In 2017, poet Sarah Holbrook was excited to learn that two of her poems were chosen to appear on the 7th and 8th grade Texas state standardized test. On a lark, Holbrook tried answering the multiple-choice questions about her own poems. She got every question wrong. Asked about it afterwards, she wondered how kids could possibly be expected to answer questions about her poems that even she got wrong. Poems, she pointed out, aren’t black and white. Even to the person who wrote them.
Holbrook’s story generates questions not just about standardized testing, but about what is worth learning and teaching, and what counts as knowing. During the pandemic, these questions have taken on fresh urgency and primacy as students, teachers and parents wade through COVID learning and its byproducts. We’re all enduring an exhausting sense of isolation (even as high schools welcome more students back in person), a collective and persistent worry about kids “falling behind,” and the challenges of meeting students’ deeper and wider educational and emotional needs.
Given the existential and practical enormity of this to-do list, it seems bewildering to many that high school sophomores (along with 4th and 8th graders) are taking the MCAS this week. The state insisted, eventually making some compromises; some teachers and families still refused.
It was the local, pandemic iteration of the nationwide debate about high stakes testing that’s raged on for years, with the same questions in sharper relief: Do standardized tests measure what we think they measure? What about skills and subjects that don’t lend themselves to summative assessment? Where is the test, for instance, that can tell us about students’ developing habits-of-mind — qualities like insight and wisdom, artistic sensibility, empathy or even common sense?
[Poetry] increases students’ tolerance for ambiguity, and helps them to embrace paradox.
During my 27 years teaching high school English, my worry has been this: If states decide they can’t measure certain subjects, skills and habits of mind efficiently (or at all), does that mean those things get scrubbed from the curriculum? Judging by the paring and pruning of curriculum and instruction over the last couple decades — driven by federal reforms, state testing, and the state “common core” frameworks — I’m afraid the answer is yes. I’m afraid that just when students need the comfort and challenge of poetry the most, our (adult) panic about falling behind will make us more metrics-obsessed and reductive.
We can learn a lot about the short-sightedness of public education policy by looking at the near-extinction of poetry within the typical American high school classroom. Americans are reading less in general — and much less poetry -- than they ever have. Teachers are spending less time on poetry; and when they do, they rarely have time to help students grapple with paradox, develop their ear for language, do close and careful reading, or just wonder and appreciate.
When we ask multiple choice questions about a poem, we’re asking questions about the surface features of a poem, not the poem itself. It can’t be otherwise. It’s like asking students to name the objects on the cover of a great album without letting them listen to the songs on it — and then calling them good listeners if they name the objects correctly.
We apply input/output functions in an attempt to quantify students’ “mastery” of literature and the humanities, retrofitting complex questions with boilerplate answers. This forces our students to settle for shallow, when they want to go deep. This reduction plays out in the classroom every time a teacher has to rush through a poem to “cover” poetic terminology, or present a poem as fact rather than truth. In the case of literature, the arts and the humanities — all subjects that challenge us to be wary of singular or facile answers (what Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”) — this test-driven approach has flattened learning and sidelined poetry and the arts.
Yet, if you gave me a group of kids — including my own teenagers — and told me that I could use only one thing to teach them, it would be poetry. Research and experience show me that reading poetry makes people better thinkers. Poetry, like other arts, cultivates the habits of mind required of a good citizen in a healthy democracy. It increases students’ tolerance for ambiguity, and helps them to embrace paradox.
Poetry teaches students to persevere in the face of confusion, to read closely and return to the source. I had one student tell the class that a challenging poem pissed her off in the same way she’d be mad at a boyfriend during a fight. In both situations, she said, she had to learn to pause, walk away and come back with new eyes. Complicated people and poems can be worth working at, and worth loving.
Complicated people and poems can be worth working at, and worth loving.
Research tells us that students who read poetry regularly read other things better and more closely. They become what the educational theorist Elliot Eisner called “connoisseurs and critics.” Poetry can teach us empathy and keep us company. One of my favorite poems to teach (and a student favorite, too) is “Accident, Mass. Ave.” by the Boston poet Jill McDonough. It’s a profane and sacred call to empathy — a challenge to see the humanity of our antagonists, and our own cosmic predicament, long enough to come up for air.
One of the silver linings of pandemic learning is the chance to revisit long-held assumptions about schooling, to ask big questions, and clarify what’s important as we rebuild. As we engage in this collective taking-stock about what it means to be a learned person and about the role of school in young people’s lives, we should keep poetry firmly in mind, and firmly in place in the classroom.
We owe teenagers company in their uncertainty, including the companionship of poets whose inclination to question and observe the human condition mirrors their own. We owe them time spent with language in its highest form, especially now.