was called “Five Directions to Teaching a Class.” When it was done we read a few poems aloud.

I proved to myself that my classes could handle Herrera. My students know who their Poet Laureate is, and they learned that language can be as much about play as about making a point. As a writer and teacher, I know that language play is necessary for for good writing. Sadly, play is what gets left out of lessons too often.

For my literature teacher friends, consider using these poems as an introduction to Herrera, and then present this poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings” as an example of an ars poetica. If you want to make a packet of several ars poetica poems and compare different poets’ visions of what poems should do, choose from this list off the Poetry Foundation’s website. I had hoped to teach “Let Me Tell You” as a third poem to my class, but ran out of class time. Another day perhaps.

For my friends who are not teaching in detention center classrooms with students whose skills vary widely I offer some thoughts. If you’re in an honors or AP classroom with students who share a set of poetry analysis skills, the opening poem (although fun) may not be necessary to set students up. And do teach them the ars poetica lesson. It’s an important literary term.

For my friends teaching in middle or elementary, your students will likely connect quickly with the play in Herrera’s language. As William Stafford said, “Everyone is born a poet.” Your students are closer to that born part of poetry than the rest of us. Help them stay there. The best writing is informed by both logic and play. Don’t let them lose play as they age.

And for all teachers, be gentle when you turn your teacher-judgment on yourself. Our edu-culture in the U.S. is built on harsh judgment and eschews meaningful support. Support yourselves and other teachers, dear ones. May this lesson be a support to you in a week when lesson planning swallows time you might be otherwise able to spend with your own children.

If you are planning to try this lesson or have tried it, please comment. If you have a poet or poem you’d like me to try on Poetry Friday, let me know. I would love to hear your thoughts. If you’d like more lessons go to my blog home page.

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