Beginning National Poetry Month on the Right Note

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”

–Victor Hugo

Among the many things that I love about Austin, I really appreciate the tremendous talent here and the often small-town feel.  A few months ago I had the pleasure of lending some female vocals to a cover band comprised entirely of Ultimate players.  Had I known the level of talent and professionalism of the other people in the group, I may have been too intimidated to accept the invitation.  Thankfully, I lived in blissful ignorance until rehearsals began, and it was too late to back out! 

Among the fray of frisbee/music people was a pair of brothers who make up half of the Austin band, Full Service.  Hoag and Bonesaw are ridiculously talented, but they’re also incorrigibly funny, generous with praise, and admirably positive.  Following our show, I checked out their website (and you should, too!) and learned a few key things right off the bat:

  1. Their most recent album is an acoustic turn titled Roaming Dragons.  
  2. Their next tour is acoustic and entirely fan-booked.
  3. This fall they did a show in an English classroom that doubled as a lesson on lyrical interpretation.

This chance meeting, crossed with these facts, led up to a very exciting start to National Poetry Month in my class.

As luck would have it, I was just about to start a seven-week unit on poetry when I stumbled into the Full Service circle.  And I hadn’t planned so much as a day of the curriculum yet.  It had occurred to me to infuse the lessons with music, though, so it seemed that this opportunity was too good to pass up.

Enter Bonesaw, who not only taught middle school history for several years prior to starting the band, but who also functions as the structure of the Full Service system.  In just a few days he and I set a date, and I put a plan in place to bring the guys into the classroom. 

In the weeks that followed, I worked with my students on poetic beat, meter, and rhythm.  We used poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Frost, Shel Silverstein and others to discuss tone, mood, theme, symbolism and imagery.  Then I introduced the Full Service music and lyrics (focusing on Roaming Dragons), and the lessons came alive.  The kids completely bought in.  The combination of poetry and sound was an ideal way to analyze tone (the feelings of the author) and mood (the emotion created in the reader), and there’s simply nothing like music playing in a classroom.  It was like daily therapy.  And trust me–coming from a middle school teacher, that’s really saying something.

The fact that the band came in on April 1st—the first day of National Poetry Month—was sheer coincidence.  But it was perfect.  The 90-minute “in-school field trip” flew by.  The kids were engrossed, and I joked later that they made me look good with their attentiveness and insightful questions.  They prompted Hoag to identify the symbolism behind his lyrics on the album’s title track.  At one point there was an impromptu haiku war (think seventeen-syllable rap battle), as requested by a particularly feisty student.  The discussion ranged from intense, like the actual emotions and experiences that inspired “Rocketships,” to playful, like the audience participation in “Chickens” and “Trumpets” and the Snow White reference in “Hi Ho.”  The band made poetry relatable and approachable for the kids with their down-to-earth attitudes and easy rapport with the audience.  In short, it became personal.  It wasn’t just academic material anymore; it meant something to them.

It was difficult to go back to a regular lesson, to say the least.

The student response following the show was overwhelmingly positive, and it was clear to me that they’d really connected emotionally with the material.  I realized that it was an academic experience many of them will never forget, and of course my hope, then, is that they’ll remember the skills and literary elements that went along with it.  The merging of music and poetry made the curriculum resonate with them, to the point where they were truly entertained.  Both the kids and the Full Service foursome of Bonesaw, Hoag, Smell and Twinky-P brought sheer joy to the activity.

The best writing makes the reader feel and connect, and poetry is no exception.  There’s no question in my mind that, on the first day of National Poetry Month, my students had an emotional experience.  What more could I ask for?

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