Melissa Smith Lake Norman Charter AP Literature

Melissa Smith, 2017 Teacher of the Year at Lake Norman Charter High School, stands with her students as they use Facetime to talk to a poet during class.

Melissa Smith is a teacher at Lake Norman Charter High School and teaches AP Literature, honors English and creative writing. She uses poetry in her lessons as often as possible to both educate and inspire her students. Herald Citizen spoke with her about why poetry is such an important expressive art form.

Herald Citizen: How do you incorporate poetry into lessons?

Melissa Smith: In creative writing, we read and discuss poems written by living poets as mentor texts for writing prompts. We use poems as inspiration, pulling language from our favorite poets to spark our own ideas.

For AP Literature, a major part of the college board curriculum is the close reading and analysis of poetry. The biggest project of the year involves them mastering a poem and teaching it to the class.

AP Lit students also keep a monthly poetry blog. One of my favorite things to do is to send their blog links to the poets via Twitter and when the poets respond to my students.

We also work with Poetry Out Loud, which asks students to memorize and perform already-published poems by established poets. Two students from my class completed in the district competition – they took second and third place. The second place winner, Ryan Titus, is advancing to the state finals in Greensboro in March.

HC: What are some examples of poetry you include?

MS: AP Literature students read the full collection by Clint Smith (“Counting Descent”), RA Villanueva (“Reliquaria”), and Kaveh Akbar (“Portrait of the Alcoholic…”). We also read selected poems spanning from the 1500s to current day so they are prepared for whatever the AP exam may ask them. Creative writing is more student-choice driven, but names that keep popping up as student favorites or as mentor poems are Joshua Bennett, Sarah Kay, Raymond Antrobus and Rebecca Hazelton.

HC: You’re able to pick poems that fit your own curriculum. How do you choose?

MS: I offer students choice as much as I possibly can; I want them to read the poems they feel a personal connection with, whoever the poet may be. I have an enormous collection of poetry books (living poets, of course) in my classroom that students are always exploring. For poems we read together as a class, I chose poems that I believe will be impactful and meaningful to students, offer them a new perspective of experience or serve as a window for them to see themselves and that use language in surprising and creative ways.

HC: Why is teaching living poets so important?

MS: #TeachLivingPoets is more than a hashtag; it’s a movement of teachers who believe in the importance of teaching modern poetry. I think most students get bored of poems from the same old dead canonical poets. My goal is to show them that poetry is very much alive and happening right now. Through reading living poets, students are exposed to a prism of diverse voices. Poetry helps us to make sense of our world; it can put into words feelings that students may be having, but aren’t sure how to express. I believe that poetry absolutely affects societal change, and I hope students will find poetry as ignition to spark advocacy in their own lives.

HC: Poetry is a creative expression. How important is it to foster creativity in your students?

MS: In our education system, there is so much focus on standardized tests. To get into this-or-that college, students need certain test scores. These kids have lost their love of reading because they’ve been multiple-choiced to death. I believe it is equally important (and I think some college admissions officers would agree with me) to be empathetic, open-minded and able to tell a story. Poetry offers us models of these more personal skills, and can help us become more creative, diverse thinkers.

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