Against Slogging: Engaging Poetry in the Classroom
“When I consider how my light is spent . . .” The words came like a prayer from Lissette’s mouth, washed in an already controlled Honduran accent. She had just immigrated to Chicago and was learning English and Braille at the same time. She was going blind and reciting Milton’s sonnet with care.
I tutored her in the Literacy Center during my off periods along with two other visually impaired students, Edina and Minnie. Edina’s eyes were taken from her in Bosnia at the height of the war, when her parents discovered she had ocular cancer. She was only four. Minnie, an African American student from the South Side, was born without eyesight.
When I mentioned the Poetry Out Loud competition I was running in my other classes, they asked if they could compete. I helped them select poems by reading aloud from the Internet, mentioning titles, and giving one-sentence biographies of poets. Their graceful performances on the day of the competition astonished the audience of teens and teachers. Lissette clearly understood what John Milton was going through, though she had struggled to understand many words in the text; Minnie and Edina drew from the strength of Maya Angelou’s pride when they performed each image and sang out the rhythms of “Still I Rise.” On that day, no one ever would have guessed that reading was difficult for them.
When I consider how my teaching time is spent, especially with students who struggle with school, I remind myself that every text, every minute counts.
Big Ideas in Words that Make Sense
Lissette, Edina, and Minnie chose their poems based on the understanding of the poem that they were able to glean on a first hearing, along with a little biographical information. Hooked, they approached their reading with confidence. They drew upon background knowledge, read with purpose, predicted and questioned, stopped when something didn’t make sense, and constructed meaning. They did all the things good readers do, despite the challenges that reading often presented for each of them. These texts connected with these readers, because at some level these poems immediately made sense to them.
Reading ought to make sense. But struggling readers don’t always believe that. Very often, the only experience they have of reading is that it doesn’t make sense. Take Olga, a Ukrainian girl who survived an extremely troubled childhood and was adopted at age 11 by a couple from suburban Chicago. She managed to pass under the ESL radar as she decoded words perfectly, pronounced them well, and even read sentences aloud with some fluency. Like me, a lapsed student of Spanish, she could pronounce every word without comprehending a thing.
Of course, being a good reader isn’t just a matter of vocabulary or fluency. Every one of us who has taught native speakers has heard one of them say, “I read it, but I just don’t get it.” Upper-grade students who struggle with reading need support with meaning-making. Working with short, powerful texts at an accessible reading level gives them lots of opportunities to experience reading that makes sense.
Literacy experts such as Nancy Atwell, Lucy McCormick Calkins, and Jeffrey Wilhelm advocate ideas such as daily read-alouds, student choice, and big ideas. What follows is an example of how a selection of poems could be used as big-idea “bell-ringers” or even as a set of texts for guided reading activities among differentiated reading groups. Look at the opening lines of the poem “Only Cherries?” by Kenneth Patchen:
They didn’t want me around
Said I couldn’t have no cherries
Or watch them pick cherries
Or even stand near the table
This kind of poem appeals to even the hardest-to-reach student. Concrete, visual, written in an accessible vocabulary (except for the made-up, German-like word “kultur-kookie-klucks,” which might mean something like “a snob”), it captures that dreadful outsider feeling familiar to any human being who has lived in the company of other human beings. A poem like this makes a great base for a selection of poems around any number of big ideas: “friends and enemies,” “what’s worth fighting for,” or “revenge.” Engaging students in a selection of poems around larger, relevant ideas, rather than focusing solely on the traditional whole-class text, is essential to creating what Gay Ivy and Doug Fisher call literacy-rich classrooms. It’s also a manageable way to differentiate instruction for various reading levels or even various maturity levels in a single classroom.
Wonderful groupings are readily available in themed anthologies of poetry and websites like Poetry Out Loud and the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Tool and Poets.org . Several print and online collections pair “A Poison Tree” by William Blake with Patchen’s “Only Cherries?” Using more difficult vocabulary and more mature self-reflective ideas, Blake also comments on the notions of “friends and enemies” and “revenge.”
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
Because this is a great poem for introducing more sophisticated vocabulary (wrath, foe) or poetic technique (rhyme, meter), students reading it can immediately grasp the idea. And let’s face it: there isn’t a fifth-grader, a 17-year-old, or any conscious being, for that matter, who hasn’t thought about revenge—a lot! With this amount of background knowledge, any group of students could tackle a set of revenge poems.
“Revenge” (watch on YouTube) by Palestinian poet Taha Mohammad Ali is a great centerpiece for such a bundle. It begins like this:
At times . . . I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!
(Translation by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin)
Using universal images of family, friends, and community, the speaker goes on to explain why he will not kill his enemy, why he will never be ready to kill another human being.
Even the most reluctant reader will agree that big ideas are worth talking about. Whether they are presented as read-alouds (the teacher reads the text), shared readings (the class follows along as the teacher reads), or what Janet Allen calls “shided” reading (a combination of both), appealing poems are a great way to begin each class period or to engage students in a variety of powerful textual experiences within a unit. Speaking to or articulating the concerns and preoccupations of our students is the privilege of a great English teacher and a great poem.
Art: Practicing Visualization as a Comprehension Strategy
Liz and Veronica had a way of laughing at me when I taught. They would give me that OMG-look-how-excited-she-gets laugh and say, “Ms. Murphy, this is boring!” Determined to share the joy of poetry with Liz and Veronica, I selected special texts, laid plenty of groundwork with background information, and piqued their interest in big ideas with great philosophical discussions, but when I gave them “The Road Not Taken”and suggested that the fork in the road was a metaphor for making choices, they looked at me as if I was nuts: they just didn’t see what I saw.
Even after I modeled a think-aloud and gave them plenty of examples of metaphors, they still didn’t seem to get it, because they simply weren’t “seeing” the images. Visualizing the text is essential to understanding it, but struggling readers don’t always do it. The mental imaging that we do as master readers is not automatic. That’s why students say, “How did you get that out of that?” or accuse us of “reading into” everything. Poetry’s compact and precise use of image and the invitation to association that poetic language offers makes it ideal for practicing mental image-making as a reading comprehension strategy. Reading poetry actually requires this activity. After all, you can’t “get” a metaphor if you can’t imagine its concrete referent.
Consciously practicing visualization opens incredible discussion opportunities for students. It can be as simple as saying, “If you were to make a movie of this poem, what would it look like?” Giving students an opportunity to approach a text with the purpose of visualizing puts them in a refreshingly creative stance as they read. Making sketches of every image and using words from the text to title their drawings—a kind of visual note-taking—is another simple response that demands high-quality close reading. Other visual art products make excellent tools for engaging and monitoring struggling readers:
- photo essay
- comic strip
Concrete, image-driven poems such as “Dunk!” by Gregory K. Pincus or E.E. Cummings’s “in Just—” offer their pleasures in the process of visualization. Poems like James Wright’s “A Blessing” or “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa ask students to draw on more sophisticated skills or background knowledge but are made for this kind of work. Other appealing poems that demand visualization include Emily Dickinson’s definition poems, Neruda’s odes (either in the original Spanish or in translation, they are great for working with bilingual Spanish/English students), and the work of Jane Kenyon. Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Naomi Shihab Nye have countless poems that are also ripe for critical engagement through art.
Because of a simple poster assignment, Liz and Veronica finally “got” why poetry made me so excited. Moreover, I had a rare window into what Liz and Veronica saw in “The Orange” by Wendy Cope. Thanks to a cell phone camera and some orange glitter glue, I was able to identify strengths in their reading skills and develop strategies to address deficits. To teach them, of course, I needed to see what they saw.
Dramatizing Texts: Engaging in Critical Reading with Recitation and Performance
Recitations such as the ones Lissette performed demand the same kind of creative response to literature. As in recitation, group performances ask students to respond creatively using the medium of the body, the voice, and the performance space.
Take a longer poem or group of related poems and have students prepare performances. “Casey at the Bat,” “It Couldn’t Be Done,” “The Raven,” “I Hear America Singing,” the beginning of “I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and “homage to my hips”by Lucille Clifton (paired with “Hips” by Sandra Cisneros!) are great pieces that engage students critically as they prepare group performances; I’ve even done it with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Whether it is a full-blown production—perhaps a show based on student and published “revenge” poems—or a way of spending a class period practicing good reading skills, dramatic invitations to poetry get students engaged.
Give simple guidelines that ask students to think strategically about their presentation, and even the most reluctant students begin to engage in critical poetry reading. These guidelines can help you avoid the limp-noodle presentation we’ve all suffered through and turn even fairly unrehearsed performances into rich literary experiences for both the performers and the classroom audience. Practicing each technique as part of the process of exploring a set of poems will give your students a toolbox for more elaborate performances later. I throw on the board two to three guidelines like the ones below and set students to work.
Having students play together as equals, rather than assigning a director, is the way to get them to engage in interpretation. In the heat of creative play, performers fall into negotiating between one interpretation and another, otherwise known as having critical conversations based on close reading.
Simple Performance Guidelines for Reader’s Theater and Group Performances
- Use individual, dual, and choral voices at least once each during the performance.
- Use the entire performance space (all four corners of the “stage” area).
- Use all levels of the performance space (lying down, kneeling, and standing levels).
- Start or end with a tableau (an arrangement of performers’ bodies that is like a painting).
- Use at least three images of physical vocabulary to underscore a theme (physical vocabulary is a physical image or motion that represents an idea—a fist is anger, pointing a finger is accusation, praying hands is reverence).
- Silently move the focus—the viewer’s attention—from one performer to another with a recurring cue, such as a bow, freezing motion, or a quick turning away.
Creating a culture for performance in your class is a must. A theater game, even if it’s the hokey-pokey, frees the voice and the body from the defensive, nonperformer stance most of us live in. Having fun together makes students feel safer about taking the risk of performing. Videos of all kinds of drama games are available online.
Performing poems through recitation or dramatization is doubly good. For every valuable moment students spend on the preparation of performances, from selecting the poem to preparing an interpretation, they are engaged in critical reading. In the most engaged stance a reader can take, students then become the speakers of the poems, offering an accessible presentation of a text for a delighted audience.
Creative Writing: Getting Past the Blank Page
Richard, a Salvadoran American, carried an unread copy of a novel I had recommended for most of the school year and spent every minute of freewriting time with his pen poised promisingly toward the blank page. To keep me at bay as I circulated around the room, he quietly promised he’d “do it at home.” Paralyzed by the fear of writing badly or feeling he had nothing worth saying, he just couldn’t bring himself to take the risk of writing. For Richard, getting words on paper was the first milestone to achieve. While freewriting works for many students, he really needed a more defined task just to begin. I started scaffolding toward more elaborate writing by asking Richard and students like him to use poem templates. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Accept no excuses from anyone who resists the List Poem. Even Richard was able to write a List Poem made up of car names—from Alpha Romeo to Zephyr. Ashley, one of the most resistant ninth-graders I ever taught, couldn’t even dodge this one. She wrote a list of African Americans: “Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Madame C.J. Walker,” and so on. Later she revised the list into the poem she proudly read at an all-school assembly. The List Poem and other great resources for teaching poetry through creative writing are available at www.twc.org/resources.
- Found poems, which don’t require generating text so much as working with it, connect the reader to the writer in other interesting ways. In a found poem, for example, students find a 50- to 100-word passage of prose, highlight striking words, and arrange them into a poem. This brief exercise engages students in critical reading and offers snippets of poetic language quickly. See the joint NCTE/IRA site, ReadWriteThink.
Acrostic poems on a given theme—a student’s name, the title of a book, and so on—are a good starting point for a quick exercise, especially with younger students. The ReadWriteThink site has a wonderful electronic template that students can use to create acrostic poems.
- I Remember poems are another way to prompt students to put words on paper. The repetition of the stem sentence and the similar line lengths that often result from sparse images quickly sound like poems. Start with a fill-in-the-blank of five “I remember” sentence starters, or use more guided prompts to help struggling students generate imagery on a particular topic. (This is a great way to generate student poems for a theme-focused poetry unit, and it works well as a bell-ringer for anything from the first day of school to a new unit.)
I Remember [earliest school memory]
Example sentence: I remember Lee Freund eating glue.
I Remember [your earliest memory of school]
I Remember [a comment a teacher made about you]
I Remember [your biggest school-related disappointment
I Remember [something every teacher should know
about you as a person]
“Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon makes a great read-aloud, and the repetition of the stem sentence/catalog of images acts a great template for student writing.
What will cause a reluctant reader or writer to put words on a page in response to a triggering poem? Finding the balance between freewriting and guiding students with particular prompts is a matter of experimentation and individualization. As you calibrate for your own students, you might want to check out The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, Word Playgrounds, and Getting the Knack, three great sources for these model-driven exercises.
Finally, share, share, share! Success for every student is essential. Students want to be able to write a poem when they are asked to write a poem. Deck the walls with individual lines, poems, or an entire collection of student writing as you celebrate the work that students do. Large colored strips of paper with one line of poetry look great on poet-trees around a school if you can get permission. Genuine praise is the best teacher.
Teaching poetry or anything else to struggling readers is hard work. It requires the greatest skill and the utmost care. Making it fun and giving students immediate results are the only hope we have of nourishing them on the long road to independent literacy. Research and personal experience show that hooking students with art, performance, and creative writing works. The critical engagement they experience in these activities becomes their literacy base. All sorts of new heights become possible when they have had the pleasure of playing in language.
For Further Reading
Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents by Gay Ivy and Douglas Fisher
The Reading Zone by Nancy Atwell
The Art of Teaching Reading by Lucy McCormick Calkins
You Gotta BE the Book by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
Yellow Brick Roads by Dr. Janet Allen
Word Playgrounds by John S. O’Connor
The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett
Getting the Knack by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford
Eileen Murphy taught Advanced Placement English Literature and Creative Writing at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago. She has worked as a program associate at Facing History and Ourselves, providing professional development for teachers, and as an editor at McDougal Littell. Her students became the Illinois state finalists...