To teach better means to learn twice over | Inquirer News

To teach better means to learn twice over

Teachers who write

Alvin Toffler said the illiterate of the 21st century would not be those who could not read and write, but those who could not learn, unlearn and relearn.

Sometimes, we teachers think we already know everything until the hard truth compels us to learn things all over again, with humility and excitement, as if learning is sweeter ecstasy the second time around.

I used to feel anxious and diffident about teaching poetry. I have taught a few poems—
mostly short and simple ones that required easy presentation and discussion.


I used to believe poetry was synonymous with wasting one’s time and mental energy. My students might have felt the same way.


But I felt sad and disappointed about my shortcomings. I thought my students deserved more than I could teach them. Despair and sadness motivated me to try to learn how to teach poetry. I needed to learn poetry again.

Change of view

Back in 2011, I attended a workshop by Elizabeth Lolarga. The workshop was not about teaching poetry. It was about “writing and loving it,” which was the title of the workshop.

Guest poet Mila Aguilar read to us Emily Dickinson’s “I’m
nobody! Who are you?”

Aguilar’s calm, powerful reading of the poem moved me to tears. She made it sound like Dickinson was there, standing right in front of me and asking if I were a “nobody” or a “somebody.”

That brief, read-aloud session made me rediscover how beautiful a poem could be,
especially when you were listening to it. I looked back at those times when I skipped poetry pages in literature books. I realized that there was so much to say and to think about in the few and restrained words of a poem.


That chance poetry session taught me to read a poem in such a way that words might come to life, that words might touch and move and give a listener a sense of wonder.

I discovered that punctuation marks meant so much in poetry and, like words, they should
also be read properly so that a poem would sound the way the  poet might have recited it.

Reading a poem could be a lasting listening and thinking experience.

Newfound inspiration

When I happily declared to my students that we were to
appreciate a poem, there was some sort of dead, empty silence.

I saw them cringe as they looked away with a snort or a sigh and upturned lips. I had anticipated their reactions and I smiled at them.

I posted the text, written on manila paper, of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” on the board. My students began reading while murmuring. I told them a little about Emily Dickinson—that she was a reclusive American poet who penned complex and sometimes eccentric and spiritual poems.

“You may close your eyes as I read the poem to you,” I told my students. They smirked, but closed their eyes.

I began reading the poem, as I rehearsed it many times at home. When I got to the last word, “bog,” my students clapped and cheered. “That was beautiful!” a student declared. One boy said his hair stood on end as he listened.

They asked me to read the poem again, which I did with all my heart and might. I assumed my students had liked the way I read the poem. I felt happy.

They then began sharing their feelings about the poem. One said it sounded like Dickinson was asking her who she really was. Another student declared it was better to be a
“nobody” and to live a quiet, peaceful life. A girl said she would have wanted to experience the life of a “somebody” and to live a famous, expensive life like a celebrity.

“I’m nobody! Who are you?” suddenly sounded like a sweet gossip that everyone wanted to share and indulge in. I noticed that the students were no longer talking about the poem but about themselves—their identities, their aspirations and their desire to be “somebody” in a world of cruel bullies.

Some students sat silently. I did not disturb them.

In the middle of our discussion and debate, one student called my attention and pointed to a classmate who was sobbing uncontrollably in a corner.

When I asked why, the sobbing student said the poem made him cry. I felt guilty and sorry. I made a student cry!

The student asked if I would let him say what he felt. I gave him all the time he needed.

Sobbing in-between phrases, he said he had always been a “nobody” in the eyes of his parents. He had tried his best to please them and make them happy. He felt sorry for himself, at how lowly he was being treated at home.

Doing most of the household chores, he had not had the time to read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” a required reading in my class. At the end of his speech, his classmates nodded and smiled at him.

After class, I told him  he should continue doing well even if his parents did not seem to notice. I said parents made us do house chores so we would learn the values of responsibility and time management while we were young.

Toward the end, I apologized and said it was not my intention to make him cry. “The poem talked to me,” he replied.

Dickinson’s poem paved the way to more poetry reading and more learning. We learned the value of ambition and the courage to walk toward and to live those dreams with Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

With Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” we learned about being brave and proud of who we were. William Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man” taught us that life was meant to be cherished, and
aging and death were natural and inevitable courses of life.  The poem also taught us to cherish our lives because some did not have the gift of life.

We also learned from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” that material possessions could never be a measure of happiness. Nazim Hikmet’s “Dead Little Girl of Hiroshima” made us appreciate peace and condemn the evil effects of war, especially among innocent children.

In our culminating activity, the students enjoyed their choral presentation of the “Lost Generation,” a reverse poem by Jonathan Reed.

We also tried some figure or shape poems, one about a falling leaf and loneliness by E.E. Cummings.

We had fun writing short poems using simile and metaphor and irony and hyperbole. Together, we had fun searching for words for our end rhymes and alliterations and assonance.

We read aloud our humble efforts and clapped and cheered and praised every one’s work. We even said in jest, “We’ve got a poet in the house!”
We sang songs of my generation and music my students liked.

Finally and happily, poetry had won our hearts! My desire to relearn had served me well.

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The writer teaches English and is the journalism coordinator at Barangka National High School.

TAGS: Learning, poetry, teaching

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