Reflections on Teaching A Poetry Course to Seniors

By Linda Hallstrom

A friend and I recently facilitated a four-session course designed to introduce people to poetry writing and help them decide whether poetry is a hobby they might enjoy. During the course, I shared my thoughts from the perspective of a person who likes to write poems. My co-presenter, Dr. Rosanne Kirts, brought her experience as an educator to structure the sessions and facilitate productive discussions. We are in the process of reviewing our lesson plans as we prepare to offer the course again in the spring of 2022. Some of our ideas worked better than others, but we have an encouraging list of “keepers.”

(1) We focused on one age group. The course was offered to Gold Card members through the Sioux Falls School District’s office of Community Education. In other words, our participants were at least 60 years old. Having participants all be of a similar age provided quick connections in terms of life experiences.

(2) We kept the class size small. Our original plan was to limit class size to 12. We had seven people enroll and learned that eight is a better enrollment limit than 12. With 90-minute sessions, eight or fewer participants allows time for each person to read a poem and receive comments. In addition, the 90 minutes included basic instruction and information for the next session.

(3) We asked participants to write free verse. We wanted participants to focus on the power of vocabulary, description, and imagery. For that reason, we asked that poems be free verse rather than rhyme to avoid having writers look for rhyming words rather than carefully selected words. We talked about such elements of free verse as rhythm, metaphor, simile, repetition, and alliteration.

(4) We encouraged rather than critiqued. After a participant shared a poem, our first questions were “What do you like about what you’ve written? What is the best line in your poem?” We guided participants to comment on what they liked about each other’s poetry. Our goal was for writers to discover their strengths and develop confidence. For those who might choose to continue writing, we explained that they would find resources that would offer critiques and suggestions: poetry courses, workshops, and writers’ groups.

(5) We enjoyed laughter. Although the subjects that participants shared were often serious and thought-provoking, that room frequently rocked with laughter. We took laughing together as a sign that people were trusting each other and enjoying the experience.

(6) We provided snacks. A few chocolate chip cookies, a pot of coffee, and some bottled water provided a feeling of hospitality and helped to build an environment of acceptance.

Bottom line:  Participants shared more deeply personal reflections than we had anticipated– sorrows, joys, and memories. We heard touching strength, emotion, and skill in what was shared.

As facilitators we gained as much, and undoubtedly more, than the participants.

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