The Origins of this Site

For a long time we have been wondering how to attract more students to the study of language, challenge them to do more than the bare minimum, and instill them with the kind of pride in their own achievements that will motivate them to actually try and master a language by scaffolding and an acquisition of “deep” knowledge instead of merely trying to squeeze by.

Our goal became to create something of value for language teachers that might help them draw their students in and engage them. We wanted to supply a tool that not only conforms to the five C’s of the Standards for Foreign Language Learning (National Standards, 1996), but at the same time is indeed fun and engaging -- a catalyst that will encourage students to open up and share their opinions and that provides ample opportunities for meaningful conversations and the negotiation of meaning.  The perfect solution, it seemed to us, was a multimedia approach to the teaching of poetry.

Why Poetry?

Some people may ask, “Why poetry?” but the rationale behind our choice was rather simple:
Poetry is normally a relatively short piece of literature, such as a few stanzas or a handful of lines. It is much easier to handle within the confines of school lessons than a complete play or a short story.  Yet at the same time poems are often condensed, multi-layered, and, in the best of cases, provide plenty of food for thought. It is true that poetry is not always easily accessible since a good poem lies somewhere beyond mere words. “It is the intangible, an exultation in things vaguely apprehended, something which emerges out of its own form, and which cannot exist without that form. Any poem that can be completely understood or paraphrased is not a poem, but rather prose in chopped up lines” (Poetry Magic, What is Poetry?).  However, this quasi open-endedness of poetry works to the educator’s advantage. Good poems explore the nature of the human condition, they become an act of discovery that requires an effort to be understood, yet they also allow for a multiplicity of interpretations and approaches: “In poetry, it is the connotations and the ‘baggage’ that words carry … that are most important. These shades and nuances of meaning can be difficult to interpret and can cause different readers to ‘hear’ a particular piece of poetry differently. While there are reasonable interpretations, there can never be a definitive interpretation” (Wikipedia, Poetry).

Thus, poetry seems indeed a good choice for this project.  Poetry is open-ended, not too rigid, and it encourages different approaches and opinions while affording learners a manageable, though highly condensed, amount of text. Most importantly, poetry lends itself well  to a multimedia approach. We were determined to provide a use of technology that will further the understanding of both content and language and at the same time makes the target language both accessible and easy to relate to. In order to disseminate the poems effectively, we came up with the following design for our Web application.

Design and Layout

The Main Page supplies basic information about the German poetry project. A navigation bar on the left hand side directs the user to pages providing more information about the editors, about poetry in general, and about the rationale behind this Web portal. Of course, it also provides a clickable list of the authors whose poems are featured on the pages. This layout remains the same no matter where the user will go from here. The Web page is always divided into three frames, whereby the top frame displays the logo of the project, the left frame always displays the navigational links, and the main frame either displays biographical information about a particular author or presents the poem, complete with a glossary or a translation if deemed necessary.

While all of the above sounds rather traditional and one-dimensional (why not use a book if all we have is images and text?), it is the presentation of the poems themselves that makes all the difference. First of all, the underlying theme of the website is “The Poetry of Relationships.” All the poems that appear on the site deal with human relations, whether this is love, longing, friendship, or possibly the lack thereof, an individual’s feelings of despair and isolation. We believe that this approach keeps the poetry interesting to its target audience, which will mainly consist of young adults. Intimations of a divine power in nature or the aestheticized description of, for example, a Roman fountain, are less likely to engage high school-age adolescents than the recognition that these short pieces of literature are indeed speaking to them and coincide with their own sphere of existence.

The poems themselves are then presented in a variety of ways: (1) the printed text, (2) a recitation of the poem by its author (when available) or by a trained speaker, and (3) in musical form. In several cases the idea was to offer differing readings of the same poem in order to point out that intonation and stress can sometimes change both perception and meaning of a piece of art. Many of the poems are presented in musical form as well, since they have been adapted by classical interpreters as well as by modern popular entertainers. A Heine poem, set to music by Schumann, can be found next to Hermann Hesse interpretations by a German metal band, or a folk song rendition of a Theodor Storm poem. The songs are either a direct link to an external page, or they are available for playback and download as mp3s and QuickTime files via internal links.

It is this kind of eclectic approach that we believe will be successful with students. A poem thus does not present itself as something musty or ephemeral that students approach with reluctance, but rather it will be perceived as enjoyable and appealing to the students’ own interests and experiences. Learning will become exploration as much as entertainment. The story contained in each of the poems will serve as a springboard for students to discuss their own ideas and experiences (the communicative factor), yet it will also help the teacher to introduce new vocabulary and grammatical functions to an audience that is more captive, since they are highly involved in what they are reading.

Songs versus Poetry:  What's the difference, anyway? 

"Lyrik wurde ursprünglich zur Lyra vorgetragen (d.h., gesungen). Noch im Mittelalter ist Lyrik grundsätzlich gesungen. Die Lyrik steht damit in einer gewissen Beziehung zur Musik und zum Lied. Die meisten lyrischen Texte sollten deshalb laut vorgetragen werden, um wirklich zur Geltung zu kommen."