And then… poetry lessons go awry

After a bit of a slow start in Grade 10 English, the poetry unit has been going gangbusters. All my plans were working! Students were engaged! They were having fun! They were playing with language, finding words, generating metaphors! I was a great teacher! And then…

Yesterday started well. We used Jabberwocky to think about how sounds create images. We listened, added images, read on our own, listened to a different interpretation, argued for our favourite, tried to “translate” it, read out loud, did readers’ theatre. The classroom was abuzz. And then… I decided to “let” the class listen to Poe’s The Raven. I had a good version with a creepy voice, the words scrolling past, the whole thing. Except that I overestimated my students’ attention span. Even with the lights out & the scene set, they got bored. Quickly. I should have pulled the plug, but I hesitated and the class ended on a decidedly dull note. Note to self: The Raven is too hard and too long for this group to listen to without a better introduction.

Today I wanted to get back to our poetry buzz. I prepped The Bells as an attempt to rehabilitate Poe after yesterday. I found multiple videos, including songs and recitations with images, that illustrated various tones. The plan was to listen, notice, discuss, then look at other poems where sound takes centre stage. I was completely ready, and then… as the students walked in, one of the social leaders said, quite loudly, “Please tell me we aren’t doing poetry again today.” Another one of my touchstone students showed up late and dragging. The Bells was not going to work. I needed something quick & engaging.

So instead of The Bells we worked with Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool. Students listened to two versions and were able to hear how enjambment can create rhythm, sound and meaning. They heard Brooks read and said it sounded like jazz. They noticed the alliteration, the “hidden” rhymes, the images and more. Great, but the dang class is 75 minutes long. We needed more and my original plans were out the window. So I read them Gertrude Stein’s Susie Asado.

Now, you might think that Stein is an unusual choice for a motley crew of Grade 10 reluctant readers, but hearing a poem where the sounds count more than the words usually completely fascinates students. This group was no different. We talked about flamenco dancing. (I wasn’t quick enough to find a video; I was teaching on the fly at this point.) We talked about the sounds words make. We talked about why Stein might write like this. It was great, and then…I moved too fast. I asked them to choose a person and try to write a few lines about them using the sounds of words rather than the meaning.

Here’s what I did not do:
1. provide more than one mentor text
2. help students sufficiently analyze the mentor text I did provide
3. offer written instructions to supplement my oral instructions
4. brainstorm ways that onomatopoeia is different from what Stein is doing
5. break the task down into chunks that they could approach
6. provide anywhere near enough structure

I could kick myself. My darling students tried – they really did – but I had set them up for failure. Only a few got anywhere near something they liked. Most were completely  overwhelmed, so they got off topic, used the bathroom (my rule of thumb: once the third student asks for a bathroom break, that lesson is done), put their head on the desk… GAH! It’s a good assignment, I swear it is, but I forgot to take into account what these learners need.

And then… I sent prayers of thanks up that I was prepped a little ahead. I pulled out a handout about Juxtaposition from Karen Benke’s book Rip the Page(Thank goodness for Elisabeth Ellington and Catherine Flynn writing about this recently.) At last: a written assignment, concrete, with clear directions. Something they could do with some success.  I guided them through it, and then… class ended before we could share.

I was feeling like a bit of a failure, but truthfully, I think we’re ok. I’ve stolen from tomorrow’s assignment, and the exercise wasn’t quite as good without the lead-up I’d planned to use, but it was good enough. In writing about these two days, I’ve realized that I haven’t ruined everything – yet – but I am still nervous about tomorrow. If things go awry again, the unit may be done for: my students preconceptions about poetry (and English) are pretty tightly held; they will happily revert to their ingrained habit of hating it. And I want them to try writing poems on their own. They’ve seen loads of mentor texts now, written lots of bits and bobs; it’s time. But generating language is hard, and now I’m nervous.

Anyone out there in the blogosphere have suggestions?

11 thoughts on “And then… poetry lessons go awry

  1. My expertise is with a younger crowd…I just got done with an inference/ poetry lesson. I passed out sets of six different metaphorical poems, scrap paper, and pencils to each table. Students picked a poem and drew what they thought it was about. Only a couple of the poems are easy enough to guess; most just drew the “real” images the authors described, not the hidden meanings. They always enjoy the reveal at the end, and you see the glimmer of understanding. Could you possibly do something similar, perhaps an alternate response to a poem such as art or music, or even line lifting so they have a place to start?

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    1. I love this idea – anything that allows my students to combine senses or ways of interpreting the world is really helpful. I’ve got some metaphor poems, so I may play around with these… I have so so much to learn from elementary teachers. I already have a summer full of reading planned. Elementary teaching is where it’s at! Thank you for your response.

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  2. So fascinating! I love this window into your classroom and thought processes. I do think that generating language is hard and writing poetry, in particular, is hard. What about concrete poetry? What about a progressive poem where each person contributes a line? What about writing a poem together as a group? They certainly sound lively enough to be interested in debating lines. What about asking them to find a poem lurking in some of the writing they’ve already done? What about asking them to go back to one mentor text they’ve liked best and steal from it? Have they written off lines yet? My reluctant writers do pretty well borrowing a line, word, phrase from a poem and then generating their own piece off of that. Rather than formally “writing poetry,” what about just continuing to play? Why does there need to be a break between what you’re doing now and a product that may not be necessary for their understanding and pleasure? I’m wondering if something just shifts for them, something ugly and painful, when they are pressed into a place where process is supposed to be replaced with product? Do they have writers notebooks? I’m wondering about just taking the pressure off to produce–keep giving 5 or 10 minutes to muck around with an idea in the notebook, no pressure to “write a poem”. If they collect enough of this kind of writing, they will be able to find and shape poems just from that. With my most reluctant high school writers way back when, I actually found poems in their writing myself, typed them up, shared them, because they simply could not think of themselves as poets/writers. When the writing wasn’t very good, I’d just do group poems where I’d snag a line or phrase from each student and put it together into something poem-like to print for the class. They always really liked this. Anyway, I love how responsive you are to their needs and how very closely you observe them.

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    1. Elisabeth, this is amazing. I’ve been contemplating these ideas since you wrote since yesterday. So much wisdom. I talked it over with the EA who’s in my room with me, and we both agreed that the thought in here that most resonates with us is about continuing to play. Why have I placed a break between learning and assessment? Since when do I value product over process? This is anathema to me and to what we’ve done so far this semester. I suspect the students feel this. (Funny how easy it is to fall back into my old old habits – I know better than this.) So, we’re going to keep playing, keep working in groups, keep talking – and then we’ll find out what we’ve learned by looking at what we’ve actually done instead of creating something separate. Also, I think we’re going to play with line lifting today, and we’re still just sort of toying with sound and imagery. Good thing they’ve got a writer’s notebook. And, THANK YOU for these helpful questions.

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  3. I don’t know if this is too late, but I have some more elementary school perspective. I have two books that I really love, and I use them a lot. One is called The Place My Words are Looking For. It may be out of print, but it’s worth buying used. Maybe you already know it. It’s an anthology, but it has a cool format. In addition to poems, it has notes from the poets, where they give advice or comment on their process. It has some silly poems, but it also has many that are serious. I love, for example, Forgotten, by Cynthia Rylant and One Time, by William Stafford, or Speech Class, by Jum Daniels. I have found that kids really connect to some of the back stories and the role that poems play in the poets’ lives. The same anthologist has another great collection called The Blue Between, which gets its name from a great poem by Kristine O”Connell George. This, too, is a collection that features, in addition to the poems, letters from poets to the reader. I particularly love J.Patrick Lewis’s letter to the reader, in which he pens the line, “Use your slow hand when writing poetry. What comes fast and easy is invariably cheesy (like that sentence).” I have that quote on my wall.
    Finally, this may be overdone without me knowing it, but I was really moved by Daniel Beatty’s Knock-knock. It’s a bit intense for my fifth graders, but I imagine it would be powerful for your 10th graders. You probably already know it and have used it, but it was new to me this winter.
    Good luck with this. I’m so impressed with how reflective you are. I think so many of us tend to blame the students when something falls flat. It’s the “fast and easy” route, but it’s not very helpful or fruitful.

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    1. It’s never too late – and these resources sound amazing. I’ve put one on hold at the library (and several others by Janeczko – turns out I already have two of his anthologies out, but I’m a little slow on the “hey, this guy is good” uptake). I LOVE all the suggestions. I’ve been a grade 12, highest track English teacher for some years now, and while I love this grade 10 challenge (these are my peeps), I’m realizing that my whole teaching philosophy has shifted over the past few years & I don’t have the resources I need to do this right. Given my nature, lack of resources is not preventing me from jumping in with both feet – as a result, I occasionally find myself in deep water, looking for life rafts. These resources are that. And just think how much better I’ll be next year. 🙂 Basically, that’s a really long way of saying “Thanks & keep it coming!”

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  4. Finally got a chance to read this… reflection is KEY! Your students are so lucky to have such a responsive teacher, and yes, multiple bathroom breaks are a signal to change course! My middle schoolers simply say “I’m bored!” I recommend unpacking poetry stanza by stanza (read a stanza and fill out T chart answering “What do you think this is about” on one side and “Why do you think this” on the other side, read the next stanza and fill out the T chart again, repeat until finished). Nick Maneno calls this “Chrono- Logic” as the chart shows how your thinking about a text changes over time as you gain more information. It also grounds your thinking to text evidence. Good luck!

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