South Hadley middle school teacher Pamela Howes connects students with poetry

Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014
SOUTH HADLEY — For 15 years, veteran middle school teacher Pamela Howes has found a way to ignite a love of poetry in her students.

Her method is fairly straight-forward: Celebrate with a capital C.

To that end, she hosts a party in honor of verse, what she calls a poetry celebration day, in which students at the Michael E. Smith Middle School read the work of well-known published poets as well as their own creations.

In the weeks leading up to the day, students prepare. They paint images on T-shirts to illustrate a poem they’ve chosen. They wear the shirts on the day of celebration.

“It helps the students make a connection to the poetry,” said Howes. “Here’s an opportunity to use a little art and bring that into the English classroom.”

Howes, finishing up her 19th year of teaching, got the idea from a similar activity described in an academic journal in the late 1990s.

Over the course of the unit, she requires the students to gather a total of six different poems — five of which must use different examples of figurative language including metaphor, personification and a rhyme scheme — and compile them into a paper “book.”

The unit culminated with a celebration day early this month, where students read the sixth poem: the one illustrated on their shirt. As well as the paintings, their shirts contained two lines from the poem ironed on by Howes.

The only requirement for the T-shirt poem, she said, is that they “find a poem they like well enough to wear.”

On celebration day this year, the lights were low in the classroom, where at the front of the room, students took turns standing next to a lamp and reading poems that ranged from the somber to the sentimental to the comical.

“When people think ‘poetry,’ they think that’s not something that people read anymore,” said Howes, of Amherst. “I think that is a misconception.”

Howes’ students this year were joined by those of fellow eighth-grade teacher Ted Blaisdell of South Hadley, who did the same activity for the first time this spring. Many students chose poems by Shel Silverstein, known for his humorous poems popular with children and adults.

Student Jarrett Sudyka, 14, chose the Silverstein poem “Flag,” which contains lines such as, “One star is for Alaska/One star is for Nebraska,” and ends on, “There are lots of other stars/But I forgot which ones they are.”

Sudyka, who painted an American flag on his shirt, said he chose this poem because it reminds him of himself. “I’m forgetful,” he said. “Very forgetful.”

Three students chose “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. One student drew two asphalt roads illustrated with the dotted lane lines. Another drew two dirt roads, and the third student drew two black lines going into a forest of yellow trees.

Other students chose works by lesser known poets. Howes said they selected the poems from library books and a few trusted websites.

Carney Lingle, 14, chose the poem “Why?” by Ann Turner, which included lines such as, “Who is this man/Why is he here/How did he get so run over?”

On Lingle’s T-shirt were the lines, “Who are his people? Why is he here?” with an illustration of a man standing separate from two other people, looking confused. She said she could relate with the feelings of not fitting in as expressed in these lines.

Other poems selected included “Sisters” by Pat Mora, “Cold Dark Corner” by Blake Duffy and “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Howes said that their grade for the unit is divided into parts with the paper book being the heaviest part, and the reading and the T-shirt each being separate. She is not strict on how she grades the reading.

In fact she tends to award high marks as long as they are brave enough to go up to the front of the room and read the poem as best they can, she said.

“Sometimes poetry can be really intimidating,” said Howes. “I just really like showing them how it’s not.”