Exciting news: The Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Regional program has just awarded a $20,000 grant to the Academy of American Poets to support the addition of resources from the Library’s collections to the Academy’s Teach This Poem series for the 2019-2020 school year. In celebration of this news, I asked Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jen Benka a few questions about Teach This Poem and its new connection to the Library of Congress.
Tell us a bit about Teach This Poem—the genesis of the feature, and its reach.
Thanks, I’d be happy to. Teach This Poem is a key offering in our suite of free educational resources for K-12 teachers on Poets.org. Launched in fall 2015, this weekly publication features a poem from our online collection; a related primary source; classroom activities; and a link to the poet’s biography and other related information.
The series grew out of a conversation at a meet-up the Academy of American Poets hosted with high school English Teachers and 4th grade teachers working on social studies curricula in New York City to workshop our poetry lesson plans. A teacher remarked that while she loved Poem-a-Day, she wished that we could offer more poems geared toward younger readers. For those who don’t know Poem-a-Day is a series we publish that presents new work by today’s poets, Monday through Friday, which is distributed by email, social media, syndication, and on Poets.org to more than 400,000 readers. Building on the teacher’s comments and other ideas that resulted from the meet-up, we developed Teach This Poem.
Our expectations were modest at first. We thought if we could serve 2,000 teachers we’d feel like we were making a positive contribution. Today, Teach This Poem has more than 32,000 subscribers and last year it won the Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation.
What will you focus on from the Library’s collections for this feature? And how will it promote the use of primary sources in understanding poetry?
Firstly, we couldn’t be more thrilled about having support from the Library of Congress and the opportunity to showcase your collection to the educators we serve. Thanks to this new grant we will produce twenty Teach This Poem packages that feature primary sources from the Library of Congress collections (we will produce forty packages in total throughout the school year). For the series, we curate the poems to feature that address timely topics as much as possible and then identify primary sources that speak to the poem and amplify the topic. We expect to feature primary sources including images of paintings, maps, photographs, music, and short film clips, among others. These primary sources will provide an important entry point for students to understand the topics and enhance their reading of the poems by providing historical and other contexts. Together the poem and primary source will also experientially engage students with the art of poetry; demonstrate that there are a number of ways to interpret a poem; and help students develop a “poetic sensibility”—the ability to see what’s behind the words, take imaginative leaps, and begin to employ creative and critical thinking skills.
What does it mean for the Academy of American Poets to connect to the Library of Congress in this way? Of course, you’ve had all sorts of connections with our Poets Laureate.
We feel like there is wonderful alignment between our institutions. Poets.org, one of the top poetry websites in the world, with tens of millions of visits annually, has been cited as an “exemplary resource for the collection of art and literature for a general public” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and a Best Website for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians. As the primary organization offering such free resources to teachers (we started this work in the 1960s when Robert Frost encouraged our founder Marie Bullock to “get poetry into the high schools”), the Academy of American Poets is well-positioned to feature primary sources from our nation’s greatest collection. The bounty of materials the Library of Congress maintains and makes available is an incredible contribution to lifelong learning and the preservation of historical and cultural artifacts that define our national identity.
And, as you note, our institutions have enjoyed a wonderful history beginning in 1937, with many of the U.S. Poets Laureate also being Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. We’ve always been proud to help champion and support those poets’ efforts. And we’re excited to now have an opportunity to encourage educators to Teach This Poem and the Library of Congress’s collection.