by Brett Vogelsinger, English Teacher
It’s safe to say that of all the genres of literature we study in school, poetry is the most scary–and not just for the students.
Sometimes poetry gets a bad rap for being too dense, too pretentious, too much of an acquired taste for mainstream consumption. While it’s true that I could name many a poem that fits those descriptors, it’s also true that working with poetry can be a most whimsical, intriguing, dare I say light-hearted experience for you and your students.
Try one of these six strategies during National Poetry Month to invite your students to explore the jungle of this most-feared genre.
1. Scrambled Poems
Give your students a poem in pieces.
It might be a short poem split up into words. It might be a long poem, split into lines. Put the scrambled poem into an envelope and have your students work together to use every word, discovering or creating organization patterns with the same “ingredients” the poet used.
Compare what they create to the original poem. What works better in the original? What works better in the student created poems? What clues did the students use to organize the piece?
I particularly enjoy using Robert Pinsky’s poem “Samurai Song,” split into lines, for this activity. Using laptops or tablets in a 1:1 classroom, the joy of unscrambling can continue on magneticpoetry.com where you can play with virtual kits of magnet poetry for free and unleash your students’ inner poet in a more free reign area.
2. Copy-Change Poems
Find a poem with an engaging pattern and share it with your students. It might be a list poem like “The Magnificent Bull” a traditional African verse, or this one, found on the front of a card my wife gave me, that I recently shared with my students halfway through our study of Romeo and Juliet.
I asked them two questions: What is the poet doing here? What is the poet saying here?
Then I challenged them: Create three or four lines that you think we could sneak into this list. They copy the pattern of the poet, but change the wording: a copy-change. What other compound words or famous pairs could we divide and include in a love poem. The results were insightful, bizarre, and sometimes uproariously funny.
We took our lines and then crafted our own original poem. One such example is right here.
So find a poem you love, have your students find the pattern, and play with the pattern. Copy-change helps students slip into another writer’s style and try it on for size.
3. Choral Poems
Reading poetry, we often find a favorite turn of phrase that outlasts our memory of the rest of the poem. This is why so many of Shakespeare’s words like “good riddance” and “send him packing” have staying power, even though we forget the original contexts. (Troilus and Cressida and Henry IV Part I incidentally). He was a poet, so his words stuck.
Read a poem out loud with your class. Then ask them to read it silently and pick out their favorite one or two turns of phrase that has staying power. It might not even be as long as an entire line in the poem.
When you read the poem out loud a second time, they should read just those snippets out loud with you when you get to that part. It makes for fun discussion afterwards: why do some of these lines catch so many people’s attention.
What makes them jump out? Why do some lines get no one’s attention? Are they weaker? Could they even be removed to strengthen the poem?
Playing with revision of a published poem on the Smart Board can make poetry seem less intimidating, like a work in progress, still open to changes.
4. Top-Three Words
Poll Everywhere is an online tool that allows you to turn students’ cell phones into data collection devices. It’s quick to set up a free account.
Data collection and poetry seem like strange bedfellows, but in this high-tech various of Choral Poems, students learn the value of individual word choice in poetry.
After reading a poem out loud, ask students: What are the top three words in the poem, the words that pack the most punch?
Then switch to an open-response Poll Everywhere question on the screen. Students will be able to send a text to a number which will collect their responses in real time. Their favorite words pop up on the screen in a wordsplash. (And don’t worry, there is a filter you can create for obscenities, lest you have a student or two or twenty you don’t wholeheartedly trust.)
What patterns do the students see? What makes some of these words chosen so frequently as powerful? What words could the poet have used instead that might mean almost the same thing, but lack the same impact?
Using the wordsplash from Poll Everywhere, students can use these words to craft their own poems.
5. Blackout Poems
Can you discover a poem inside a passage of prose? This is what blackout poetry encourages.
When my students are working with independent reading books, I tell my students “Find a page that has a little bit of you in it.” We photocopy a page that they find particularly relatable and resonant. Then they take a look at some sample blackout poems (Google Images will provide ample samples).
They look at the page through a poet’s eyes and string together key words to write a short poem about themselves, that may or may not relate to the original text any longer. Here is an example from Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson:
In a 1:1 classroom, this could be accomplished using an iPad camera and an app such as Brushes and then shared via Instagram or Twitter. Authors find it intriguing when you share these interpretations with them.
Pintrest has produced a new outlet and source of visual inspiration. So much of the content involves the creative pairing of words and images. Pin A Poem brings the thrill of creating such pairings to your students.
People often use famous quotes as home decor items or t-shirt designs. This activity encourages students to isolate a line from a poem that can be carry that weight.
Students choose a memorable line from a poem or a set of poems. Honor that line by isolating it and adding a visual element to the line. Find an image to layer under the words, and use PowerPoint or Haiku Deck to create a slide that can be saved as a JPG or printed as a small poster.
And let’s be honest, there’s a citation mini-lesson hiding here: How do we cite a poem? How do we cite a picture? Both could be included at the bottom of the image the students create.
So poetry need not be seen as an unapproachable artform, fit only for scansion and scholarly analysis. Rather, we could choose to see it as clay, a malleable medium, ready for our students to touch and shape. Now that sounds like something worth celebrating.
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