Finding Poetry in Research

I teach two classes each semester. For the most part, I’ve been writing about one of my classes  but not so much the other. There’s no real reason for this I suppose except I’ve taught the one class so many times that it’s allowed me to be comfortable with getting more creative with them. As a result, I feel like I have a lot to share when it comes to that class.

But it’s not that I don’t push myself with my second class because I do. It’s just happening at a slower pace because it’s a newer course for me. This second class is a qualitative research methods class. It’s the introductory course for students working on a PhD. And what I want to share with you today comes directly from that course.

Some Background

As part of the course, I have students meet in small groups each week to discuss one or more selected readings. We have a textbook we use that covers the basics, and that I usually use as a way to launch lectures, but we also read a variety of other pieces. This semester we’ve read additional articles on related topics in qualitative research as well as two books Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes and Coming of Age in Second Life.

As much as possible, I try to have students read outside their discipline (typically education) so as not to get caught up in the context and to (hopefully) instead focus more on the methods an author uses within the research context.

Eventually, the point in the semester came where we were discussing the role of data in qualitative research. This was the second week in the theme, and the focus was now centered on the use of numbers in qualitative research. For this particular week, I had located a themed issue about just this topic. I asked students to sign up for three articles of their choosing, and then I assigned one not found in theme for everyone to read.

What the Heck Am I Gonna Do with this Mess?

I’ve taught long enough now that I am comfortable not knowing exactly what I plan to do week from week. I always know what I am doing when I show up in class, but I’m ok with a little free-styling at any time. Which is how I ended up in the place I found myself in. I had landed on a themed issue relevant to our topic for the week. I thought it would be a great idea to give students choice in what they read. I made a spreadsheet and asked them to check off what they selected. The responses were so varied that I had no clue what to do with this little mess in front of me.

And that’s how I arrived at poetry.

Finding Poetry in the Readings

Although I had spent a great deal of time trying to solve my problem of how to address these varied readings, I landed on nothing until the day before class when I remembered a little approach called found poemsThe general idea is to take existing texts and reshape them into poems. You use language in the texts to craft your poem. You can do small things like add articles/conjunctions and change tenses and so on as needed. The text you craft your poem from is not a poem. You take something that is not a poem and literally find a poem within it. This link explains more about how to write a found poem.

So I thought, why not? Let’s give it a shot.

I largely directed my students to the Found Poetry Review  (FPR) to help them get a grasp of the concept. The FPR also offers up different ideas for how to approach writing a found poem. They talk about fair use, and they also publish found poems.

I had my students work in groups – or by themselves if they chose (no one did) – and directed them to create a found poem based on the theme for the week: the role of data in qualitative research. Since the readings were all about numbers in qualitative research then I assumed the poems would be skewed in that direction.

Wanna know a secret?

I was a bit terrified at the thought of doing this. At best, I thought my students would humor me. At worst, I thought they would groan and go through the motions out of respect. But I was worried that they might not see this as worthy of their time and thought. I thought it was very worthy of their time and thought, but I also knew it wasn’t something they typically experienced as part of their graduate school classes.

And you know what happened?

The idea took off.

For the most part, groups were engaged and seemed to be enjoying this exercise. They worked on their poems and, in the end, came up with some that I found to be most interesting.

Sharing The Poems

You can see one group’s poems (they wrote two) by going here.

Another group decided to take their poem and turn it into a visual:



I know that’s impossible to read, but I wanted to show you what they did (and yes, they are ok with this being posted). I love that they got the chalkboard involved. That thing never gets used anymore. So although you may not be able to read this, I think it shows how much thought they put into creating their poem and then thinking about how it should be presented.

After students had written their poems, each group shared them explaining a bit about their thought process and the poem(s).

Wanna Do It?

This experience took us about 45 minutes from start to finish.  You can apply this in any class regardless of content. If I had to do it again, I would definitely let the students know ahead of time so they could think about words that stood out to them in advance. Then again, my students seemed to do just fine without having thought this through so who knows. I would give them the links about found poetry 1-2 weeks in advance so they could explore the site and be familiar with the concept. The sites present a variety of ideas for how one might approach creating found poems, and students could come to class with some additional tools that could afford them different creative opportunities.