Monday, May 4, 2015

A Chat With Kerry O'Connor: Poetry In the Classroom

This week, my friends, we are privileged to be chatting with Kerry O’Connor, a member of Poets United since its early days. Kerry writes at Skylover, and is also admin and coordinator of our sister site, Imaginary Gardens With Real Toads. I asked Kerry, a teacher of high school English, what she might enjoy chatting about, and she chose how she and her school in South Africa inspire and encourage young people to appreciate poetry. As a number of our members are also teachers, I hope this topic will be of interest to many.

Sherry: Kerry, thank you so much for being available for this chat. Where shall we begin?

Kerry: I think it will work best for me if I just tell you a bit about how English is taught in South Africa, how and why I began to encourage writing poetry, and what some of my results have been.

Sherry: That sounds good, Kerry. First, though, is there ever resistance by your students to writing poetry? Do they start off thinking poetry will be boring, then catch fire?

Kerry: The answer is a straight off yes, with a big but, because teens secretly love writing poems. It is a complex psychology one is dealing with, when it comes to getting teenagers to do anything out of their comfort zones.
I would like to pass on any ideas that would get more kids writing, rather than tweeting, and communicating via snapchat.

Sherry: Please do! With kids so plugged in to their devices, I worry that the art of writing is in peril  among the young! 

Kerry: The subject I teach is English as Home Language, which is taught over four areas of study: Literature, Language, Creative Writing and Oral. All four components must be tested quarterly to form the continuous assessment of the whole year. Under Literature, we study novel, Shakespeare, film and poetry in each grade. The poetry section is  perceived as being the most difficult for the students, because they come with the attitude that poems are incomprehensible. This spills over to their belief that they cannot write what they don't understand.

The writing of poetry is not part of the course work, and many teachers do not find time to teach the skill because the workload is already overloaded, but I make time for it at the end of each quarter once the course work has been completed. Since there is more time in the Eighth Grade, (the first grade of High School), I spend a few lessons introducing the concept in a fun way.

I usually begin with limerick, which has a simple rhyme scheme and is only 5 lines long, so they see it as possible and a little silly. Then I introduce syllable counting forms like cinquain, or word counting poems, like diamante which require a bit of technical know-how. I allow the class about a week to perfect their poems, suggesting they write more than one and choosing their favourite and, on the next Friday, we have a poetry reading lesson. 

I go around the class and everyone reads his or her poem aloud. Initially, there may be embarrassment or attempts to avoid taking a turn, but my classroom is a very safe environment, and I encourage a lot of applause, while trying to give positive feedback myself. I don't force a reluctant child to read, but always invite them to do so again after everyone else has shared and, 9 times out of 10, they do.

I do participate in the class readings by doing the challenges I give the students, and reading my poems to them. It helps to break the ice.

Sherry: This sounds like a highly effective approach, Kerry. 

Kerry: Children respond to positive reinforcement,  and love to be the centre of attention. The biggest obstacle to this exercise is convincing them to put in maximum effort when the end result will not be graded. Here I must convince them that poetry is its own reward (and they don't believe that at first). From the easiest forms, I have them writing villanelle and sonnets by the tenth grade. I also encourage them to write free verse.

Sherry: It must be heartwarming to watch their enjoyment – and skill – developing.  Kerry, you have been admin of Real Toads for a few years now and have developed it into a really stellar site: lots of participation by very fine poets, a wonderful and unceasing stream of inspiring prompts, and a stable platform and resource for poets. Tell us a bit about Toads.

Kerry: I took it over when One Stop Poetry disbanded because communal poetry platforms are essential, if poets do not want to be writing in a vacuum. RT has always been a group project, not dependent on any one person. My role is as coordinator with an administrative role, but it is the toads who keep the wheels rolling.

About 3 years ago, when NaPoWriMo came around and we offered a prompt a day at The Imaginary Garden, I had the brainwave to do the same thing with all my classes (I teach five classes - one in each grade), by encouraging them to write for themselves as the only reward. This created uproar, how could I expect them to write 30 poems? I calm them down by saying could you write one poem every three days or one every two days? If they think they could, then that is ten or fifteen poems in one month, and a great achievement; even one poem is one more than they would have written if not challenged to do it.

Not every student managed to complete all 30 poems, but many more did than I expected. I continue to put the challenge to them each year. Last year, I came up with a new idea of 300 poems in 30 days for September. This was a challenge between my grades 8 - 10 classes that each class would write 100 poems together as a group effort, and this time I promised that if they achieved the goal, I would start a blog for them to see their poems published on the internet, which they could share on facebook and twitter. 

Sherry: What a fantastic idea! Creating a blog for them must have been a great incentive! 

Kerry: The blog is called somewhere I have never travelled and many examples of my students' poems can be read there from that challenge, as well as a selection of  poems from a collection of 28 called All the Reasons, written by a student who matriculated at the end of 2014.  She sent me a copy of her poems and a letter in which she said: "I still recall our first NaPoWriMo challenge and how I laughed at the notion of being able to write a poem. I mean, I wasn't in love, I didn't hate anyone, I wasn't experiencing 'complexities' and my life was altogether boring." 

Sherry: I love that! I have to smile that she went from thinking she had nothing to write about to knowing she had everything to write about – an excitement we all share. Let’s take a look at one of this student’s poems, with her permission, about writing.

Epiphany ~
by Celine Hatting

I will not lie to you -
this poem is bare.

There is no deeper meaning,
no syllable counts,
and no perfectly planned stanzas.

There is no hidden message,
no underwire,
and no witty play on words.

I have not chosen my words
Rather, I have sprayed them
bombastically across the page,
hoping they will somehow
find their way to each other.

And if these confused words happen
to qualify as poetry,
I would be so grateful -
because that would mean
that I have something
out of nothing
just as words have made something
out of me.

Sherry: This is marvelous, Kerry. Such a strong writer already, at the beginning her journey. It must have been wonderful watching her catch the spark, and run with it. I hope that poetry will accompany her through the rest of her life. If it does, it will be, in part, because of you. That must feel pretty good.

Kerry: One of the reasons why I believe it so important for young people to express themselves in poetry is for the mental stimulus, the exercise it gives to the imagination, the way it helps them come to terms with their emotions in a creative way. You asked if I have ever had any prodigies, and I cannot tell you how many times I have been humbled and excited by the breadth of talent, and artistry I have been privileged to read from my students over the years.

Sherry: I can only imagine how deeply satisfying it must be, as a poet and as a teacher, to watch young poets tune in and turn on to the joy of writing. Let us take a look at two of your current students, and their work.

Kerry: I would like to mention one of my current students, Nsiki Gwala. I think readers would be interested to read the work of one of my Zulu students and she is gifted - the top achiever across all subjects in grade 10.

~ This poem is the sky, a flower and the sea

This poem is the blue sky.
This poem is a blooming flower.
This poem is the cold sea.

This poem is the blue ocean above.
God’s gift of life to the living,
Where bird’s swim so fearlessly and freely
Like a dry autumn leaf sinking swiftly to the dry land.
Earth’s peaceful and heavenly place
Where the ground is but a grotesque memory.
This poem is the blue sky.

This poem is the florescent flower of life.
A rebirth of indefinite opportunities,
With a delicate promise of hope and revival.
This is life’s rare moment that captures hearts and souls-
A true vision of a brighter tomorrow
That renews all shattered dreams.
This poem is a blooming flower.

This poem is a vast, aquamarine sea.
An ice-cold blanket that hugs the earth
Like a blizzard on a freezing winter’s day,
With jaws that have munched on rocky cliffs
And murdered innocent lives.
The giver of life for those near it-
This poem is the cold sea.

This poem is the heavenly, blue sky.
This poem is a florescent blooming flower.
This poem is the endless cold sea.

© Nsiki Gwala ~ Grade 10

Sherry: A beautiful and very impressive poem. I love that your students are trying out Hannah Gosselin's wonderful boomerang poem. One of my favourite forms.

Kerry:  Another gifted student is Pryaska Goorhoo, also in Grade 10. She is South African Hindu, and also a very promising writer.

"Far Above the Milky Way"

Far above the Milky Way                                                                                                                                                             People wanted the will to fight,                                                                                                                                            A beam of hope, a little golden ray.

Through dusk and through day,                                                                                                                                            Silent winds blow throughout the night,                                                                                                                                  Far above the Milky Way.

There is no yesterday, tomorrow or today.                                                                                                                       Violet horizons with that one golden flying kite.                                                                                                              A beam of hope, a little golden ray.

A perfection of hopelessness or a very tragic play?                                                                                                                  I often wonder about the many stars up there shining bright,                                                                                       Far above the Milky Way.

I laughed, I cried, however I still think its cliché.                                                                                                               Do you also wonder about some charming, mysterious knight?                                                                                       A beam of hope, a little golden ray?

Throughout this vast world I have searched, day by day.                                                                                                 My looking brighter, success within sight.                                                                                                                                 A beam of hope, a little golden ray…                                                                                                                                   Far above the Milky Way…

© Pryaska Goorhoo 

Sherry: How beautiful! "A little beam of hope...." What a treat it is to read these poems by three very gifted young poets. You must have one of the most rewarding jobs in the world!

Kerry: These students  give a taste of the cultural diversity of South African schools.    

Our school also offers three Speech and Drama Festivals annually to cater for the three official languages that are offered as Home or First Additional Language subjects at my school (namely English, Afrikaans and IsiZulu). The festivals are based on the idea of Eisteddfod, wherein students recite poetry, either original or from other sources, as well as other forms of performance, which are adjudicated. Various certificates and awards are made for outstanding achievement.

This shows that a culture of poetry does not only exist in my classroom, but is encouraged throughout the whole school and the province in which I live.

Sherry: It is commendable that your school and school district encourages and supports students in creative expression. The productions in the photos on the Speech and Drama website look to be of professional caliber. 

Kerry, thank you so much. This has been a most enlightening chat, and I appreciate your taking time at this busy term in the academic year, to give us a peek into your classroom, where the world of poetry is not only alive, but thriving!

Wasn't this a joy, my friends? It is wonderful to think of young people catching the spark of poetry young, that will accompany them all their lives. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. Thank you so much Sherry for posting this wonderful interview :D

    I must say Kerry you are really inspiring! I really appreciate your work :D
    Hats off! :D

  2. I enjoyed this, Sherry and Kerry. Enjoyed very much seeing some examples of student poetry that were extremely impressive. I think poetry will be in good future hands. When I taught I always LOVED having kids eat poetry, and some of it awed me -- as I am sure the poetry of yours awes you.

  3. It is wonderful to see such advanced and talented young poets coming along! Kerry, thank you for working on this chat during a very busy school term AND national poetry month. That is really above and beyond the call of duty. Thank you so much!

  4. Nice interview. I enjoyed reading the poems of these young poets. It's refreshing. (Big smile.) :)

  5. A big thank you to Sherry for asking me to participate in this interview, and providing the platform for my students' work. I am immensely proud of all of them. To me, poetry is form of art that can be achieved by anyone who will just take a chance and try. I never want to see it become a dying art in my lifetime.

  6. Bravo! This is entirely inspiring. I wish you were my teacher, Kerry. I wish I were teaching poetry. I wish, I wish, I wish. Thank you (both of you) for sharing... truly fantastic.

  7. "I have sprayed them
    bombastically across the page,
    hoping they will somehow
    find their way to each other."

    How beautiful! And the other students' work show more of the formal qualities. All three are magnificent poems! These are the rewards of teaching, for sure. Thank you for sharing them with us!

  8. How inspiring you are, Kerry. I can imagine how much the kids must love having you because it is clear you care about them. I would have loved having a teacher introduce me to poetry when I was that age. I applaud you and your work!

    1. Thanks, Debi. Though it is true that my enthusiasm is often met with a groan.

  9. Oh, Sherry, I enjoyed this so much...a conversation with Kerry about young poets...and searching questions from you.
    I was fortunate when I was young, to have teachers who helped and encouraged me, but we had nothing like Kerry's poetry classes. So wonderful!
    I miss poetry so much. It seems to be gone from my mind, but it isn't gone from my heart, and never will be.
    Thinking of you, Sherry and Kerry, twin souls from opposite ends of the earth.
    Love, K

  10. It must be so rewarding to watch these young people catch fire and turn on to the beauty of poetry. Bravo, Kerry! Kay, poetry is still in me, it will return. was struggling with fatigue terribly this winter and feeling completely uninspired. So I challenged myself to a poem a day in April and it kicked me back into gear.....just know, when you are ready, the poems will come. LOL. Like in Field of Dreams, they will come chugging along.

  11. What a wonderful thing to read today. Such an inspiring post. As I read along I thought back to a few years ago when I discovered some beautiful and supportive people who encouraged this soon to be 60yr old student of writing to open up my heart and my mind and share my words with the world. teachers like Kerry, Sherry, Margaret, Kim, Mary, and many others all visiting my site and raining words of kindness upon me. These students are so lucky to have Kerry guiding them. I have been fortunate to find dozens of teachers like her via Poets United, Real Toads and multiple sites like them. I think back to 2008 when my son taught me a valuable lesson when he said, “Oh, for crying out loud, what are you waiting for?” and he reached over my shoulder and hit the submit button, securing my domain name Raining Iguanas and changing my life in ways I never could have imagined. This interview brought all that back as I pictured those young sponges absorbing Kerry’s words of wisdom. Thank you, thank you all.

    1. It is so wonderful to hear from you, my friend. Thanks for stopping by........I share your amazement at how the world of blogging changes our lives. I am still amazed! Kids, especially our newer members, John's site has some wonderful reading and the most beautiful photos.........if you pay him a visit, you will be so glad you did!

    2. Thank you, John. I was also lucky to have been inspired by my own teachers who fostered my love of literature from an early age.

  12. Kudos to all, and especially to those young poets ~

  13. Wonderful chat Kerry and Sherry. Kerry sounds like you do pretty amazing stuff with your students. My husband taught English in high school for many years and that requires so very much work! Love that you make time to have kids do things for the joy of it.

  14. Thank you for the lovely feature Sherry ~ Goodness, I love to be in that classroom once more with Kerry as my teacher, smiles ~ I admire the platform to showcase your student's work Kerry ~ All the best to you and your students ~

  15. Hey Kerry and Sherry--what a wonderful interview. I so enjoyed hearing your methods, Kerry, and reading the poetry. I have really also enjoyed the blog of your students whenever visiting and should make an effort to visit more often. It is so inspiring to read these students whom one knows deal with all kinds of difficulties. At least they have a wonderful teacher. Thanks, you two! K. (Manicddaily)

    1. My students have really appreciated your commentary, karin. Thank you.

  16. Kerry, what a wonderful thing you are doing. You are gifting these students with some armor for life. I am certain their gratitude will sustain you always. Thank you Sherry for this inspirational conversation. I love knowing the strength and talent of today's youth.

  17. Wonderful to,read, I just wish I could have had a teacher that inspired me like this, but I guess the boys carry a bravado of faking to uninterested.. So many years I lost..

    1. I am often surprised when the boys read their poems so willingly to the class - they invariably write about love!

  18. Kudos to this innovative idea of inculcating love for poetry in the young minds. You are truly an inspiration Kerry. I think I'll try this out in my school too. And what great responses from the children!! Thanks for this great chat Sherry. Wow!!

    1. I would love to hear how that goes, Sumana. Good luck!

  19. Kudos to you from a fellow teacher! Excellent interview!

  20. Ah, it was a very emotional reading for me....felt myself in these students' shoes...thank you for sharing with us, Kerry and Sherry!

  21. Thanks to all for your wonderful comments (I feared I might have sounded bombastic). I would like to respond personally to each comment, but it will have to be at a later time since I have a Parents' Meeting tonight!

  22. Kerry thanks so much for your love for poetry and your desire to pass that love on to the next generation. One of my hopes before OSP disbanded was to create a forum for youth ( complicated but I hope there will come a time). Keep that alive dear poet!!!

    1. Kerry I failed to mention that your students are gifted and I appreciate your sharing (Im sure you wished you could show us more of their work).
      All the best

    2. Thank you for your generous response. My students' work is on the blog somewhere i have never travelled and Sherry has provided the link above.

  23. Thank you all for your interest and appreciation. These chats are a joy to do and I have a few more lining up for your enjoyment as the weeks go on......

  24. What a difference a great teacher can make....that investment of interest and the igniting of a spark....Kerry, it sounds like you are doing this with your students by giving them the opportunity to be exposed to and immersed in poetry in ways that will give them confidence and interest in it. Great interview. Thanks to both you and Sherry for sharing this with us!

  25. Wonderful interview, Sherry! (As always.) You are an amazing teacher, Kerry! Truly impacting your students' lives is a gift to be cherished. You are also one of the most talented poets I've ever read.

    1. Thanks Dani! It's good to know that my work speaks to you.

  26. It's wonderful to read what Kerry is up to in her work, and also those three very fine poems. How great for all concerned to live in such a rich poetic environment! And how great that you, Kerry, are creating so much of it.

  27. Kerry I love what you are doing encouraging creative writing and poetry...this is how I was turned onto poetry in 9th grade through a fun stuck with me forever. Sherry you have created another wonderful interview...thank you!

    1. It is amazing how little it takes to get kids writing and loving it.

  28. I like Kerry even more ... ;-)

  29. SO inspiring!! Thank you Kerry for ALL that you do...your life as a poet, teacher and woman in this world is such an inspiration.

    This reason for bringing poetry, "for the mental stimulus, the exercise it gives to the imagination, the way it helps them come to terms with their emotions in a creative way." such great reasons indeed.

    Your process for teaching poetry and the poetry from your students that you shared is amazing...thank you for sharing what poetry means in your life as a teacher and to your students as well.

    Gratitude to you, Sherry for bringing us this chat!! What an excellent and worthy topic to bring to the surface.

  30. This is a really neat interview, Sherry. Kerry is such an inspiration to those kids as they develop their writing and communication skills. I can just imagine the diverse backgrounds of those kids.
    I wish that I had the opportunity and coaching that they have. My schools, grades 1-10, were one-room country schools (U.S. in rural Nebraska), with three being the highest number in my classes. That was high school, grades nine and ten.
    Kerry is good at getting people to write poetry that they wouldn't just sit down and write. She, along with her group of Toads bring diversity to poetry writing.
    I once read that a poet, a real poet, could write a poem about any subject, object, or idea presented to him/her. She tries to exercise us in those ways.
    Thank you, Sherry, and thank you, Kerry (and her Toads).

    1. I am always fascinated by your description of your school days, Jim. You must have had very fine teachers - I take my hat off to them.

  31. Kerry, I just noticed Hannah's quote and laughed. I was ready to quote some of the same words. These children are so lucky. They already have someone nudging them towards the critical thinking path, and in creative way! If they continue walking those steps, the rest will be incredible. I be your grin every time you see one of them discover their own kind of love for words.

    Sherry, this was yum!

  32. Wonderful interview Sherry and Kerry. Lovely peering into your passion as a teacher and the impact it has Kerry. The expression of poetry is a great lesson and channel to express for young people. I so loved reading these students poetry! :-)

  33. It is wonderful to read those poems from very talented young people whose clear voices resonate like crystal.
    Great interview!

  34. Just caught up with this, Kerry - Great work and inspiring too - all power to you... x


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