“An enzyme’s active site is empty.
It floats there all alone,
Waiting to catalyze
A biological reaction unknown.
A substrate, also lonely,
Searches for a friend.
An enzyme to work together with
Who will help reactions begin and end…”
It’s National Poetry Month, and English teachers and librarians are celebrating all over the country. But what about everyone else? Is it true what kids say– poetry only belongs in English class? The biology teacher and I set out to prove them wrong. Looking for a way to add to her enzyme unit instruction, we collaborated, which included her teaching me some biology and then assigning me homework, and me going over different forms and kinds of poetry, and then planned out the writing of persona poems. We wanted to ensure that this was not just a fun, “cool” activity, but rather a formative assessment tool that would point to any confusion or misconceptions her students might have.
Prior to the activity, the students were asked to sticky-note the important vocabulary from the unit in their text book. Which words are critical to the understanding of enzymes? When I came into class, I showed them Louise Gluck’s Red Poppies. We discussed the tone and the voice of the poem–how the poppy worshipped her god to the point of sacrifice. So what about enzymes? If we personified enzymes, what would they be like? Resentful for the work they selflessly undertake? Joyous and compassionate about the importance of their services? Adopt a persona I told them Decide who your enzyme (or inhibitor or substrate) is, and then start telling their story.
As expected, some kids’ eyes lit right up and they delved in. Others looked at us questioningly. You could read their faces: Poetry in science class? Are you for real? But after some quiet conversations and brainstorming, their pencils starting scratching the paper, too. Textbooks were open. Sticky notes were read and rewritten. The science teacher and I moved around the room–she answered questions about the content; I answered questions about the process.
And in the end, they proved what I had been suspecting for some time, and which, in hindsight seems like a well, duh kind of revelation: you cannot write poetry about something you don’t know. You have to know what hydrolyzing and catalyzing means to successfully use those words. You have to know the difference between a competitive and a noncompetitive inhibitor. You have to know how substrates work and what their purpose is.
Poetry is like the zoom lens of writing, and through its view you can see the pores and tiny hairs of whatever you are looking at. To write stunning poetry, you have to understand your subject and humanity all at once, while being able to pick apart everything you see. It’s dissection, it’s a microscope. It’s close observation. It is, in fact, a science. What scientists are expected to do–that process of prediction, close observation, risk-taking, and drawing conclusions? That’s everything that goes into writing a good poem, as well.
So I dare you–shun the strict adherence to the kinds of writing we “should” do in each of our classes. Because once we do that, we will recognize that there is a place for all kinds of writing in every subject. And it will not only expose our students to a variety of writing and the importance of voice, but it will help with assessments, creativity, meeting the needs of all students, and strengthening the understanding of our content.
And besides: when was the last time you read something as enjoyable as this in your class?
“My active site is empty,
I’m inactive, waiting for a mate.
But a gorgeous, petite substrate attaches…
Oh my, life is great.
She distorts my molecular bonds
And her love for me is sweet like sucrose.
Yet she exhausts and weakens me with her love
Because I received it in a high dose.
So I gave her my energy,
I gave her my affection
Now she’s hydrolyzing before my eyes.
What were her intentions?
She used me, abused me,
and left me as a fool.
But together we created glucose and fructose.
What perfect little jewels!”