Skip Navigation

No Poets Left Behind

K-12 students are adapting to completing their curriculum from their bedrooms against the backdrop of the snowballing social, physical, and mental traumas caused by COVID-19. They’re missing their friends; they’re fatigued by gazing on a gallery of glum Zoom-held faces; many of them are coping with the loss of family and friends as a result of the virus. The confinement of the home space is a petri dish of uncomfortable emotions, anxiety, and boredom intermingling to induce detrimental results for student mental health. This uniquely acute sense of isolation requires the adaptation of curriculum to be more supportive of student struggles and mental health, which is exactly where creative writing can step in. 

Reading poetry is a useful implementation in an English curriculum when attention spans are short, as they often are now in the age of “Zoom Fatigue.” Research from Harvard and Oxford found that the ever-present cascade of information and notifications brought on by the Internet incline us to divide our attention rather than focusing on one task at a time. Princeton neuroscience professor Sabine Kastner has also suggested that when subjected to Zoom’s “Brady-bunch like” gallery view of an entire class, it becomes extremely difficult to focus on the person talking like one would in a face-to-face conversation. 

It therefore becomes important to respect the already-sapped reservoir of focus students have for overwhelming amounts of text or stimuli. Rather than compelling high school students to plow through a 400 page novel, presenting a poem—which can come just as loaded with new vocabulary, historical context to discuss, and formal considerations—can prove a more effective tool for capturing the attention spans and imaginations of students in our current cultural moment. 

Poetry doesn’t require spelling correctly (see Jos Charles’s feeld), word counts (Paradise Lost: 11,000 lines; “Dreams” by Langston Hughes: 8 lines), or even words at all (see Susan Howe’s Debths). In a time when little makes sense, it can be a tremendously helpful tool for students to use the vehicle of poetry to express their frustration, anxiety, loneliness, and little joys in less conventional, grammatically-focused ways. In other words, poetry’s format—or lack thereof—is better suited towards accommodating and conveying overwhelming emotions.

Poetry can also be used as an antidote to the psychological strain brought onto students by Zoom interactions. A variety of fields have come forward to suggest the causes of “Zoom Fatigue”; it has been proposed that everything from delays in audio that diminish the psychological sense of reward typically derived from interpersonal communication to the unsettling nature of viewing large images of classmates and colleagues can harm students’ educational experiences by making them feel uncomfortable. In the absence of normal social synchronization, poetry creates an additional avenue for connecting to one another in a way that’s more personal. Students can read their poems aloud or send them in the chat, accommodating various levels of Internet access; they can exchange work and provide feedback to each other, giving students a sense of kinship not as easily attained in a math or science class. 

There is a large body of work on the positive impacts of art therapy that deals with traumatic experience, which the pandemic is deemed to be for many. While children are a less common target of the virus itself, they are enduring tremendous amounts of trauma and loss in some of the most formative years of their lives. This is true especially for low-income children, many of whom have been cut off from their primary sources of food, water, social interaction, and physical activity in being sent home from school. 

Research on art therapy with child victims of Hurricane Katrina has suggested that the arts are particularly effective in healing trauma because they are not necessarily verbal. When neurological trauma occurs, memories cling to the nonverbal areas of the limbic system rather than the analytical or verbal regions of the brain. Art and poetry don’t require a concrete thought process or a grammatically correct sentence; simply a feeling, or a reason for writing. In the throes of the coronavirus, there is—and will always be—an abundance of both. 

The question is whether schools will allow student voices (especially marginalized student voices) to speak louder than the standard metrics for school success. There are myriad studies and reports on the positive impacts of arts education on kids, particularly in low-income districts. Yet when public school pockets shrink, arts are often first on the chopping block. What does this say about the US as a country—and as a country of learners? 

Individualism and freedom of expression have often been touted as core beliefs of American life. However, government funding is focused where standardized testing results bloom. Schools under the threat of closure if their students don’t pass the testing metrics put in place by No Child Left Behind have incentive to focus on their English, Math, and Science programs; thus, art is often mistaken for an extraneous elective and gets left in the dust.

COVID-19 has backed schools into unusually deep budget corners, causing subjects to be pitted against each other as departments fight for funding. There have been 1.4 million job losses in education in April and May alone; 350,000 in September 2020 alone. Media coverage of the fallout demonstrates that no region of the US has been left unscathed. However,  certain school subjects are taking it harder than others – unsurprisingly, the arts bearing the brunt

For low-income schools that already had to whittle down their curriculums to minimize art and music programs, this often means the elimination of such programs entirely. Because a large part of “arts proficiency” is based on access—to theaters, to instruments, to private lessons—this is especially pertinent for poor students. An NAEP study on arts education access shows that 55 percent of high-income students have a musical instrument while 38 percent of low-income students do; 9 percent of low-income students had taken private lessons in contrast to 17 percent of their high-income classmates. This is a major disparity in access to crucial creative outlets between socioeconomic groups. 

Cuts to arts programs and electives in general are primarily on the table in districts largely made up of low-income students, students of color, and students from rural areas. These cuts may not occur in more affluent districts, and take away valuable time and materials to learn about and create art from students who suffer the loss of their art program, thus driving the arts education gap wider. Ingenuity’s annual State of the Arts Report for 2018-19—before the pandemic hit—reported that 35 percent of students in Chicago’s school district, primarily low-income students of color, did not have access to adequate arts education. It also showed a 10 percent drop from the 2017-18 report in resources and support available to arts teachers. With the budget blows taken from COVID-19, these statistics can only be expected to worsen, and progress in arts education access made in previous years difficult to sustain. 

Creative writing often escapes similar arts budget cuts because it is typically already included (though only to a limited degree) in the English curriculum, a core subject that is seldom cut from schools. By maintaining poetry as a tenet of English, schools can make space for art to be regarded just as “core” as other subjects. Poems are available to read—or listen to—for free on the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poets websites, saving money on purchasing books to distribute and making them an easy economic substitute for longer texts. Commonly-taught rhetorical tools like pathos/ethos/logos, simile, and metaphor fit seamlessly into a poetry lesson because these tools, among others, are the pillars upon which poetry rests.

Other free-of-charge methods for including poetry in English curriculums include encouraging student involvement in extracurricular poetry activities. Poetry Out Loud, for example, is a National Endowment of the Arts competition for poetry performance. The competition distributes free educational materials, can be participated in virtually or in person, and is oriented towards helping students “master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life”. Students who enter also have the opportunity to win money. Creative writing competitions and programs like Poetry Out Loud are tremendously useful ways to expand student participation in poetry without having to rearrange much curriculum. 

But most importantly, poetry elevates students’ voices and allows them to articulate their feelings about a global experience that has altered the landscape of their childhood forever. By cutting the arts, students lose the few healing methods they have available to them within the alienating and difficult sphere of online classes. Students are doing school from home to protect their physical health; it is crucial that everything possible is done to protect their mental health just the same. 

Photo: Image via Flickr (Ryan Adams)