Even though this is the last installment of this series of posts, I doubt that this will be the last time I write about poetry because I absolutely love teaching it. Nothing creates a stronger fire in me than sharing my appreciation for this art form with kids.
In this post I will share a three activities that I experimented with this week. Some of them worked better than others, but all of them ask students to think about the world in a different way, experiment, and test their own limitations.
4. Imitating Structure and Form
And The Ghosts
I ran across Foust’s poem searching for poems to share with my 8th grade students. It’s unique because it is a one-line poem with a title. I chose it because no matter the writing assignment–essay, story, or poem–they always ask the question “How long does it have to be?” Instead of giving the students a line minimum for each poem, this year I provided the following answer:
Take time to notice.
And the Ghosts
they own everything
Before asking the students to interpret the poem, I asked them what they noticed. Probably the most important observation they made was that the poem would not have much meaning without the title. I’ve been trying to reinforce the idea all year that the title of a work–a news article, a book, a poem, a short story, a painting–is the holy grail. It is the key to understanding the purpose and theme of a piece. This poem provides students with ann example of that truth.
Look for meaning.
After giving students time to observe the structure of the poem, I asked them to look for meaning. What does the poem mean when he states that the ghosts own everything? Some said that the ghosts symbolize the past, and your past controls controls you–it makes you who you are today. Some said that the ghosts were memories, and your memories are an integral part of your consciousness. Remember to give students time to contemplate the difficult questions. Don’t expect them to raise their hands immediately. Sometimes I find myself waiting a minute or more for students to raise their hands. When teachers give students time to think, they know the instructor is serious about the question and expects them to come up with the answer. Too often teachers give the students answers to the difficult questions if students don’t answer right away.
I gave students two choices. They could either:
Create a one-line poem with a title
Use Foust’s poem as the start of their own.
Paul Revere’s Ride
I am not a huge fan of Paul Revere’s Ride because of its historical inaccuracies, and–I’ll be honest–I don’t really understand its purpose. The poem, however, is a part of our school’s curriculum, and I am expected to teach it when the students are studying the Revolutionary War in social studies. I needed to get excited about teaching this poem to mask my indifference from my students, so I decided to create a parody. I had the students do the same. They could choose any subject matter for the poem, but I asked them to model the rhyme scheme (AABBA) and meter (four beats per line, a mix of iambs and anapests) of the poem’s first stanza:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five:
Hardly a man is now alive,
Who remembers that famous day and year.
I’ve only completed two stanzas of my parody, but it was enough to use as a model for my students. I did not require them to write a full-length poem–I just wanted them to experiment with Longfellow’s form and style. Some of them decided that they wanted to turn their drafts into poems for their portfolios that they will submit on Wednesday. Here is the example I wrote for my students:
The Ballad of a Samson’s Ear
Listen, my cats, and you shall hear
Of the awful tale of a bitten ear,
One one Fall morning when dawn was nigh
I saw Loopy Lester, sleek and sly
Turn the corner like a buccaneer.
He said to me, “This is my domain!
From trespassing here you shall abstain!
Or I’ll claw your eyes and bite your tail,
And chase you to the nether vale,
Where snakes abound to slither and maim.”
After this lesson, I received the best compliment a teacher can get from a student: “Miss Raub, I never liked poetry before, but I think you are converting me.” Boom! That’s my reason for showing up every day.
5. Creative Prompts
Good questions will ask students to think about the world or themselves a little differently. With middle schoolers, I like to ask them questions that invite students to look inward. Here are my two favorites that I used this year:
- If you had the money and the influence to buy a digital screen in Times Square, what message would you share with the world?
- What are the five things that you know to be true? (Another nod to Sarah Kay–In her TED Talk, If I Should Have A Daughter, she mentions how she uses this prompt with her students. Her version asks students to write ten truths.)
For each of these questions, I, of course, created my own answers that I shared with the students. Sometimes I share before the students create their own; sometimes I share after. When I share depends on the class. If I find that the students are struggling with the concept, I may share my example in the beginning of the lesson. If students seem comfortable or ready to create without a model, I let them. In general, I find that students are much more creative if I let them experiment before sharing my models.
My digital screen: Listening > Speaking
Ten Things I Know To Be True:
- I am alive
- The world is small and colossal at the same time.
- I love my husband.
- Kids are fun.
- Birds are fascinating creatures.
- A leisurely breakfast is happiness.
- I can’t imagine a world without music or books.
- I love new learning.
- I know nearly nothing.
- I love my pets.
If you have ways that you’ve inspired students of any age to write and read more poetry, please let me know! I don’t know yet what the topic of my next blog post will be, but I do know that the end of the school year is drawing near. I hope you all finish the year robustly and vigorously. Stay enthusiastic to the very end–your students deserve it.