In 2016, I learned about Success Academy Charter Schools and their unusual investment in poetry. I had the opportunity to collaborate with them through my organization, Poetry in America, which offers online courses on poetry for the general public and for English and Social Studies teachers.
The lessons we filmed in Success Academy classrooms now anchor key sections of our professional development courses. The videos demonstrate how teachers and schools can use poetry to cultivate a passion for language and to unleash student voice. What stands out in the videos is not Success Academy students’ reading “proficiency” — their capacity to decode semantic meanings, or even their remarkable breadth of contextual knowledge. Rather, it is their learning proficiency: the obvious comfort and pride these children show in occupying and growing within the role of “scholars.”
Engaging in shared inquiry and producing evidence to support their views, the students I filmed were full of inventiveness — they showed, too, a noticeable respect for and trust in the teachers who encouraged them. I have visited eleventh-grade classrooms where comments we heard in third-, sixth-, and eighth-grade Success classrooms would count as exemplary, and elite middle school settings where students have shown far less comfort and familiarity with the elements of a poem, or with their own voices, than Success third graders. Orderly, and with commanding and authoritative teachers at the helm, the Success classrooms we observed were joyful spaces of intellectual — and civic — exchange.
It is a delight to see classrooms where poetry is doing what it does best: sparking curiosity and engagement, inspiring a passionate exchange of ideas, and instilling a love of the written word.
See for yourself in these videos that captured the Success Academy teachers presenting lessons on the poems we studied in our seminar:
- Paloma Saez teaching William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” to her third graders at SA Bed-Stuy 2
- Stephanie Yewdell leading her sixth graders at SA Harlem North Central in a discussion of Rita Dove’s “My Mother Enters the Workforce”
- Courtney Huber-McNeely teaching Edward Hirsch’s “Fast Break” to her eighth graders at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts.
Dr. Elisa New is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. After launching a series of HarvardX online courses on American poetry in 2013, New discovered that English teachers across the country and around the globe were hungry for more, and better, professional development opportunities. This discovery inspired New to create Poetry in America, an organization that offers for-credit online courses on poetry via Harvard’s Extension School, and is producing a TV series that will air on PBS stations nationwide beginning in April.