Poetry is cool at school


Poetry draws a young crowd these days—at least when longtime Lab Schools teacher John O’Connor, AB’86, MAT’87, has the stage. About 50 fans, many former students, packed 57th Street Books last night to hear him discuss his new book, Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom.

“I found school profoundly dull and artificial,” he began. “The sort of mission I feel I’m on is to make school as exciting as the rest of the world.”

Now at New Trier Township High School, O’Connor won praise at Lab for his inventive teaching style, particularly when it came to poetry, an oft-dreaded subject. He demystified verse by having students write about their own life experiences—and making it fun.

“I didn’t feel pressure for it to be really profound or good or anything,” recalled 16-year-old Alice Grossman, who took O’Connor’s class as a freshman and in summer school.

Like a proud parent, he believes his protégés are good, featuring their work in his book and calling on some to read. The poems accompany instructional tools, including more than 25 activities.

Rather than end with a lesson, O’Connor, looking more student than teacher in cargo pants and hiking boots, played his guitar. “Don’t you want to come back to Hyde Park?” one parent called out.

“Yes,” he said, “let’s do this every January 6.”

By M.L.

January 7, 2005