Finding the poetic in a technological world: Integrating poetry and computer technology in a teacher education program.
* How can we create interest in, and enthusiasm for poetry in student teachers?
* What real and contemporary examples of the use of poetic forms can be found in the student teachers' world, the world of popular culture?
* How can current technology provide a variety of media for the students to explore poetry or poetic forms of expression?
The collaborative projects revitalized students' interest and confidence in the teaching of poetry, developed their skill in developing poetic expression--both in verbal and graphic forms, and developed students' understanding of the relevance and significance of poetry in a culture which often regards this form of expression as archaic and esoteric.
We live in an age of rapidly developing electronic communications technology and increased dependence on the visual media for both communication and entertainment (Postman, 1979, 1984). The emergence of new forms of expression in popular culture, and the displacement of reading as a pastime by viewing television and other visual media, has meant that young people may be exposed to less literary writing, and read little or no poetry outside the formal environment of the school classroom. Among the literary genres studied by student teachers in language arts education courses, poetry often exposes the greatest degree of inexperience and unfamiliarity and elicits the least enthusiasm (Wade & Sidaway, 1990). This lack of confidence and facility with poetry in these beginning teachers is of concern because poetry is frequently restricted to the margins of the literature program in elementary school classrooms. Children's experiences are often limited to displays of poems on seasonal themes, readings of "fun" poetr y such as limericks and nonsense poems, or the formulaic writing of cinquain and haiku verse. Such light exposure to poetry may have some value in developing children's appreciation and enjoyment of the playful rhythm or rhyme of verse, but it does not necessarily promote children's understanding of poetry as a literary form, it may not develop their appreciation of its vivid and emotive images, and it may not extend their grasp of the power of metaphor and other figurative forms.
The decline in poetry as a mainstream literary feature in our culture has perhaps called into question the value of teaching poetry in schools at all. Arguments for relevance and currency that have promoted the inclusion of computer technology and media literacy into the language arts curriculum have provided little support for the well-turned verse. However, the argument for the need to develop an appreciation and an awareness of poetry as a literary form goes beyond an understanding of the genre for any aesthetic or scholarly reasons. It has been argued that if we fail to develop the abilities to shape thought into appropriate language, and to understand the power that well-constructed language exerts, we will certainly fall prey to the dictates of those who do (Gioia, 1991). Poetry is language used precisely, imaginatively and persuasively. The choreography of images and deliberately chosen words induces powerful affective and imaginative responses, and poetry is unique in its particular focus on the signi ficance of individual words and the crafted figurative expression. The study of poetry has the potential to develop an understanding of the emotive impact of images and rhythm, and develop an awareness of both the overt and subliminal meanings of words. Technologies have changed, but the need to educate a literate populace skilled in language and critical of its manipulation by politicians, tabloid journalists and others who prey on the gullible and the undiscriminating, remains a central goal of a language arts education. Apart from arguments that might be made for the intrinsic value of poetry itself, the study of poetry has significant value in the development of the capacity to use language well.
Academic arguments, however, cut little ice with many student teachers. Their own experiences with poetry have often been a surgical dissection of verse and form, or a difficult process of analysis or search for meaning. These experiences often militate against them having any real enthusiasm for teaching it themselves. Many student teachers are also children of the technological era. They are more comfortable with the objective and evident than the subjective and tenuous; their imaginative worlds have been influenced more by popular music and screened images than by books or the reading of poetry. Their media are not the quill and ink, but the keyboard, the screen, the camera. For many of them, poetry appears to be simply irrelevant. Attempts to enliven it through revivals of classic favorites or readings of contemporary children's verse in their language arts classes seem to simply endorse notions that reading or studying poetry is nothing more than a concession to the past, a frivolous and playful indulge nce, or a benign tolerance of the quirky interests of their professors. To encourage these novice educators to teach poetry with a passion and a true understanding of its unique and distinct power, teacher educators need to consider how to enliven poetry for them, and establish its relevance and currency. We also need to consider how we can work with, rather than against, the influence of the popular culture and the technological realities of our age.
Meeting this challenge was the motivational force behind a series of coordinated and cooperative projects undertaken with a group of teacher education students in the third year of a five-year program. Two courses provided the context for the exploration of the issues. One course provided an introduction to the role of literature in the teaching of language arts in the elementary school and was a course designed to develop students' understanding and appreciation of language in culture, in thought, and in education. The other provided an introduction to educational technology. Developing the students' skill in using poetic and graphic forms to represent ideas, images and sentiments was the primary goal of these cooperative and integrated projects, but a further and equally significant aim was the generation of the students' interest, excitement and energetic engagement with poetry, a kindling of their interest, if you will. The activities focused on the student teachers' own appreciation and understanding of poetry, and the possibilities offered by computer technology to provide a medium for the expression of poetic sentiments. In later assignments students studied the teaching of poetry in classrooms and developed units and lessons for use with elementary aged children.
The focus of the study of poetry was narrowed to focus on the uses of figurative language and the images and emotional responses they evoke. In the language arts course students studied figures of speech and poetic devices such as alliteration, personification, and euphony. To connect with their own experiences and interests, and to place the activity in a broader context than the university-college itself, students were shown figurative language found in lyrics written by contemporary songwriters. The examples were drawn from a broad selection of types of music and included writers such as Leonard Cohen (1992), Sheryl Crow, Neil Young, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tim Rice, and Bob Dylan. One example, from Soap Box Preacher (Robbie Robertson, 1991), reads,
In the neon wilderness and the asphalt jungle
He carries his cross of passion
Through the wreckage and the rumble
In the educational technology course, students developed skill in the use of various forms of graphics programs such as KidPix2, and the Paint program in ClarisWorks. They were asked to select a line or stanza from a popular song that displayed figurative language such as metaphor, irony, synecdoche, alliteration, and metonymy. They reflected on the images the language conjured, explained how the figurative language conveyed much that could not be adequately or simply expressed in literal language, and considered how to represent the images visually. They then illustrated their line or stanza using a computer graphics paint package. Derek' s graphic (Figure 1) illustrates how students interpreted and completed this task.
Students undertook this initial task enthusiastically. They explored the lyrics of popular music in appreciative and critical ways as they looked for examples of poetic, or figurative language in this common form of expression of popular culture. They identified a range of songs--hard rock to country, folk songs to blues, which used figurative devices to create vivid images or express powerful emotions. Many students admitted initial difficulty moving beyond a literal interpretation of the lyrics they found, and in many instances finally understood the significance of lyrics they had previously simply taken literally. The task of representing their responses in an electronic medium was challenging, but, as their understanding of graphics program and symbolic representation developed, students' graphic representations became more imaginative and skillful. Students found the conceptualization and design of visual images challenging, but they recognized the potential, the power, and the limitations of computer technology and graphics programs as media for expression of this type.
Building on this awareness of words, their sounds, shapes, and the expressive value of figurative language, the next classroom exercise moved students further from the literal form of discourse their academic assignments customarily required of them into a more poetic mode of writing. The students were approaching their first practicum, and were animated and articulate in discussions of their excitement about creative lessons, smiling happy faces, respect and popularity, and their fears of tyrannical students, hostile parents, or catastrophic lessons. Since this appeared to be a shared and vividly imagined experience, they wrote about "The First Day" (Figure 2). The students were asked to create vivid and emotive images, to shape apprehensions and excitement by selecting words imbued with significance and feeling, and by generating figurative expressions to convey their anticipation of their first day would be. They played with words and with images. They explored symbolism, metaphor, personification, and th e sound and shape of words. The following examples indicate how students expressed their ideas in figurative ways and contrasted them with a more literal account.
The students were not particularly experienced writers or confident poets, but the words they had selected, and the figurative language they had used, generated clear and moving images and drew empathetic and resonant responses from their peers.
The final and culminating step in this series of complementary units of work required that the students wrote and illustrated a poem. They were encouraged to use both images and figurative language to create a visual and verbal text. In the language arts course students used a writing workshop format to develop and refine their ideas both individually and in groups, and in the technology course they developed skill in the use of applications programs with a presentation or slide-show capabilities such as Claris Slide Show, Kidpix2, HyperCard, and HyperStudio. They were set the task of producing five serial images and text. The material was stored on disc, presented in class using a computer with an LCD in a writers' workshop format, and then submitted to the two course professors for final evaluation. Although the following examples do not capture the serial animation of the presentations, it can be seen that the students were successful in marrying verbal and visual expression to convey their ideas. The fir st example (Figure 3) shows the poem and one of the student's eight frames. The second (Figure 4) reproduces the student's poem and two of the ten frames. In both cases the graphics were originally in colour, but are reproduced here in black and white.
Students chose varied topics and different poetic forms, and the method of production of images was diverse, but each student succeeded in achieving the impact desired. The students presented their work in class with a commentary that focused on the challenges of the assignment, the particular visual, and literary devices they had used, and a summary of what they had learned from the projects. Many students spoke about the impact of the graphic representations, the way the image, the colour, the composition complemented the text. One student, presenting a poem, which described her hearing loss, stated, "Black represents silence, because black envelops everything." About the text she added, "I wanted to create a serious reflective mood (and I found that) I can express my feelings in a less direct, unimposing, yet meaningful way." The symbolism in the graphics used by another student expressed the impact on a young woman of sexual abuse. Another commented on the use of mixed media, stating that combining image and text enabled her to create a more coherent tone and forceful expression of her ideas. In contrast, another student set image and words against each other to create the satire that he wanted to achieve in his poem.
Many of the students commented on their increased awareness of words, their sounds and associations. One student drew attention to the harsh tones of the cacophony she had used in conveying despair and tragedy, another conveyed the impact of ignorance in the escalation of words, metaphors and images in his work. Indeed, all commented on the impact of well-chosen language. The project had encouraged them to think more clearly and more deeply about their ideas and the feelings they wanted to convey, and to search for the particular words that would express exactly and succinctly what they wanted to say. Using the oxymoron "delicate strength" one student aptly described the children with whom she worked. Another student, discussing her wish to capture the beauty of music in her poem, stated that the project, "allows me to be expressive and creative; it allows me to use words in a very delicate, intricate, diverse way." This combination of visual and poetic forms, the students unanimously agreed, was a different and powerful way to communicate their ideas.
This cooperative and complementary project was designed to achieve a number of goals. It was expected that students would display greater understanding and skill in the use of figurative language and poetic forms, and become more adept with the use of various computer graphics and word processing programs. It was hoped that the students would develop greater enthusiasm for poetry, recognition of its place both in traditional and popular culture, and an appreciation of the unique and enduring power of figurative language to engage the imagination and the emotions. It was further anticipated that students would become more "visually" literate and representationally competent by communicating their ideas graphically as well as verbally (1). As professors interested in the students' overall experiences in the teacher education program, we were also motivated by some more practical goals. We wanted to limit student workload in an already crowded curriculum by designing units of instruction and assigning student p rojects that were complementary. We wished to make some explicit connections between subject areas that otherwise, with respect to class schedules, grading, content, and so forth, exist as discrete units. Finally, we hoped to model some of the more integrated approaches to curriculum.
The projects succeeded in achieving these goals. Students developed better understandings of the power of well-chosen language, words, and figurative expressions to evoke powerful intellectual and emotional responses. They became more appreciative and more critical of oral and written language, more aware of the subtleties of words, and the ways in which language can be shaped and manipulated. They wrote precisely, imaginatively, and persuasively. The students were intrigued by our foray into the world of popular music and our invitation to bring their own interests into an academic assignment. They were able to recognize the figurative language in songs, and be critical and discriminating in their assessment of the lyrics. They were delighted to move beyond pen and paper into a more technological and contemporary form of representation, and they developed competence in the use of various graphics and paint programs. As one student commented, "I enjoyed this assignment because I was able to express my feeling s and ideas in a different medium. "Many others stated that they enjoyed the opportunity to be creative. The complementary projects also provided examples of integration of subjects, reduced the demands on students' time and caused less fragmentation of their knowledge and their intellectual energies (2).
Our choice of popular music as a resource for the initial task was a departure from common practice. As educators, we are often reluctant to seek connections between the real world of the student's lived experiences outside school and activities in the classroom, except where they support rather traditional views of what constitute worthwhile knowledge and abilities. However, by drawing clear lines between that which is considered merely entertaining and frivolous--popular culture and associated activities, and what is educational--traditional and high culture and its related accomplishments, we often overlook much of serious educational value that may be found in the children's own experiences, and its motivational force (3). As the student teachers discovered, there is much that is imaginative, poetic, and insightful in the lyrics of popular music, and quite likely in other topics or elements that comprise the greater milieu of popular culture (4). While it is probably true, however, that the world of popul ar culture and some of the influences of electronic technology are often described as forces that education should militate against, such a position seems rather naive. In failing to adjust to the influential realities of students' lives and not recognizing the particular skills, interests and sensibilities that young people may have developed, we may increasingly alienate classrooms from the broader cultural context.
Our foray into the world of music, poetry, visual and graphic images, and technology was more contemporary than traditional in both its search for figurative language in popular song lyrics and in the use of computer technology as a medium for poetic expression (Lorch, 1988). Not only did the project successfully integrate courses in language arts education and educational technology, but also successfully brought together poetry, an ancient and very imaginative form of human expression, and modem technology, often seen as rather antithetical to such expression. By identifying the poetic in the contemporary world, and by acknowledging the pronounced influence of current technology on our modes of communication, we were able to design projects, which were both effective and relevant to the students' experiences. (5) The projects gave expression to the students' poetic voices, and the students responded enthusiastically to their own and others' writing. They displayed greater understanding of some of the elemen ts of poetic language, and they expressed greater confidence in being able to teach poetry to children. Additionally, they demonstrated an increased understanding of popular culture and the technology at their disposal, a greater appreciation of the power of language used well, and an awareness that poetry does, indeed, exist in the expressions of their own generation and in their own cultural context.
Figure 3 Mustang by David Ingram its high beaming eyes blind the oncoming traffic with annoyance with terror an abandoned wreck scattered along the roadside and a buckled hood leaking blood the drip drip drip of its life is heard only by the dirt and the feeding flies that herd like a ghost
The Music and the Dance by Lisa Smith
Uninspired slumber saps the souls
As if before a morning alarm
Tumbling and bombarding beasts crowd the air
A faint recollection or a premonition?
An old friend, revisited memories, and
Promises of yet to come.
Ripping release of all heavy hands suppressing the soul
Unsilent whispers ride the wind
The music and the dance have come together
Figure 4. The Music and the Dance by Lisa Smith
Figure 2. Student ideas
On the first day the student teacher is nervous about going to the school. She arrives just as the bell is sounding and the children run noisily into the classroom.
Opening night, nervous anticipation
Nerves and knots, a night of nauseous nightmares
Excited, bright eyed
Trembling like a golden blade of wheat at harvest time
The bell shrills its insistent alarm
Boisterous students spill ant-like into the room
At recess the room is suddenly quiet and peaceful as she makes final preparations for her lesson. She is getting more and more nervous as the minutes passed. Is the lesson ready? Will the children listen?
Recess arrives waving its victorious white flag
Stillness washes over her
The persistent ticking of the minutes breaks the calm
silence and her nerves weave their way to her tightening
Uncertainty grows like a weed unattended
Fear grips her and holds her fast
Suddenly the bell sounds again, and the door opens to let the children in and they hurry to their seats. They sit there waiting eagerly for the to new teacher and the exciting ideas she has share. She is launched!
Suddenly the bell beckons and welcomes the children inside
Innocence excitedly filters into the room, quieting down as each seat is filled
Tiny polished apple faces wait nervously
The passage has begun
(1.) The British Columbia Language Arts--English Curriculum addresses the need to develop students' abilities to use and understand six communication strands--reading, viewing and representing as well as reading, writing, listening and speaking.
(2.) Although students are expected to integrate knowledge acquired in each of their courses in their own preparation for teaching, a distinct separation of subjects in terms of instruction and assignments remains a feature of this, and many other teacher education programs.
(3.) This is certainly not to suggest that educators should uncritically accept all that constitutes the child's experience outside school for, as Postman has suggested, entertainment masquerading as serious thought may erode our capacity for critical judgment.
(4.) Sue Lorch claims that poetry is not a static form and that poetic expression has changed in response to new technology (first printing and later electronic technology). Popular music, and more recently the rock video, are "the metaphysical poetry of the twentieth century" 1988, p.143.
(5.) The choice of popular music lyrics to generate an appreciation of figurative language seemed appropriate, although it must be mentioned here that the quality of pop song lyrics varies enormously from the most profound and insightful to the trite and insignificant.
Cohen, L. (Songwriter) (1992). Anthem. The Future (compact disc). New York: Sony Music Entertainment.
Gioia, D. (1992). Can poetry matter? Essays on poetry and American cullure. St. Paul, MN: Graywoif.
Livgren, K. (Songwriter). (1977). Dust in the Wind. Point of Know Return (cassette). London and Hollywood, CA: EMI Capitol.
Lorch, S. (1988, Winter) Metaphor, Metaphysics and MTV. Journal of Popular Culture, 22, 143-155.
Postman, N. (1984). Amusing ourselves to death. New York: Penguin Books.
Postman. N. (1979). Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte.
Robertson, R. (Songwriter). (1991). Soap Box Preacher. Storyville (compact disc). London: Medicine Hat Music/EMI Music.
Wade, B., & Sidaway, 5. (1990, Nov.) Poetry in the curriculum: A crisis of confidence. Educational Studies, 16, 75-83.