The Web Poetry Project seems to me one of a few good marriages of technology and instructional need in English. I needed the Web in order to give my class a dramatic sense of the vitality and variety inherent in the enterprise of poetry today among both writers and readers. This is a sense that my students couldn't have achieved as efficiently or vividly without the Web. I also wanted students to appreciate the kinds, qualities, contexts, and writers of poetry through active learning -- here, collecting, evaluating, and explaining their own selections and publishing them for a real-world audience. While helping to fulfill these educational requirements, the technology also solved some problems of teaching a general poetry unit, such as the lack of a bound anthology both diverse and portable enough to work well for all students, and the copyright difficulties attendant on the alternative of making photocopied handouts (gathering permissions from multiple publishers is onerous and time-consuming).
The project -- exploring the Web, gathering poems, and writing introductions:
Creating these Web Poetry Books took approximately two weeks, starting with two class sessions in the computer lab and ending with one. Students do not need their own laptops to do this project (or any computer-based activity in English). In the lab, students used worksheets I designed to guide them through various Internet links connected to a page of selected poetry links. Net-surfing was forbidden.
So that all students would get their hands on actual books of poems, the class spent a period in the school library, where we browsed the poetry shelves -- each student checked out a volume by a poet mentioned somewhere on the Web poetry sites.
After students found the poems they wanted for their e-anthologies, each set about writing an 800-1000-word introduction to his or her collection. While at the school library we had glanced at poetry anthologies to see how editors differently approach the task of writing introductory essays. I chose several anthology introductions, photocopied them for students to use as models, and set the following requirements -- each of these features was exemplified somewhere in the handout of model introductions:
Problems and other observations:
Explain why your theme (or other basis that you used for selecting poems) might be meaningful or important to readers of literature. Explain why your theme (or other category) is personally meaningful or important to you. Include personal anecdotes and scenes like those in the sample introductions. Explain why you arranged the poems in the order you chose. Mention at least one particular poet in your introduction. Briefly discuss 2-3 particular poems. Briefly discuss at least 1 block-quoted passage from your poems. At least twice, weave a short quotation from a poem into your sentence (use slashes to mark line breaks).
Formatting for Internet posting: In helping students format their anthologies for publication on the Web, I focused on verbal, logical, literary, and editing matters, and I minimized fuss with colors, graphics, gadgets, bells & whistles. Still, formatting was a time-consuming chore for both students and teacher. Educators who imagine that a project like this is a good general way of showcasing student work are seriously mistaken; posting student work on bulletin boards would be a more efficient method. A project like this one is an appropriate use of educational time only if "live" links to Web resources are logically essential features in the students' pages of discourse.
Using computers: It's also important to remember that a computer is not "just another tool" to use in the English classroom -- the pedagogical choice isn't like, say, choosing between pencils and highlighters for annotation or between handouts and overhead projections for class discussion purposes. The demands that computers make far exceed those made by other aids to instruction in English. Computers have frequent unforeseeable technical difficulties, and they require more time to use than other instructional resources. Except for rewriting papers, which is obviously facilitated by computers, virtually every computer activity in English demands the surrender of time that might better be spent on another endeavor.
Necessary sacrifices: To make time for this project I had to give up assignments that ask students to write poetry while reading it -- a reliable way of developing deep insights from an insider's perspective into how poems work and of helping students discover or develop a talent they might not have known they possessed. Moreover, much of the time my past classes spent on reading a few differently excellent, carefully sequenced poems in focused, intensive ways that made them memorable was spent this year on skimming dozens of miscellaneous poems, mediocre as well as wonderful, to find ones that individually happened to "click." Students admitted, too, that in order to complete their collections on time they sometimes just threw in a few poems that happened to fit their theme, without careful or critical reading.
Students kept all worksheets and the drafts of their introductions in folders. Assessment of each project was based on the quality of the student's editorial introduction, the thoroughness of the search process as demonstrated in worksheets, and the level of editing skills as shown in the drafts. The choices students made among poems were entirely their own and not subject to my assessment.
My students enjoyed doing this project, I enjoyed designing it, and we all have a more dramatic sense of the lively enterprise of poetry out there in the big world than we would otherwise have achieved. But I doubt that my students' understanding and appreciation of individual poems and the ways a poem can work are much stronger as a result. Computer projects like this one should form only a very small part of a curriculum that includes writing verse as well as reading, rereading, memorizing, reciting, and discussing poems that are thoughtfully selected and sequenced for the purpose of helping students develop a deep understanding of poetry and its various traditions.