Monday, February 05, 2007

Chaucer, Beowulf, Literature and...Assessment

I went to a poetry reading last Saturday night at a local bookstore (Northside Book Market) here in Iowa City. So, you thought all us psychometrician types were accountants, engineers or mathematics majors who could not find real jobs? Well, I will have you know that I am trained in Middle English, studied Beowulf, and can recite the Prolog from the Canterbury Tales. But I digress. During this poetry reading, provided by our local anarchist who happens to be living and teaching in China now (go figure), it occurred to me that much of my school experience, both in high school and undergraduate, were filled with classic literature and poetry. Yet, seldom do we measure classics or poetry on either the NCLB assessments or end-of-course assessments that we are all so familiar with. Why is that? We have reading passages that are expository, narrative, informative, and technical, yet few, if any, poems. Is it because we don't value such readings? I doubt it. Just search online for references to Edgar Allen Poe (1.2 million hits) or e. e. cummings (also 1.2 million hits) and see what you find.

I fear that our lack of measuring poetry may be tied to many things. First, it is likely harder to teach than simple reading—which is not simple at all. Certainly it would be harder to measure because the construct of poetry is at least one part art, one part text and one part interpretation. Second, it may not be valued as much now as an academic subject as it was when I was in school. Like Latin, it may have fallen into that "don't really need it anymore" category. Third, it could be because some people don't like schools fooling around with areas close to emotion and passion. A politically insensitive poem is like rap or heavy metal music—something to avoid if possible. Yet such creativity, expression and passion are just what most English Langauage Arts instructors talk about when describing what they want their students to achieve. The rest of us talk about spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Regardless of the reasons, poetry and in many ways other arts are not being assessed and I speculate are not being taught as much anymore. Tis a pitty, to quote Poe, that "...when his strength failed him at length he met a pilgrim shadow. 'Shadow', said he, 'where can it be, this land of Eldorado? Over the mountains of the moon and down the valley of shadow, ride boldly ride', the shadow replied, 'if you seek for Eldorado.'" Poetry might now be relegated to Eldorado.

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