Teach This Poem wins the 2018 Innovations in Reading Prize
The National Book Foundation announced on Thursday the winner of the 2018 Innovations in Reading Prize, its annual social-impact-through-literature award.
Each year the foundation honors one individual or organization that has developed an innovative project that champions literature. Past winners include Barbershop Books, which puts books in barbershops to help inspire young black boys to read, and Next Chapter Book Club, a a community-based reading program for adolescents and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
This year, the winner of the Innovations in Reading Prize is The Academy of American Poets for its “Teach This Poem” program.
“Poetry is a unique and vital part of the literary landscape, which is why we honor the form yearly at the National Book Awards,” says David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “Poetry provides distinct opportunities to influence the way we see and think about our world, and the thoughtful, inventive work the Academy of American Poets is doing to celebrate and uplift poetry is nothing short of essential. We’re thrilled to award the Academy with this year’s Innovations in Reading Prize.”
Teach This Poem is a weekly resource that helps teachers add poetry to their curriculum. The project first launched in 2015 on the Academy of American Poet’s website poets.org, but the idea actually came from a teacher.
“In 2015, we started doing meetups with teachers working to improve and change the curriculum in New York City,” explains Jen Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. “At one of those, a teacher told our educator-in-residence Dr. Madeleine Fuchs Holzer that while our Poem-a-Day series is great, sometimes the poems aren’t quite right for high school classes. The poems can be a little too intense or too sophisticated, and teachers could use a couple of ideas about how to bring poems into the classroom.”
The result of that conversation? Teach This Poem.
Each week, The Academy of American Poets emails out a poem along with interdisciplinary information — classroom discussion questions and multimedia offerings like maps, videos, photography, and related reading suggestions. Everything is curated to help teachers incorporate poetry into the classroom experience.
The idea goes back to the Academy of American Poets’ core philosophy: Make poetry accessible.
“Helping teachers teach poems has been a part of our DNA since our very early days. We have a pedagogical stance: A poem is not a puzzle to be ‘solved,'” Benka explains. “Poetry is something that we want students to come to without the pressure to ‘get it.’ That’s why we try to put out activities that encourage students to not ‘solve’ the poem but to look for things in the poem that’ll spark their curiosity. We want to make sure that we’re giving students many routes into a poem.”
“We have a pedagogical stance: A poem is not a puzzle to be ‘solved.'”
To that end, each of the poems selected are tied to current events. For example, after the 2016 election, Teach This Poem shared Walt Whitman’s poem “Election Day, November, 1884.” After the National School Walkout for gun control, the organization shared Lucille Clifton’s poem “blessing the boats” with a question about how the poem can be seen as a metaphor about youth activism.
It’s worked. In the three years since its launch, tens of thousands of people have subscribed, far exceeding expectations.
“When we launched in 2015, I said to our team if we can get more than 2,500 or 3,000 teachers, that’s great. That’s a win. We very quickly hit that. Today, not even three years later, we have more than 27,000 subscribers,” says Benka.
In addition to the subscriber growth, the program has received a lot of positive feedback. “Teachers are regularly thanking us on Twitter,” says Benka. “It inspires them to create other activities related to the poems. It’s just inspiring and energizing to see.”
Benka thinks that growth is due to a few factors. First, “Poetry has always existed in the gift economy. There’s the built-in philosophy of poetry, that it’s to be shared.”
But also, Benka says that poems and the ideas featured in them are speaking to people now more than ever.
“We’re looking for answers, we’re looking for hope, we’re looking for rallying cries. People are looking to poems for that energy and insight.”
“It’s really the heyday of poetry,” she says. “People are responding to the subject matter of poetry. We’re living in a time in this country where we’re looking for answers, we’re looking for hope, we’re looking for rallying cries. People are looking to poems for that energy and insight.”
In addition to the honor, The Innovations In Reading Prize comes with a $10,000 reward. The Academy of American Poets plans to use the money to fuel its growth efforts, advertising the program in an effort to reach more teachers and adding more poems to poets.org’s archives.
“We launched this series with no marketing budget,” Benka says. “To have it catch on and reach so many teachers across the United States, and to now have the stamp of approval on it [from the National Book Foundation] and the funds to help us market it, we’re really looking forward to helping more teachers and inspiring more students, which is really what it’s all about.”
Luckily, you don’t have to be a teacher or student to sign up. “Teach This Poem is geared toward teachers, but we won’t not let a layperson read a poem,” Benka says.
Each year the Innovations in Reading Prize winner is celebrated at the National Book Foundation’s Why Reading Matters conference, which is designed to bring educators, activists, and members of the book world together to champion reading. (Register for the June event here.)
While Teach This Poem was the official winner of the 2018 Innovations in Reading Prize, each year the National Book Foundation also celebrates four honorary mentions. This year, they are The Appalachian Prison Book Project, Friends of the Homer Library, Jewish Women International’s Library Initiative, and Words Without Borders Campus. Each receives $1,000.
Congrats to all the winners. Now, get out there and read a poem!