Poetry Made Delicious for You and Your Students

Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers
By Shirley McPhillips
(Stenhouse Publishers 2014 – Learn more)

jen miller 120Reviewed by Jenni MIller

When I first heard of this book, it was described to me as delicious, which piqued my interest. I couldn’t imagine that word – delicious – being used to describe a book that could be used to teach poetry, and so I was a bit skeptical.

poem-central 220And yet, this book, Poem Central by Shirley McPhillips, somehow really is delicious. Once I opened it, I found myself highlighting and making notes in the margins and looking up poems that the author referenced so that I could experience them for myself. I found myself drawn into the language and feelings and images shaped by the words of the many poets referenced by Shirley McPhillips.

Many of my colleagues over the years have stated that poetry can be daunting and overwhelming to teach. Couple that with poetry’s inconsistent appearance on the high stakes tests driving so many schools today, and poetry easily becomes a unit that is often compressed and glossed over, if not abandoned altogether.

Face to face with a beautiful truth

But Shirley McPhillips brings us face to face with a beautiful truth: that while in many ways poetry is in hiding, the truth is that it is hiding in plain sight. Poetry truly is all around us. It is not an academic subject to be excavated and beaten into submission, but an art that mirrors our lives. Poetry is there; we simply must open our eyes to see it.

McPhillips expresses this in a lovely way that gives us permission to interact with poetry on our own terms, to allow it to cohabit, so to speak, with our curriculum

There’s plenty of poetry for everyone. We can take what we want, what we need, and leave the rest for others.”

If we teach only the poems that we relate to or believe might be tested, and ignore those that we don’t, then we are robbing our students of their right to discover poetry on their own terms. We cannot expect them to see poetry through our eyes – we who are teachers and parents and facing faculty meetings and the sometimes daily drudgery of our own worlds.

We must allow our students to wade through the words of poetry that we might not know exactly how to teach. We must invite them to bring themselves to the words of poets and to live with those words on their own terms – not needing us to facilitate all meaning and experience for them.

Breathing in the wonder of poetry

And fortunately for us, Shirley McPhillips has written a book that shows how to do just that. Her book demystifies the poem, not as a text to be dissected and sifted through multiple choice answers, but to be breathed in and loved, to be tasted and savored. She reminds us to model fluency for our students while we encourage them to strengthen their independence as poetry readers and writers.

But she also goes further than that. McPhillips has put together a plethora of resources for teachers wanting to incorporate more poetry into their curriculum. She includes many poems in the text of her own book, but also refers readers to thousands of others, by means of her bibliographies throughout the book as well as links to established poetry sites (such as Poetry 180) and some that might be lesser known but just as valuable. Her links alone would serve as a thorough companion to the book.

McPhillips includes much more. She shares ways to incorporate poetry into daily practice in the middle grades and high school classroom, including examples from teachers guiding their students as they create, edit, revise and share their own poetry. She also provides advice for different scenarios that teachers might encounter, such as:

  • what to do when resistance and difficulties arise
  • possible conversation and response starters
  • poetry pairings
  • the power of poem titles
  • crafting and sharing poems for special occasions
  • and even invective poems (sure to be a big hit with many middle schoolers!)

After reading this book, I concur – this book truly was delicious. Poem Central is an incredibly worthwhile read and is one that will bring poetry to readers, allowing them to experience it for themselves. One contributor to this book shared this insight, which seems to sum up the book itself:

…poetry is not about getting answers. Sometimes the poem needs to percolate over time. It doesn’t always speak to us right away.”

This book contains many poems and ideas that will percolate over time and continue to inspire teachers who read it to open the door to poems that will inspire and shape their students.

Jenni Miller is a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Montevideo Middle School in Penn Laird, Virginia. She is in her 21st year of teaching there and absolutely loves reading and writing with her middle school students every day. She also loves Pinterest and frequently pins for middle school teachers and students alike. She can be found at www.pinterest.com/jmillermms and on Twitter @soosen.


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1 Response

  1. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Jenni, looks like we agree on this book! I loved it, too, and I’m now following you on Twitter!

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