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Pushing what students think they are capable of: Poetry

Popularity 6Viewed 4820 times 2014-3-9 01:09 |System category:Life| capable

Foreign teachers might find themselves saying the sentence “My background is unique.” I have also been one to say this sentence to my students. I got into teaching English as a foreign language during graduate school. I taught students as a graduate teaching assistant from all over the world who came to Kansas, without a TOEFL score, to learn English then take classes at the university. You would think that I should’ve been majoring in TESOL or something equivalent, but I was earning my MA in English with an emphasis on poetry writing.  


As soon as I graduated, I decided to travel to China and found Soochow University. Many of the professors had PhDs in literature, so I felt right at home. The staff had a passion for reading, and would often say they enjoyed writing but never considered it anything more than a hobby. I had always wanted to teach writing, but it was actually the dean who recommended that I be given a poetry course for students.


So I prepared a class that centered on poetry writing and poetic writing theory (process, finding inspiration, rhythm, etc.). I taught a few forms, but I mainly focused on free-verse poetry because it’s just more relevant for what’s being written today and definitely more accessible.


I still remember the first day of class. I came in and discussed the syllabus, and when I got to the part where I told students that they would be writing their first poems they were very worried and had many questions such as:


“What if I can’t think of anything to write?”

“Can we do something else besides write poems?”

“What if my poems are bad?”


These questions are from their own opinions of their language abilities. Granted, some Americans may feel strange about writing a poem, but there wouldn't be so much fighting to make students try.


When they wrote their first poems, most of them failed. I mean, they were pretty bad. Very cliché, only focused on romantic themes that had nothing real in them. You didn't feel anything from the poems. I have no problems being a little mean about this because when I started I did the exact same thing. If I look at some of my poems from the beginning, it almost makes me want to set my laptop on fire. The thing is poems like these are essential. You have to write down what your idea of a poem is first. Clean yourself of all these stale ideas in your head to the point where you have nothing left in your mind. Then we can really begin.  


One of my favorite moments was when my students finished writing all the cliché stuff and then when they had no more ideas and I taught an essay about writing. The essay talks about a writer who wakes up very early in the morning, like 5am every day and sits at his desk next to the window. He had nothing when he came to the desk, and so he waits for something to come. And something always comes. Not physically, but in his mind. A thought comes every time and he has not a feeling of relief, like the poems that we've kept for too long and are now terrible, but a feeling of surprise.


Surprise is what I felt I taught in my class. My students were surprised about what they could do. They were surprised about how much fun writing poetry in English could be. They were surprised how many ideas they had. Finally, they were surprised how differently they thought about poetry, and I was surprised about how good the poems were after the first couple.


As I mentioned before, it was the dean’s idea to start the poetry class. I don’t think that this is a detail that should be overlooked. Universities in China are being influenced by many different cultures during this important time of growth. Although there isn’t a creative writing major in Soochow University, something that almost every single American university offers, I think that it is coming soon. Chinese students are capable people who would benefit so much from thinking that creative writing was more accessible.


I really believe creative writing in English will be an important part of China’s future.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Comment Comment (7 comments)

Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-3-9 04:21
Well done on getting your students engaged in this process! A jokey comment now: "only focused on romantic themes that had nothing real in them" don't tell Chinese girls that.. Many dream of Prince Charming!
Reply Report mattwritenow 2014-3-9 04:43
ColinSpeakman: Well done on getting your students engaged in this process! A jokey comment now: "only focused on romantic themes that had nothing real in them&q ...
Haha! Very true! Thanks for your comment. That was a MUCH bigger hurdle for Chinese students, but it was so great to see how real my students could get.
Reply Report Dr.Bill.Shen 2014-3-10 00:08
Awakening must be truly thrilling.
Reply Report Anming 2014-3-10 00:44
worth reading.
Reply Report voice_cd 2014-3-10 18:00
Thanks for sharing your story here! We have highlighted your story to the homepage.
Reply Report KIyer 2014-3-11 13:38
Sure sounds like fun! i like the idea of teaching English with a purpose, students will of course learn much more and for other purposes too, but having one, such a writing a poem, can help keep the focus.
Reply Report wanzai 2014-3-16 04:07
i have a forigner spoken english, it is really interesting ! i don't have to worry about if i behave poorly, then what will happen to me? worry is the biggist problem i must overcome

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