I recently assigned a poetry project in my Advanced Language Arts class. Students had to find ten poems that had some significance to them either literal or figurative. I of course pre taught figurative language, stanzas, rhyme scheme, and how to interpret a poem. Then I let them have at the books of poems I grabbed from the library and poems they found online.
The biggest part of this assignment was they had to reflect on why they chose a poem identifying it’s meaning to them and supporting that with techniques the author used to help with the meaning of the poem. This was like pulling teeth for some students because most students are not taught how to read and interpret poetry. They are simply given the poem and told how to identify parts of the poem or the figurative language.
I personally love poetry and I write my own poems for fun. It’s an emotional outlet for me when I feel the need to scream, cry, yell, or just try to understand my own complex feelings. So when I teach this unit, I try to show students that poems are not just a jumble of words or weird paragraphs. I slow down in my teaching and really help them look at the poem on a deeper level. Students are in such a hurry to move onto the next thing and just have a straight answer in their school work, but I teach them how they can each have a different reaction to a poem. This drives some students insane, but my job is to teach them as humans we all have a different reaction to the things we read and we all bring something different to the table.
Fast forward to grading these projects and I started to notice this poem by Shel Silverstein over and over again:
Now just as a reminder I teach middle school students, so Silverstein’s poems are some of the more popular because they are easy to read, funny, and most kids can relate to what he is writing about. However, when I read their reflections for this poem I was impressed and amazed at what some of them had written:
“I can relate to this poem because I feel like I let other people’s words create the decisions I make. I feel like this is a bad trait to have but sometimes I can’t help it. This poem changed my perspective on how I look at the things I think compared to what other people think I should do. I have always been the insecure girl that lets people’s words get to her but I have come to realize that it won’t all be that bad if I just do what I think. In conclusion I think this is a very important poem because it could really teach people that they don’t need anyone else’s opinions on you.”
“No one besides you can make decisions for yourself.Only you can make your decisions because you know what’s best for you. This poem is about a voice telling you to do one thing, but you know deep down that you need to follow your heart and your mind. I have had this happen where someone is doing something that I don’t want to do, but I feel like in order to fit in I should do it. I always follow my heart and know I shouldn’t do it though. In conclusion, I need to make decisions for myself and not listen to others’ opinions.”
“Sometimes the voice inside you is more powerful than your brain that tells you what’s wrong and right, or your parents advise. This poem is about how you sometimes have to stop listening to everyone else and start making decisions for yourself. I like the end rhyme and the imagery. I relate to this poem because sometimes I have to stop listening to everybody else and listen to what I am thinking. This poem makes me feel good inside because it is telling you a very important lesson. You have to consider what you are saying, not just take the advice of what everyone else is saying.”
And this one is from a kid who I know has some of their own demons they are working on, but is starting to succumb to them: (edited)
“I picked this poem because the message of it is about your conscience and I feel I have a very strong conscience. This poem is about your conscience and to listen to it…I also liked how the author used quotation marks to make it seem like the person is aiming towards your conscience speaking…”
So what is my point in sharing this with you? Our kids are crying out for help to listen to this voice and not be influenced by others or “the cool” thing to do type of people. They are wanting to find a way to listen to their own subconscious when it comes to decision making. Yet, I know for a fact the last student lets the pressures of bad influences get inside their head and causes them to make poor decisions. That students would rather have some sort of title as a “badass” than a “smart kid.” These students want and desire a way to make their own positive decisions for themselves, but they struggle because of all the noise happening outside their subconscious- sports, school, peers, social media, constant connection to people…
How do we help our kids disconnect from the world outside of them and listen to what is going in their head? How can we as parents and teachers help them understand the weight of their decisions? It starts with teaching them executive functioning skills. We often don’t take the time to teach our students how to make decisions or slow down long enough to make a proper choice. As adults, we just make these decisions and we make a million decisions throughout our day. Our students don’t know how to do this because we haven’t explicitly taught them how to do this. We can start out with small decisions they need to make with us and then start to add in bigger decisions to help them really understand how to make a conscious decision regarding an activity, vacation, or consequence.
I am not suggesting you sit down with your student and say, “Today we are going to make a decision. Step one…” I am suggesting you work through the problem of making a tough choice with them, allow them to use you as a soundboard and create an open line of communication. This will allow them to feel like they can come to you and open up about issues they are having with peers or at school, and it will allow them to practice make decisions in a safe place so if and when they are in a spot where they need to make a quick decision among peers they can be confident in doing that.
Really what it comes down to is being present with our kids in moments when they are struggling. Let them know you are a safe place to fall when it comes to making decisions and looking at the influences in their world.