Last April, the 7th grade writing workshop I teach at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School studied an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. Today, the group struts around the school, reciting lines from the poem: “We were very tired, we were very merry–, We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”
Writers in Baltimore Schools partnered with Parallel Octave, a Baltimore-based improvising chorus to make recordings of poems. Two poets and a musician came into our 7th grade workshop at Margaret Brent and led students through a discussion, choral reading, and recording of two poems. We worked with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” and Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”
Parallel Octave seeks to infuse English-language poetry with the stuff of Greek choruses. They bring poems to life with human voices and music, all through the trial-and-error of improvisation. In our workshop, students went around the circle and each read a stanza out loud. We read and re-read the poems until our voices came to carry the poem’s emotion. Then we added the chorus. Students chimed in to enhance certain lines or echoed a few beats behind the main speaker. During a reading, I watched my students exchange glances–haunted almost. They’d brought the poem to life.
I’m convinced that Parallel Octave has come up with a brilliant pedagogical method. Over the course of the workshop, I watched reluctant readers grow in their confidence. Each time students read a stanza, they spoke with less hesitation. Students first read as a group and then split into individual parts, which allowed them to practice together and then give it a try on their own. They embraced words they’d only recently learned. They read with expression–something I find rare in reluctant readers. Multiple readings of the poem allowed students to play with tempo and cadence.
Let’s bring Parallel Octave into more classrooms and bring words to life for young readers. Words should be tangible, living things. Too often, in school reading activities are things students have to slog though, detached from speech and the vibrant world of language. Look at the numbers: in 2010, between the grades of 5 and 8, the percentage of students scoring proficient on MSA reading assessments dropped by 20%. We need to teach literature in a way that will get students attached to words, addicted to words, and will have them reciting poetry months later.