Sips and Sonnets: A Poetry Night for ESL Students

Sips and Sonnets: A Poetry Night for ESL Students

The Big Idea

It was Halloween, and, because I’m really just an oversized ten-year-old, I didn’t want to work. I wanted to yell “Trick or treat!” at people and get candy. I wanted to go bobbing for apples. I wanted to sit on the front porch and watch all the little munchkins go by in their cute little costumes.

Gareth reading poetry to ESL students
Gareth explaining Old English poetry

Alas, this is not acceptable behavior in the adult workplace, and I had to satisfy myself with preparing some Halloween games and songs for my children’s classes. While we were prepping for our classes, I turned to one of my fellow English instructors, Gareth, and joked, “Do you think I could get away with reading ‘The Raven’ to all of my groups today?”

He laughed at me, then said, “You know, we could do a spooky poetry night.” We floated some ideas around, but, unfortunately, it was too late to organize a Halloween reading. It was, after all, five o’clock in the evening on Halloween. We thought about doing something in November, but we couldn’t figure out what we wanted to do quickly enough, and it got pushed back to December. November came and went, and everybody got excited about Christmas and doing Christmas things, and it got pushed back to January. Finally, in January, we got down to business.

The main idea behind this ESL poetry night was to show our students what English poetry sounded like. We, as teachers, spend a great deal of time helping people decode grammar and vocabulary in English, and we spend next to no time sharing the beauty of English with our students. Gareth and I both studied English language and literature in college, and one of our Polish-speaking coworkers did so as well. Between the three of us, we figured that we could make at least some English literature accessible to our students and show them how English speakers do language art.

“The fog comes on little cat fee.”

Honestly, the ESL poetry night went about as well as any of the three of us imagined it would. Let’s face it, poetry can be intimidating, even in your native tongue. Plus, there was a snowstorm that night. Even so, we ended up with about ten students, including some beginner-level students. All of them were very interested and enthusiastic about what we were doing. We had prepared sheets with all of the poems we were going to read, and our students were studying them as we read through and explained the poems. After the reading, everyone was very excited to discuss what had just happened. We even had a couple students prepare a translation of one of their favorite Polish poems to share with the group. They were too nervous to read the English translation, so Gareth read it, but they were more than happy to read the Polish version aloud and let us native English speakers hear the music of Polish poetry.

British Poetry

Even though we both studied English language and literature in college, Gareth and I had different backgrounds with regards to the study of literature. He had a more classical education, studying Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, and Middle English, along with Modern English. My education focused more on Modern English, and so that’s how we divvied it up.

Having studied Old English and Middle English at university, Gareth was able to read parts of Beowulf and medieval lays out loud for us to hear, and he did a great job. One of the students told me afterwards that he could hear the warrior-ness of the Anglo-Saxon in the language (I’m fairly certain that’s an actual critical term). Another student asked where she could find more Old English readings. I’m telling you, if you’ve never heard Beowulf read in the original Old English, you’re in for a treat. The Middle English was interesting for the students too, because they could see the progression in the language, and they could start to recognize some of the words. Gareth also did his best to explain that Middle English is where most of the funny spellings in English come from, which hopefully cleared up some phonetic confusion for them.

For any of you who are curious about Old and Middle English, I suggest you check out YouTube. We English nerds have definitely made a contribution to that particular website.


American Poetry

For my bit, I focused mainly on American poets from the twentieth century, for three simple reasons.

  • First: I’m American. I feel like, having lived in the City of Big Shoulders, I can explain Carl Sandburg as well as anyone else.
  • Second: Most people who study English literature study British authors. Think about it. Who are some of the most famous poets in English? Shakespeare. Byron. Yeats. I wanted to do something that my students wouldn’t normally think of if they were going to look up English poetry.
  • Third: Twentieth-century American poets are a direct reaction to the highly formal, stylized poetry that classic English writers used, which means that it’s both on the opposite end of the spectrum from what Gareth was sharing, and very simple grammatically. It’s poetry of merit that’s grammatically accessible – even for English speakers, it’s much simpler and less intimidating than Shakespeare or Yeats.

Personally, I think we did pretty well. We managed to give a rather good overview of English language arts in about three or three and a half hours. Considering that there were at least ten years of university-level English language study in that room that night, that’s extremely impressive (we English majors are not known for our brevity). We mourned Beowulf; compared Shakespeare’s love to a summer’s day; refused to stop for Death; and dreamt a dream within a dream. We stopped in the woods on a snowy evening; watched the fog roll off Lake Michigan; questioned why God made the fly; and sang with the caged bird. The powerful play went on, and our ESL poetry night contributed some verses (including some original pieces by Gareth!).

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