Reading and Writing Poetry

Posted on April 10, 2008

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These last few weeks of school, we’re tackling an intense poetry unit in my English 11 class. I’ve decided to pen a series of posts, detailing the unit. So, here’s the first in the series.

 

My goals for the unit center around three key skills:

  1. I want students to learn to analyze a poem, to be able to read deeply, digging beneath the surface-level meaning of the poem to unearth the treasures beneath: the thematic meanings often veiled in figurative language and literary elements.
  2. I want students to be able to write responses to poetry that convey their deeper understandings. To do so requires them to use several skills:
    1. To have a literary vocabulary to be able to discuss the techniques a poet uses.
    2. To understand and be able to use strategies for unpacking the meaning of complex poetry.
    3. To discern key words and phrases and weave these smoothly into their own sentences.
    4. To write commentary that explains both how and why an author uses particular devices and strategies and for what larger purposes.
  3. I want students to compose free verse poetry that employs specific literary devices and strategies.

 

Granted, their responses will require many more skills, but these are the ones on which we’ll focus.

 

Beginning with the end in mind, we’re planning two culminating creations:

  1. An analysis of a poem: students will choose a digital format (VoiceThread, webpage, wiki, podcast, blog…)
  2. A poetry anthology of their written works: again, students will choose their format (whether digital or print) and digital tools needed to completed 

To complete these two creations, students will need an array of content specific skills and strategies. Working with my student intern, we’ve broken the unit into target skills–connotation, imagery, point of view, irony, and tone–selecting poems to teach each skill. The idea is to have students read and analyze a poem then write a poem of their own using the same techniques from the poem they analyzed. We’re using TPCASTT (a strategy I learned from my Advanced Placement training) as a strategy to scaffold students as they learn to unlock meaning. I’ve included two hand-outs we’re using: TPCASTT overview and TPCASTT graphic organizer (a blank form for students to use as they analyze a poem).

 

We began the unit with an introduction to poetry, reading Incident by Countee Cullen. We modeled for students how to TPCASTT the poem. Using a PowerPoint, we split the poem into sections, “thinking aloud” our analysis, having students fill in the TPCASTT organizer. We started by displaying only the title, having students predict what the poem might entail, thinking about both the denotative and connotative meanings of the title. Then, we displayed the first half of the poem, stopping at the end of line six. We modeled how to paraphrase the first stanza, switching back and forth between the copy of the poem on the PowerPoint and a blank TPCASST graphic organizer (displayed on the LCD projector), typing in our paraphrase. Then, we had students paraphrase the next stanza with a partner, writing their paraphrase on their graphic organizer. Some of the students shared their paraphrases, and we clarified any misunderstandings. Next, we displayed the last half of the poem, simply letting students read the poem silently to themselves.  Within seconds, gasps and indignation sounded around the room. If you haven’t read the poem, you must; you’ll appreciate the emotional response it is sure to raise in students.

 

Before continuing with the TPCASST, students needed to talk, to express their outrage, to share their disbelief in our having had them read a poem that uses the “n-word.” We encouraged students to ask why the author chooses to use such strong language and what connotations such language has, pushing students to think about the author’s purpose and message in the poem. We then had students explain where they thought the poem shifts.

 

For this poem, one of our main goals was to explain the concept of shift—how poets often present a turn in the story, in point of view, in tone, in subject—and to have students realize the shift often reveals key meaning(s) in the poem, often pointing to themes.

 

Returning to the TPCASTT organizer, we had students revisit the title and record their insights into the title, having now read and analyzed the poem. Finally, students recorded and shared ideas about themes for this poem.  For this first attempt, we left the other TPCASTT categories blank, tackling only TPSTT.

 

Students responded well, and the lesson worked well as an introduction. I should note, the day before we actually did an introductory activity to poetry in general, focusing on how poets play with language. We passed around a geode (the ugly rocks with the crystals inside—you can order them for about $8 a dozen from Oriental Trading), explaining that finding the best words requires writers to chisel away during revision. In essence, writers must “crack open” language to reveal the crystals, to find powerful words that paint vivid images for the reader. Students love getting to hammer the geode, getting to “crack open” the ugly exterior and see the crystals inside.   It’s a nice metaphor, one I can’t take credit for: it’s actually Georgia Heard’s idea, which she shares in The Revision Toolbox: Teaching Techniques That Work.

 

Here are the other lessons in this series that I’ll share in future posts:

Ø      Imagery

Ø      Connotation

Ø      Symbolism    

Ø      Point of View

Ø      Irony

Ø      Tone.

 

Stay tuned for more!

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