Community work in the adolescent program

By Jason Johnson – Kawakawa Teacher

The following is the preamble of a writing assignment given to Kawakawa students this term, in which they were to discuss an idea from a piece of poetry they had studied over the year. Studying poetry with adolescents is always a hard sell at first, given that it requires a) engaging your brain fully before 10am, but also b) engaging with complex and elusive problems that often appear to have no right answer. Yet it remains a non-negotiable part of our Montessori English program. And it always proves rewarding. Poetry nourishes adolescent minds, feeding their creative tendencies as they carry out the big work of developing their own identity through self-expression. 

Last term, we studied poetry, as well as theory about poetic writing. We read a lot of poems. We talked and wrote about the kinds of language features we might find in a poem or want to use in our own poetry. And yes, we wrote some poetry. This term, we kept thinking about poetry and added in a bunch of lessons on how to do good transactional writing (paragraphing, thesis statements, organising your ideas, etc). And here we are, almost done.

Why?! Why oh why, Jason and Hilary, have you made us spend sowwww laaaawwng on poetry!?! Poetry is so “mysterious”! It makes no sense! It’s so dummmmmmmmmmmmb.

Perhaps one could think about it as follows.

The words we choose, when we write, are important. We could choose other words. There are so many!  Poetry encourages us to play with words, but also to be selective and accurate with our choices; to find the best words to express an idea or feeling. It reminds us that words carry more than their literal meaning – words can have connotations that affect the reader. Poetry encourages us to be conscious of our word choices. And that makes us better writers.

But we want you to be better readers too! Reading is about more than just decoding and verbalising words on a page. It’s about making sense of those words. Finding ideas in those words that connect with our understanding, and help us to build new ideas. Proust (1871-1922) said that the heart of reading is where we go beyond the wisdom of the writer to discover our own. 

In poetic writing, ideas can be built up, stacked layer upon cheese-dripping layer, using all that figurative language, so that after you’ve finished reading it, you keep finding more tasty morsels of ideas…faintly lingering… poetry encourages us to play with ideas. Whereas transactional writing takes ideas seriously. It trains us to lay them out clearly for everyone else to understand, and make sure that there is no room for misunderstanding. 

So it’s never really been about the poetry, per se. Really, this has been a long, drawn-out, elaborate workshop on writing about ideas. This skill will be applicable to any kind of writing you have to do in the future. 

If you’re not writing ideas, then are you even writing?