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Live Poets


My ninth graders, a class I hope to “use” in my portfolio, have just finished a poetry unit. They created booklets with wonderful covers, selected poems by and analyzed the work of both dead and live poets, and composed three original poems.

Now I have to grade them. The scene from “The Dead Poet’s Society” comes to mind, where Robin Williams as the maverick English teacher first has kids read a traditional critic’s theory on how to evaluate a poem using a graph, then encourages them to tear the page out of the text book.

I, however, can’t bring myself to rip out the pages of orthodoxy and stamp every kid's packet with an A. Call me a slave to the culture of achievement, but I feel a sense of obligation to put as much heart into evaluating their work as they put into doing it. That’s slavery of a different sort, perhaps, especially at a pressure cooker of a school like this one. Freshmen in particular don’t just go through the motions. They put soul into these things. That makes me want to go a step beyond letter grades in responding.

As a younger teacher, I might have felt the need to write a full page to each student. A weekend would be spent getting hand cramps as I cherished each assignment for twenty minutes. Now, I do things differently. Plus, it so happens I’m going to an inn this weekend with my wife. I want to think about fish and good food, not grading.

I’m not lazy. But I teach smarter than I used to. Now I see evaluation, even of poetry, as a means to keep the ball in play. Instead of putting a grade on things dutifully and with the full blown authority of the Teacher With Gold Stars, I like to make the grading process itself reinforce what we’ve studied. Eventually, a grade is required. But if we tease the process a bit, they learn more and I avoid martyrdom.

And so, with apologies to Robin William’s inspirational prep school teacher, I have created a rubric with which I will ask students to evaluate poetry. Along with assigning points, they’ll write comments, of course, reconsidering the concepts we’ve discussed along the way. Here's the section for the poems they wrote.

_____ Original Poetry (30)
o If formal, follows conventions of selected form (if free verse, does not have a rhyme scheme or rhythmic pattern)
o Line and stanza contribute to meaning
o Expressive, original, evocative
o Seems workshopped, shows the effects of revision and sustained effort
o Plays with language and sound to achieve freshness or a pleasing effect
o Uses rich imagery and other figurative language effectively
o Patterns of sound or layout enhance meaning
o Apparent control of language (mechanics, usage, grammar, spelling)
NOTE: See comments.

Earlier in the unit, seniors from the creative writing class came to visit with their own poetry portfolios and shared their work with my students. I’ll shlep the crate of booklets up to them, and I bet they’ll write even more comments. If they use the rubric as a guide, all the better.

The result? My students’ work has been received. They know that someone beyond the teacher’s desk has heard their voices, breathed air into their words. They’ll get a grade, at the end, but I think they’ll be more interested in what their readers have to say.

On my side of that desk, I’ll be able to plug a number into the computer grading program just in time for the end of the third quarter. But first, I’ll enjoy my weekend escape with the wife, returning rejuvenated for next week’s final push. To me, that’s sheer poetry.


Hi Emmett, I knew you when you were a "younger" teacher... you taught my son Erik, 11th grade IB, 2000, MVHS. Now here you are at TJ!!! A good place for you!
I suspect you will enjoy and be grateful for, this journey you have undertaken... Being so very good with words, I expect, you will use your gift with words/language to explore your teaching! To me this sounds like a win win. Best Wishes!

Hi Emmet,

I didn't know writing like that was acceptable. Shows how much I have to learn huh? Well, I am a new teacher so there, I've confessed. I am just looking around.

Wish you all the luck in the world.

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