05/22/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Embracing Ambiguity in the Poetry Classroom

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On an ordinary March morning, 16 New York City English teachers gathered to discuss poetry with the legendary Billy Collins, thanks to a master class hosted by The Academy For Teachers, an organization that re-infuses teachers with a passion for their subject matter. I love poetry on a personal level but on several occasions have secretly wondered if it is in fact a "teachable" genre of writing in the high school classroom.

Like many teachers, I pitch poetry around my classroom precariously, like it's an egg toss at a child's birthday party. I don't want to drop it, turn it, or spend too long holding on to it.
Although Mr. Collins pointed out that there was a cumulative 200+ years of teaching experience seated around the table, most of us weren't sure we were teaching poetry well. Even Collins seemed perplexed about how to teach poetry to adolescents, which was both refreshing and reassuring of how difficult the task is.

Still, he offered a lot of advice on the subject. His main message was to stop obsessing over it. Rather than always trying to draw "the answer" from our students, let them sit with the words.

This reminded me of his own poem, "Introduction To Poetry" in which he writes of teachers and students alike:

"But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means."

And isn't he right? Aren't we, as teachers, possessed by the idea of making meaning of everything in our classrooms? Don't we usually feel that ambiguity is our worst enemy? What if no one "gets" the poems? Collins, in contrast, spoke lovingly of ambiguity, as if it were a friend; that ambiguity is something our kids need.

From the time they prepare for their first test, they are told to find the right answer that will get them a "4." (We may tell them that although there is more than one right answer, there is almost always a "best" answer.) Teachers are scared to let kids just enjoy the ambiguity of poetry and so we teach it to death, or even worse, don't teach it at all.

My colleagues around the table lit up with joy and curiosity as we delved into the works of great poets like Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. We were exploring these poems with new eyes because Billy Collins gave us permission to delight in the sheer pleasure of language. There was no test to follow, no rationalizing our discussion, just a celebration of language in a way I hadn't experienced in a long time.

I returned to my classroom renewed and reminded that sharing poetry is one of the greatest gifts I can offer and there is no prescribed way to do it. I enjoy teaching it now, and feel reborn as a poet, a reader of poetry and a teacher.