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?

Miss, this poem is trying to kill us!

My Grade 10 students are, generally, a suspicious lot when it comes to English class. If they’re having fun, they pretty much want to know when the other shoe is going to drop. As I mentioned in my last post, this stream of English is called “Applied”; I try to take that descriptor seriously. How will we use this? What do we get out of this? Why bother? These are guiding questions in the classroom.

And we had the *best* poetry class today. A while ago I found an article by Prof Toby Emert on The Poetry Foundation website. In it, he talks about “exploratory methods for interacting with poems” and details a workshop he designed to “help students respond to poetry in ways that encourage them to love the poems and to enhance the skill set they need to engage in deep readings of texts.”

Well, I happen to know a few students whose skill set for deep reading is, ahem, not well developed. And I have been reading about why poetry can be a good entry for reluctant readers, so I was committed to trying this out.

Background: We’ve already spent five periods on poetry, mostly just playing around. We’ve read mentor texts and tried out blackout poems, list poems, book spine poetry; we’ve rotated through stations of haiku, cinquain, skinny and concrete poetry; we’ve listened to spoken word poetry, and we’ve even collected words. We’re ready to go deeper.

Ok, ok, ok… but you want to know what we did today. Well, we did what Prof Emert suggested – and it worked.

I photocopied Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins, Poetry by Pablo Neruda and Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish onto the biggest paper I could find. I think any three poems on a similar topic but with varying tones would do the trick here, but Emert suggested these, so I followed.

These poems are *way* beyond what my students would normally access. Not only is the vocabulary hard (palpable, palpitating, casement, etc.) but their length and metaphoric thinking was more than we had approached as a class. That was important. I wanted them to be in over their heads a little, to react to the poem at a level beyond literal comprehension. I wanted them to do what Emert suggests: be willing to climb inside a poem and sit awhile.

I posted each poem on the chalkboard, spaced well apart. Next to each poem I wrote two sentence stems. I told the students that we don’t always understand a poem right away – and that’s ok. (I was rewarded with a dramatic eye roll.) I told them that sometimes poems just sit with us, we just feel them. Sometimes we hate them and walk away; sometimes we’re intrigued; sometimes they grow on us. I reassured them that, while they might not *get* a poem, they could still react to it. (I admit it: I talked about Gertrude Stein.)

The students, in groups of three, read the poems then used sticky notes to complete the sentence stems in response to the poem.

If I were sitting next to this poem, waiting for the bus, it would say…

If I went on a date with this poem, we would…

If this poem could fly, it would…

In this poem’s pockets are…

If this poem were a burrito, it would…

This poem is hiding…

The students started slowly. They kept looking to me for permission. I kept insisting that they should write what came to mind. “Poems aren’t burritos…” one muttered. “Why would I date a poem? That doesn’t even make sense,” grumbled another.

I tried to overhear beginning responses and encourage them.
“If it were a burrito, it would… be cheesy?” ventured one boy.
“YES!” said the extremely enthusiastic teacher behind him (ok, ok, that was me). “Write that down!” He looked doubtful, but he did it.

Once they got the hang of it, they moved quickly. The sentence stems were so outrageous that the kids felt free to be silly. Each group spent 3-5 minutes with each poem (more time earlier on, but then they got going).

“Did you understand these poems?”
NO! Not really… a little… maybe… no… they were defiant, sheepish.
“Remember that you don’t HAVE to understand it. And anyway, I think you *did* get them.”

I asked which poem was the funny one, the most beautiful, the most serious. They absolutely knew. I told them that they had identified tone. They were impressed. We read their responses out loud and, lo and behold, they (mostly) matched the poems’ varying tones. (I’ve included some of their responses at the end in case you want to see.)

Next, I distributed a copy of Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem to each group. I asked them to “have a little conversation” with the poem by asking a question of each line. Again, we had a slow start here, but this time, they decided to humour my odd request, especially once I encouraged them to start with any line they wanted; within a few minutes, each group was writing questions after every line.

Soon, giggles and guffaws filled the room. I heard one student say, “Ask her what lyre means” and another reply, “no, no ask the poem.” Everywhere, heads bent over Giovanni’s work. Pencils and pens marked up the lines. Shh! Don’t tell anyone that these kids were annotating a complex poem, line by line. Any group that finished took their notebooks to collect words and phrases from the posted poems.

The final magic happened when everyone was finished with the questions. Each group chose two people (future reference: I might do this whole exercise in pairs) to read the poem out loud like a dialogue: line of poetry/question. This valued their voices as equal partners to the author’s voice and moved us gently in the direction of reading poems aloud. Their questions, their reactions became part of the poem itself.

The first group read & everyone listened. Their honest and sometimes aggressive or bewildered questions were funny. Everyone laughed and applauded at the end. Groups volunteered to read next. Each dialogue was better than the last. Another teacher walked into the room, talking, and my students shushed him. The bell rang just after we finished.

Today’s exit question was “summarize today’s class in one word.” Their responses?
fun, hilarious, funny, fast, creative, effervescent(!), energetic, good.

I am not exaggerating when I say that not one of them used a negative or even a neutral word to describe their study of four complex poems. It was magic.

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Here are some of the responses to the sentence stems I used. (I’ve put some of the less effective responses are in parentheses because I want to be clear that this exercise was imperfect. In class I read all the responses but highlighted responses that seemed sensitive to tone. I wanted the students to feel success as a group.)

Billy Collins =>
If I were sitting next to this poem, waiting for the bus, it would say…s’up dude, what’s popping?; hey, wanna fight?; Boo! (bye, Felicia; Where are you going?; seal)

If I went on a date with this poem, we would… go on a game show and find a new date, make an excuse to leave, be scared go skydiving and then go swimming (go to the cinema, kiss, stop talking)

Neruda =>
In this poem’s pockets are… figures of speech, la poesie, (empty, key lime pie, memes, a Rolex)

If this poem could fly, it would… fly with broken wings, glide beautifully, be a dove (go to Ikea, fall)

MacLeish =>
If this poem were a burrito, it would…be a stuffed burrito; be too cheesy; not last long; have too much hot sauce; have guacamole

This poem is hiding… a message, sadness, its soulmate, the truth, in a Disneyland ride (seals; something; words)

We did it ourselves

Um, you all, guess what happened? Two of my students “didn’t have anything to do” last night so they went to a bookstore and created book spine poetry. Then they took pictures of the poems and brought them to class.

THIS IS AMAZING! I wish I could do a little dance right here in my blog. This is true application as implied in the moniker “Applied” for this stream of English.

Zoe and Marta said I could share, so here are their poems:

 

Standardized test answer

Today our Grade 10 students wrote the standardized literacy test they must pass in order to graduate from high school. I supervised the extended time room and silently cheered them on as they worked. I cannot encourage or help them, but I can smile, wink and even pray. I also peeked at some of the questions. I cannot share the prompts here, but I can share two of my own answers…

Short answer response (6 lines provided):

I can swiftly and easily respond to inane prompts. I can generate a story for any question no matter how banal, pull semi-believable facts willy-nilly from the air, and find the perfect example for even the most general of queries, all while employing the Oxford comma. I can write complete sentences, including participial phrases cleverly separated from a main clause with commas for extra points. I can vary sentence length. I can repress my desperate longing to throw in an effective sentence fragment for style; I can restrain myself because, above all,  I possess the skill of passing standardized tests.
(exactly 6 lines in Google Docs)

Opinion response – maximum two handwritten pages.
I’ve done a sneaky poetic response because
a) it’s Poetry month and
b) I don’t actually want to write a one page response to the question and
c) one of my students worked tirelessly on this one, and my heart broke a little for her.

Standardized Test Opinion Response – a Golden Shovel Poem

She flexes her tired hand then gets back to work, suddenly knowing that no matter what she does
Today in the library, tonight she will do the homework
Assigned by the teacher who looked her in the eyes and said, “You can improve,
You will improve” then gave her harder work because she is learning.

Finding poetry

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It’s April, so my Grade 10 class is busy doing poetry. Many of these students are not enthusiastic about reading or writing in any form – yet. I have one semester to plant seeds that will, hopefully, sprout into a literate life for each of them over time, and if well watered. It’s an exhilarating challenge.

Many of these students are not yet poetry lovers. In fact, when I told them that it was Poetry Month, exaggerated groans erupted around the room. One boy mimed death by choking. I’ve suggested he take a drama class, but…

So why do I choose to do poetry with students who are not yet lovers of words? Jason Reynolds articulates it perfectly in this interview. The gist of what he says (if you don’t have 3:00 to listen right now) is that poetry is perfect for reluctant readers: it doesn’t overwhelm them with words; it has spacing, line breaks, and stanzas that break things down; and there is lots of white space. (It’s a great piece – not an interview exactly – but a mini-talk with a poem at the end.)

Our class started with a list poem (inspired by Richard Brautigan via Elisabeth Ellington) in part because a visiting poet had already introduced this form earlier in the semester. We had fun with it – I may have to share more on this later – but I knew I had only a few fairweather converts. Today, however, we hit pay dirt: the blackout poem.

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First, I showed the students some mentor texts – mostly Austin Kleon but also some random ones with images. (I cannot lie – I did a Google search for blackout poetry and showed the images. I like showing the students things that they can easily access without loads of specialized knowledge. Don’t know who Austin Kleon is? No problem.) They were intrigued but not hooked.

So I linked to The New York Times. We use their “What’s Going On In This Picture?” feature every Monday, so the kids are familiar with the paper. Today, we used an older post called Searching for Poetry in Prose. This pairs some NYTimes articles on the left side of the screen with a blacked-out version on the right. When you click on a word in the article, it gets un-blacked-out (that cannot be the way to say that) on the right. You get to choose up to 15 words and you can save your poem. We played with a few together, and more kids perked up.

Then – this is where things got good – I gave them actual books from our book room. You know, the ones where the spines have split and pages are falling out but someone re-shelved them anyway? Yup – I gave them those. And markers. Lots of markers. I suggested that they use pencils to outline the words they were choosing… some listened, some didn’t. If they couldn’t stomach the books, they used the website. Some were a little slow to start, but after a few minutes, the room was abuzz. They called friends over to share or used their hands to hide what they were doing. Words whipped around the room: “You are never gonna believe what’s in this one!” What does this word even mean?” “Look it up!” “Wait, no, I know that word!” (Someone learned the word “fornicating” – I nearly choked with laughter. It was a well-shared discovery.)

Eventually, a head popped up, “Are we allowed to do more than one?” Yes, yes you are. “Oh! I ripped it! Do you have tape?” Yes, I do. “Can I put mine up on the board?” Yes, you can. “Can I take this book home?” Oh, yes. Yes. You can take the book home.

I think blackout poetry won the day.

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by Simbi

 

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by Marta

 

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

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I have been thinking a lot about Wallace Stevens for the past few days. As one does. His poem “The Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” has been on my mind. Today, I think I’ll write an imitation. Or a parody. Or, well, a poem like his.

First, here’s his poem:

The Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

 

Now mine:

The Disillusionment of the Day Before Spring Break

The classrooms are haunted

By lecturing teachers.
None are laughing,
Or talking with laughing students,
Or laughing with crying students,
Or crying with writing students.
None of them are strange,
With hats of feathers
And rainbow waistcoats.
Teachers are not going
To speak of Uranus and bubbles.
Only, here and there, an old writer,
Daring and aware that the principal is gone,
Teaches Writers
In red weather.

Taking a page from Alice Nine, I want to think for a minute about what I did here, especially because I sometimes ask my students to play with poem imitation.

I knew I wanted to write about school on Friday right before the break. I had been struck by how empty the hallways were in our normally busy school. Many of our students and teachers are on various March Break trips, and it was snowing, so we had some serious attrition as the day went on. By 3:30, our lively school was a ghost town. Nevertheless, when I thought about how to write this as a slice of life, I came up blank: yup, the school was quiet the day before a long break. Nothing to see here, move along. It was so mundane as to be unremarkable – yet it seemed remarkable to me.

Wallace Stevens really has been on my mind for a few weeks, so the idea that the school was just a ghost of all its possibility easily brought this poem to mind. (Note to self: you can’t be inspired by what you haven’t read.) Also, the teachers have been preparing a silly surprise for our principal (who has a good sense of humour and who went on one of the school trips), so I was thinking about our really goofy sides. (I can’t post the pictures in case someone from my school stumbles across this & somehow the principal sees – suffice it to say that we’ve been having fun.)

Stevens sees what happens when we let the mundane take over all the wild possibilities. What are the wild possibilities in the classroom? At first, I had the teachers “droning” and the list of things the teachers weren’t doing was more realistic, but then I took a second look and noticed that “white nightgowns” are unremarkable and, more importantly, non-judgmental… that is, until you read the rest of the poem. Teachers lecturing probably won’t catch anyone’s attention in an early line – it’s what we assume high school teachers do – but the wilder possibilities in the next three lines should change that.

In the next three lines Stevens has a careful pattern – pulling a colour from one line into the next – and all these colours exist very firmly in the realm of possibility. It took me several tries to find a way to make my phrases do the same thing. In fact, only at the last minute did I realize that I could replace the “rings” in his poem with “students” in mine. That opened things up for me.

I love the lines about the “socks of lace” and the “beaded ceintures” because “socks of lace” pulls my attention when “lace socks” might not. And I imagine that Stevens originally wrote “beaded belts” (nice alliteration, Wallace!) and then revised it to something more unusual and evocative. (“Damn the alliteration, I’ll use ‘ceintures!’ That’ll get ’em!”) I actually started my line writing “Fascinators of feathers” then realized that “socks” are mundane and switched to “hats.” I couldn’t quite find an equivalent for “ceintures” but I decided “waistcoat” was near enough and I like the assonance that came from rainbow.

Uranus and bubbles just came to me. Probably because another blogger I read recently (can’t remember which one – sorry!) wrote about talking with her nephew and Uranus came up.

Finally, who might replace the old drunk sailor? Who in our school was dreaming big dreams on Friday afternoon? Well, a writing teacher, obviously. Someone who has journeyed and knows about possibilities. (Yes, yes, I’m biased.) And a reference to our absent principal, who allows us to play, followed by the red weather line because a) I didn’t know what else to write and b) I like a nod to the original when I write imitations.

I’m not sure I knew how much went into this until I wrote it down. Well, no wonder it’s hard for my students. WHEW!