Monday, March 25, 2013

The Art of Poetry {Schoolhouse Crew Review}

We were recently given the opportunity, through the Schoolhouse Review Crew, to try The Art of Poetry, a complete study of poetry for middle or high school students. In the past I have been impressed with products I've seen from Classical Academic Press so we decided to have a look.


Classical Academic Press is a publisher specializing in educational materials that focus on the revival of classical education, in subjects such as logic and Latin. They also provide instructional materials for learning Greek, Spanish, and French; and for studying the Bible. The Art of Poetry is a step by step guide to understanding poetry, written with middle school and high school students in mind. It teaches the practice of close reading, introduces the elements of poetry (such as imagery and symbols), and studies the formal history of poetry. Also included are short biographies of many poets and application suggestions for starting poetry groups or workshops.

We received the student textbook, the teacher's edition of the textbook, and the DVD for Chapters 1 and 2. The student textbook is presented in two main sections. The first, The Elements of Poetry, is eight chapters that explain the use of imagery, metaphor, symbols, words, sounds, rhythm, shape, and tone in poetry. In the second section, The Formal History of Poetry, the chapters explore the history of form, verse, and shape; along with two artist case studies. (See a sample of The Art of Poetry)

The Teacher's Edition is the full text along with explications and answers for all of the study questions at the end of each chapter. (See a sample of The Art of Poetry Teacher's Edition.) The optional DVD set features the author teaching the entire book to four eighth grade students in a Socratic discussion format.

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Author Christine Perrin is an experienced teacher of literature and creative writing, and is a consultant with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry. Her own work appears in several journals. Her enthusiasm for poetry and passing that love on to students is evident in both the text and the class discussions seen on the DVD.

How did we use it? I started by beginning to read through the text myself, and knew that most of it would be too challenging for Kennady right now - she is in sixth grade - but found myself being inspired and enlightened.  I thought back to my own studies of poetry when I was in high school, and reflected on why it seemed frustrating and difficult.  I think it was because it was rushed and mechanical. It seemed like a race to see how quickly one could read a poem and identify the rhythm pattern and a sample use of symbolism before moving on to something else. In contrast, The Art of Poetry encourages reading poems slowly and savoring each line and stanza, before asking the thought-provoking questions that explore the meanings and emotions in the poem.

Since the text itself was too advanced for Kennady - and sometimes for me! - we spent our time reading the text and anthology of poems together and discussing them using the questions provided with each poem. I scanned the discussion questions for those that I thought likely to be most helpful to Kennady.  At the end of each chapter are activities for writing and discussing the concepts taught in the chapter. We focused on some of the discussion activities. In this way, we've read and discussed the first two chapters of the text, and are starting into the third. We actually wound up doing this as bedtime reading on several occasions!

We took turns reading a couple of poems in the anthology, and talking about the images and symbols in what was obviously a very relaxed and comfortable setting. Although Kennady had trouble deciphering some of the more abstract ideas, she found poems that she truly enjoyed and could understand the deeper meanings as we talked about them. I found the explications (That's a new word for me! If it's new to you too, it means "an explanation or interpretation") in the Teacher's Edition extremely helpful!

As a sample of what we did, in the first chapter, Images, the activities include freewriting about images from one of the four seasons, describing an image that is personally important, considering which of the five senses is most important to you, and writing your own version of the Ezra Pound poem "In a Station of the Metro". Kennady had trouble coming up with an image that had deep meaning for her, but thought of some great images of winter that included sights, smells, and sounds. Images like snow on the trees, seeing her breath, the smells of pumpkin pie and of cinnamon apple, and the sound of Christmas carols. I was surprised how thoughtful our discussion of our senses became. We agreed that for practical reasons we relied most on sight, but that sound and touch were more emotionally charged. Kennady's favorite poem from the first chapter was "Dust of Snow" by Robert Frost, while I liked "The Crow" by Judith Kunst the best.

The most recent poem we discussed was "Brave Sparrow" by Michael Collier, which is the first poem presented in Chapter 3, Symbols. Kennady read the poem herself, and partway through she stopped and said she didn't understand a lot of it. Part of the problem was that she was concentrating on reading the words and lost the thread of thought whenever the stanzas broke in the middle of a sentence. I read the poem aloud to her, and she was better able to picture what was happening. Then I read some of the text's explanation of some of the symbolism used, and we were easily able to see the comparison of the crows to belligerent teens and how the aggressive actions of birds - and people - are sometimes only an appearance of boldness, but that the seemingly unassuming and meek sparrow may exhibit more bravery by simply going about its business and not getting all up in everybody else's grill and causing trouble. And that is the possible lesson for us - that courage may lie in being ourselves and doing what we believe to be right and not in bullying and threatening and drawing attention to ourselves.

What we liked best:

  • I love the fact that throughout the text, the primary focus is on appreciating the artistry of poetry, enjoyment and personal understanding of the selections, rather than jumping to the purely mechanical aspects.
  • suggested timetables for study vary from an intense month-long unit to spreading the course over a period of several school years. The last is the approach we are likely to take!
  • practical suggestions for starting Writer's Workshops or Poetry Readings
  • wide range of selected poetry, and including biographies of the poets in the text. Knowing the background of a poet or author helps me understand their work better.
What we weren't crazy about:
  • while the suggested age range is middle school and up, in my opinion this is much better suited to high school students. Middle school students who have a good background in classical style education and are used to the Socratic discussion style, or who have an intense interest in poetry will benefit, but we found the language of the text and some of the concepts in the questions to be too advanced. Honestly, a lot of it was over my head, especially if I hadn't carefully read everything ahead of time!
  • I found myself flipping pages back and forth a lot in the Teacher's Edition because the answers are at the end of the chapter instead of presented on the same page as the questions. 
Our bottom line: I think we will set this aside as curriculum until Kennady reaches high school. I'm thinking that at that point, I would like to use it over at least two years. In the meantime, I plan to keep the text accessible so that we can continue to read and discuss poetry in a casual way, or can look up biographies of poets and discussions of certain poems as we come across them in other settings. I started also toying with the idea of the poetry reading group or co-op style class, and we may find a way to do that in a few years as well.

Would you like to enjoy The Art of Poetry in your homeschool? Here's what you need to know:

Visit the Classical Academic Press website:
See information and pricing for The Art of Poetry, which is available in a bundle or as separate components. There are sample pages of the text available, and Suggested Schedules for completing the course in 16 weeks, 32 weeks, over four years, or as a co-op or elective in poetry enrichment.

Pricing: $24.95 for the Student Text, $29.95 for the Teacher's Edition, and $69.95 for the DVD set. The complete program which includes the Student Text, Teacher's Edition, and complete set of DVDs is available for $99.95. (Prices for the DVD set and bundle will be effective April 1, 2013.)

Recommended ages: Grades 7 through 12.

You can also follow author Christine Perrin's blog: The Art of Poetry, find Classical Academic Press on Facebook, follow Classical Academic Press on Twitter, and follow Classical Academic Press on Pinterest.

Visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog for more information and to read other Crew member reviews. Crew members reviewed two products from Classical Academic Press - The Art of Poetry and The Discovery of Deduction - so be sure to check out both!

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