Literacy, Literature, Testing, Writing

Poetry, Power, and Political Precision

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Image credit: Steve Johnson

To wrap up #NationalPoetryMonth, I’m excited to share a piece I wrote with Audrey Friedman and Joelle Pedersen at Boston College called In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Powerpublished in the most recent issue of the Illinois English Bulletin.

We collected poems from 20 high-schoolers labeled as “failing” on state writing exams. As you’ll see in the piece, the poems were brilliant, so we had to ask:

“What accounts for this discrepancy in which such a powerful writer can be rendered powerless…. Is the issue truly the writer, or is the problem the very way we understand, value, and assess certain ways of writing and being?” (p. 8).

We discuss how standardized tests compel students to write, not in the forms that are most productive or relevant, but in the forms most easily measured. As we argue,

“The Common Core State Standards’ narrow focus on informational and argumentative writing widens the gap between the language of schooling and the language of life. These genres do not and cannot capture the full range of students’ experiences, identities, or language skills” (p. 15).

Could elevating the status of poetry and other lyrical genres in schools be the answer? Kendrick Lamar just won the Pulitzer. Bob Dylan got a Nobel Prize. These artists tackle complex genres in ways that can’t be easily scored on rubrics. They should be our models—not the five-paragraph essay.

Unfortunately, no one will win a Pulitzer for the kinds of writing our students are asked to produce for state tests every year. No student will be inspired by the prescribed structures they’re compelled to regurgitate onto a page. What’s more, the results of these tests  inaccurately label many of our students, like the ones in our study, as “failures” without even giving them a chance to show the full range of their literary dexterity.

So whatever genre works—be it poetry or prose, research or rap—let them write all of the above and more. Paradoxically, doing so will still help them pass the darn test, but they’ll also get a lot farther in developing the power, voice, and political precision exhibited by the Lamars and Dylans of literary greatness.

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