American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 29

Poetry In and Out
of the Classroom:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project


Female Poets of the First World War:
A Study in Diversity for the Fifth Grade
Social Studies Curriculum

Randy Cummings

Ghosts Among Us/Ancestral Voices:
“What’s Past is Prologue”

Terry Moreland Henderson

Reflections on Lives Past
Fredric Lown

Phyllis B. Schwartz

The Overwhelming Question:
Integrating the ACLS Curriculum Project,
“Teaching for Understanding,” and
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prucock”

Joan S. Soble

A Matter of Trust
Richard Young

Poetry from the Far Side

Phyllis B. Schwartz

March 3, 1994

Upon revisiting “Poetry from the Far Side,” first published in the English Journal in December 1994, I could see the impact that my ACLS fellowship year had on the framework of my teaching practice. I have always endeavored to create a secure environment in which students could freely explore and develop new skills and ideas without fears about their awkwardness. And while I have worked with students to set boundaries for a class code that fosters inclusivity, I am still frustrated by some of the classroom sociology beyond my control.

Students bring to the classroom an inherent social organization that existed long before their learning group of 28 students was constituted as an English class. Some of these students attended the same pre-school. Some of these students have lived in the same neighbourhood for their entire lives. Some of their parents have associations that have predetermined social relationships. Much of this hierarchy was built while students were in their developmental years, learning reading, writing, and math, playground cooperation and classroom survival. The students have created a drama around a sense of school smarts and social hierarchy. Although what has happened is not articulated by the students, they are still playing out parts that they took in those early years. It would be ambitious to think I could design activities that reorganize this social hierarchy, but in retrospect I see how I constructed learning activities for some of the marginalized students to find a vehicle that transported them from the margins into the center. For some students, their only need is a successful moment in which to build upon their strengths, gain recognition, and muster self confidence; this in turn redirects the learning cycle and repositions the student in school social structure.

In hindsight, I see the importance of looking beyond gender, ethnicity and economic status in order to enlarge the circle, adding to our list the more subtle margins that our learning system has created. Howard Gardner, in Frames of the Mind, puts forth the theory of multiple intelligences, identifying them as linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, inter-personal, and intra-personal. Those students who do not have facility in mathematical and linguistic intelligence, especially when expressed in written form, are usually out of the mainstream of school culture. On occasion, we create an oral culture in the classroom, and new voices are heard and recognized. Other intelligence frames are often relegated to elective areas or extra curricular activities.

Poetry is a combination of linguistic and musical ability. Music, pervasive in youth culture, provides the common elements of language and culture within the world of youth and is thus a potent medium for learning across many of the boundaries existing in the classroom. As I see it now, the assignment described in the following pages created a zone between the spheres of school and social/private youth culture, and in that zone, some of the marginalized students could join the learning circle with full status. Extending the definition of marginality and designing more vehicles have been front and center in my work this year as a teacher-scholar.

Poetry from the Far Side1

The fluorescent lights were a startling contrast to a gray sky threatening but not promising a sunrise. The din of student conversations mixed with rustling notebook pages as last minute efforts were made to finish calculus assignments. My coat still hung on the back of my chair, and my once steaming cup of tea, half drunk and now cool, was a paper weight for my day’s marking. Out there before me were grade 12 students waiting to learn what I could teach about poetry. My Far Side Calendar was a day behind, and to stall for time, I peeled away yesterday’s chuckle to find my inspiration to begin class.

“Homework for tomorrow,” I said, without consulting my daybook to refresh my memory “is to write a Far Side poem called ‘Awkward Ages’ using the boy, the dog, the frog, the elephant and the shark.” I set my calendar on my desk so that students might look more closely at the drawings. And then, as if the television channel had changed, I continued the previous day’s discussion of theme in Yeats’s “Second Coming.”

The next day 20 out of 26 students had poems in one form or other, and regardless of my agenda, we were going to study live poets that hour. As one student after another volunteered to read aloud a hand crafted poem, a common understanding of vulnerability set unspoken rules of respect and honour, and the class hierarchy changed before my eyes. While students read and talked about how they shaped their versions of Awkward Ages, there were no private snickering conversations, no disinterested members of the audience completing work for another subject and no reluctant readers.

Awkward Ages
with homage to the Far Side

Tears blur my puerile vision
as horrible aliens make my body their home
I drown in my naivete But escape the turbulent flow
With only a scratch and a few drops of blood
The very same blood that the baby shark
Under liquid velvet crests in his insipid home
But he, in his budding cadaver
Won’t go outside and swim around
With other sharks of his same age
Who, as of yet, haven’t reached his stage
In their two years
And right above, on a lily pad
A shy, twelve week-old frog is clad
in someone else, another creature’s skin
He’s not himself from outside in
And speaking of other creatures’ skins
The wild brush hides this monster
Who can’t construe why Mother Nature
Would ripen him in such a way
That his trunk, and laugh, I guess you may
Extends three feet from yesterday
Goes through the jungle and into the field
Where once a tiny pup did frolic
Now too big in ears and paws
Afraid to face the others’ guffaws
He hides with us, confined to cages
While we outgrow our Awkward ages

Libby Shumka                

The assignment grew. I asked another grade 12 class to write this same poem, and they returned the next day yielding more plentiful results. It was evident that we had only begun to whet our appetites for poetry writing, so I assigned a revision for display in the classroom. Again, with the same abandon as the day this assignment was born, I added, “Write in 50 words or less on the back of your copy-read, graphics-perfect poem why your poem deserves an A or a B.” The students who had no poems cautiously inquired about their fate, and to them I replied, “Those who didn’t write poems for today can write an additional 50-word override poem about why they didn’t and why they deserve to be forgiven.” The extra poem seemed judicious to everyone.

..............................................................Animal crackers in my soup.
.................................................So detailed,
.............................So precise, Yet they’re also clumsy
................Out of place
......Waiting to grow into a body part or two.
Like an adolescent boy.
.......A tadpole almost a frog,
................An elephant whose nose is 60 times his toes,
...........................A shark who can’t swim because he flips
                           from his fin.
................Those awkward ages,
...........................Awkward stages,
...........................Of the animal crackers.
..................................................In my soup
Kari Homenuk                

A week later students brought to class their final offerings. My marking box was rich with treasures. The words in the air had transformed into words on the page, and I still labored under the illusion that I’d assigned a self-marking assignment. Meanwhile, class analysis and discussion of poetry focused upon the poet’s choice and placement of words — concepts usually too remote from the students’ experiences; and I struggled for success when I tried to engage them in this aspect of poetry study. When asked to find a poem of their own choosing for assignments, their criteria included an arresting and refreshing manipulation of words. The tenor of class discussions was different because students were reading and responding from a writer’s stance.

Until this point I still believed that I had embarked on a journey involving some measure of risk. I had departed from the mainstream because I had spontaneously created an assignment based on the intuitive belief that students needed a bridge between studying poetry as a list of techniques to a study of the essence of the poetic process. My hope was to arrive at an understanding of these techniques and attributes as they appeared when the students themselves were trying to express or capture a thought or image.

At the time of its initial assignment, the Far Side poem was intended to be an exercise to engage students long enough to find some direction for the further study of poetry. I hadn’t planned what I would do with the poems on the day of their arrival, but I was open to any possibility. At this point I realized I’d broken rules; I had done no mapping or scripting, but instead trusted the rapport I had with my students, my own background knowledge, and the pedagogical guidelines in my intellectual/professional knapsack to guide me through this uncharted terrain. The purpose, in retrospect, was to lead students to discover for themselves something about the word-crafting aspect of poem making, to cultivate an appreciation for poetry, and to validate their creative efforts.

Awkward Ages

Awkward Ages
Human adolescence
You are young,
You grow tall and bold,
A body like spaghetti,
Dandruff like confetti.
Semi-trailers at the bottom
You fumble,
You stumble,
Trying to take control.

Awkward Ages
No proportion,
Young pachyderm.
The trunk you carry is long
And drags.
Nothing but trouble;
You trip,
You stumble,
Trying to take control.
You could give someone
A shower
Miles away.

Awkward Ages
Master Grenouille.
There are miles of bog.
Those legs back there,
Give you power,
Go twice as far,
Missing destinations.
On second thought
They do look odd.
Don’t be sad

Awkward Ages
Those paws,
Like two-by-faws.
Big prints for little dog.
You fumble,
You stumble,
Trying to take control.

Awkward Ages
Just Phases.

Alfred Ball                

My expectations for a quick marking session faded with the first poem I read. I read the first poem or two quickly, then shuffled through the stack to find one or two that were visually arresting. Then I hunted for more arresting visuals, and I was hooked. I read every word of every poem. I read to my husband and children to share the uncontainable joy I found in these words. Some poems compelled me to tell the stories about the marginal student who now revealed the poet’s gift; the reluctant learner with the inaudible voice who was now released from some of his inhibitions; the student struggling to learn English as a second language who now had an opportunity to create imagery that transcended language barriers. My lesson and teaching objectives were fulfilled and fulfilling because I sensed an authenticity in the students’ finished work.

Awkward Ages

As a child of 12 to 16 weeks
My limbs were useless, I was not neat
My manners wild, my temper vile
And so I was a frog.

As a child of 6 to 8 months
I grew in places and was curious I was into everything,
I ruined most anything
And so I was a dog.

As a child of 1 1/2 to 2 years
I began to stimulate fear
My weapons new, they thought me cute
And so I was a shark.

As a child of 4 to 6 years
I was soon their darling dear
My looks unfitting. My feet still growing
And so I was an elephant.

As a child of 11 to 13 years
I thought I noticed signs of a beard
My emotions strayed far, I wanted a car
And so I was a human.

Tina Chang                

Honoring the students and their efforts was the next issue that I felt needed to be addressed. The students had given me more than a poem for a mark, and I could not leave this as a simple academic transaction. In assigning a graphics-ready presentation for display I had already half-asked their permission for publication. Initially I had in mind a wall display in the classroom for a month; here the students and perhaps a small circle of friends would come into the classroom for a look-see. But I began to contemplate a larger, yet still friendly, audience: the showcase in the school’s formal entrance. Here school officials, parents, official visitors, couriers and unknown younger students could read and perhaps mutter about these enlightening reflections on their own teen-age experience. The school annual crossed my mind as a publication that would forever fix a week of school for posterity: memories of putting off studying for the math cross-grade exam to write a poem; the moment when a skater with typical baggy pants and skull cap read with a poet’s voice and turned some heads; a genuine assignment that caught everyone off guard. I wanted to celebrate these kids for their trust in an article for other colleagues who might share the joy that we all shared for a week while we had a wee peek behind the adolescent mask thick with sociological pancake make up. At best it could only be a series of snapshots.

Awkward Ages

Pigeon toed pocket protecting cramped the
possibility of style, buck toothed bean breath
equals sympathetic awe wherever
confrontations spark. Canis chewalotis;
paws awkwardly romping stomping in a
miscellaneous fashion; cowling in background
where cheap pillow fuzz and moccasin
remains scattered. A near swallowing of
tongue, Virgin emerald legs say leap the
mind says confusion; I be large, weaning
from mama, clumsily knocking, falling
whining with an elephantalius honk. Large
but still pathetic moving awkwardly will
attempt forgetfulness knowing the impossibility,
while tough skin and a mind half
on the path of destruction and half
somewhere else though sleeking
stealthily through the ocean dwelling
still will fight clumsily through these
vulnerable years.

Matthew Griffin                

Consulting the students turned out to be the best strategy, and they preferred the showcase in the formal entrance as their publication venue. As it was now the week to compile report card portfolios, I found students were including their poetry-writing experience as evidence of creative writing, literary study, and trying something new. Some named it as the most significant assignment for the term. Those who had made “the final cut,” as they affectionately called it, wrote even more on their portfolio assessment reflection sheets. It was, as I thought, the centerpiece of their poetry study. Many students encouraged me to write this article, which I said I had drafted concurrently to reading their poetry repeatedly over the weekend. The literary editor of the school annual came to see me about selecting some of these poems to be published in the annual. He too made a final cut.

When I turned over the poems to record their self-evaluation mark, I found still more to read and evaluate. Rather than routine and often mundane reasons for an A or a B, I found more evidence of students studying poetry from the point of view of the poet. Their 50-word mark justification statements told about their insight into the process of poetry, and in some cases, they demonstrated a consolidation of their literary knowledge.

The poem “The Flowering” should be highly noted — (A). First, the poet (myself) took a great amount of time to combine a poem in such a way that honesty and creative thinking are reflected in this piece of literature. Analytically the poem’s imagery and intensive manner seem to flow quite nicely with its originality and poetic rhyme scheemingly presentation. Elliott Mao Wright

Attempting to compress the given information and my own ideas into a sonnet form was a challenging task, and I feel that I have done well considering that I am not a gifted poet. Except for a few errors in the scansion, the structure is good (EVEN Shakespeare made mistakes). I feel I deserve an A for my effort, and the amount of work I put into this assignment. I wrote two different sonnets before coming up with this one. Michelle Garcia

After observing the cartoon, “Far Side,” with a fresh perspective, I was able to generate a central theme for my poem; human intelligence makes our awkward ages more complicated than in the case of animals. Throughout the poem, I looked for pairs of common vocabulary that could rhyme and created meaningful stanza around them which contains vivid arguments in bolstering my theme. This poem best demonstrates my technique in writing rhyming poetry, and I think that it deserves an A. Troy Yang

In the final phase of my assessment of this far-sided poetry assignment, it wasn’t that easy to record A, B and C+ in my mark book, sift out the poems to publish in the showcase, photocopy those I wanted for the article I was now writing, put them in a folder to return, and go on to study drama.

I’d come to believe that I owed my students more than the routine closure of a class activity. At first I began a letter to the class, to share my thoughts, my criteria, and my joy, and to thank them. In my mind I shaped my reply around Tom Romano’s criteria which I handed out when students wanted to know the basis for their marks:

I am looking for writing that works, the same thing I anticipate when I open a novel, take a first plunge into a poem or begin an editorial. . . . I hope to be knocked out, floored, bowled over, and generally wowed.
I’m looking for information that makes me crave more information, gives it to me, and then makes a point.
I’m looking for surprises of language and vision.
I’m looking for vivid images.
I’m looking for rhythms of language and voice.
I’m looking for an adept employment of some naturally evolved form that might even prompt me to utter aloud my appreciation as I sit alone reading (Romano 1987, 114).

My notes were shallow compared to the poetry I had been reading; they were too teacherly and did not ring true. I needed to validate and honour their risk-taking; and then with the same word-smithing, risktaking, and absurd vulnerability, I took pen in hand and began my own poem. By the end of the evening, I had drafted several versions, and finally by morning I’d settled on an edition to include in the showcase for all the students, strangers, and staff to see. My heart on my sleeve, I was in there teaching because I was willing to be a learner too.

Image Journey

Risking the absurd vulnerability,
unguarded and unmasked
revelations transform the mundane hour into image journeys
departing for uncharted educational terrain
beyond predictability
to defy the schoolroom’s marks, grades, ranks and rightness,
scrambling the hierarchy to liberate the age of awkwardness.


1. This piece originally appeared as “Poetry from the Far Side: Risking the Absurd Vulnerability,” in English Journal, December 1994. Copyright 1994 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. [Return to text]

Works Cited

Gardner, Howard. Frames of the Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Larson, Gary. “Awkward Ages.” Cartoon. The Far Side Off the Wall Calendar. Kansas City, MO: Universal Press Syndicate Company, 1994.
Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

Phyllis B. Schwartz is English Department Head at Lord Byng Secondary School, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She was a 1994–95 ACLS teacher fellow.

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