I know a teacher who relied on student ignorance when it came to inappropriate material. When I asked him how he taught a raw and brutal scene in Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die, where a breeding of pigs represents the harsh reality of animal life and the larger “loss of innocence” moment (it reads like a rape, with the adult justifying it as natural; it is disturbing), his reply struck me. He said, “Oh, most of the kids won’t get it”, meaning that he was hoping for their obliviousness to keep the book appropriate. Not exactly a safeguard, nor what we might want as teachers stressing a close reading of the text, or even basic comprehension. That this scene was the main illustration for the book’s theme made me wonder what he WAS teaching.
The following link will take you to an article I wrote about when middle school students are ready for the racier subjects, language and literature you might throw at them. So, before you try Whitman or Ginsberg take a gander at this article.
Although it focuses on literature, the same rules apply for poetry (especially if you want them to actually “get” what you give them).
One recommendation: Have parents sign a general permission slip at the start of the year. If you know the poems you will use, list those that are controversial, but still cover general topics and language that might arise over the year. Cover yourself, but it is good for the kids, too. Remember, your school and community are allies in doing what is best for kids. While you want to push them, the community tends to know things that might go too far (i.e., someone who was molested as a child). When parents can support your inclusion of poetry and literature, classes are win-win for everyone involved.
Yes, I know those of us who travel in literature are sometimes amazed by the views of others, but it can be an opportunity to have a larger discussion. We all say we want parents involved, and then we get upset when they try and do what is best for their child. By putting it all on the table, though, we open up rich dialogues that go in very interesting directions. It is a much more powerful technique than relying on student ignorance.