Talking To, Talking About, Talking With
I find that students are actually well schooled in answering questions. Finding ways for students to take on the guided reading behavior of asking questions is far more difficult.—Janet Allen, Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12
Here's a simple assignment: Walk over to your bookshelf and select an annotated teacher's edition of a literature anthology. Flip to any poetry selection. Skim to the end of the poem. There they are: the neatly numbered, categorized, and color-coded reading comprehension questions. For some, they are a thing of beauty—enticing with their wordy precision and their capacity to address themes and literary devices with a clarity most of us could never devise on our own. Who among our profession hasn't been tempted to assign students the task of reading and then writing out the answers to these questions designed to help them demonstrate an understanding of what they have read?
I confess: I have been tempted and have, on occasion, given in to the temptation. When I pause to think less about “testing understanding” and more about “internalizing understanding,” however, I shudder to think of asking a student to write a response to a question like this one, which is typical of popular high school literature anthologies: How does the reference to Sophocles in Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach” support the poet's purpose? Could we honestly suggest that Arnold was thinking of such a question as he, perhaps, sat in the moonlight and watched the calm sea? Could we say that learning to write even expert answers to such a question will deepen students' love of poetry, of contemplation, of the sea bathed in moonlight? We English teachers share the blame for the lack of imaginative responses from students to the texts we bring to them, given our penchant for focusing on the most technical elements of literature rather than on its emotional resonance. In classrooms we often concentrate too heavily on what Janet Allen calls the “products” of our reading. We ask students to interact with literature in ways that do not encourage them to develop long-term relationships with the texts. Unfortunately, this is especially true of poems.
Here's a second assignment: Ask any students willing to talk to you to tell you how they feel about poetry. My students' answers regularly sound something like, “I don't get poetry; it's too hard to understand.” Truthfully, this response does not surprise me. I could easily say back, “You know, sometimes I don't get it either.” The difference is, perhaps, I am willing to search inside a poem to see what might make me fall in love with it. I have discovered that loving poetry is more like a long-term relationship than it is like a sizzling affair. It requires patience and commitment, but the rewards are invaluable. Poems will sit beside you at your deathbed.
Reimagining Reading Comprehension
So, what are well-meaning language arts teachers to do to help students “get” poetry once they have been able to resist the Medusa-like attraction of the reading comprehension questions that follow the poems in the textbook? This question became a touchstone as I began to think more critically about the outcomes I wanted for students when they encountered poetry. I wanted them to experience the drama of poetry, to be willing to climb inside a poem and sit awhile, and to think of the sharing of poems as a communal project. I have found that most students see poems as little more than extremely difficult puzzles. They are not compelled to try to make sense of the visual pictures that might be created by fiddling around with the various elements, much less willing to ponder and respond to the emotional content or the philosophical concerns that might be shimmering beneath the language play. These types of outcomes seem much more connected to poetry's pulse than the ability to identify a poet's use of allusions or similes or metaphors. I believe that students need to have dramatic responses to the poems they read and to develop rich relationships with the language, the structures, and the ideas poems contain.
Dressing the Stage for the Project
In this article I describe one imaginative strategy developed 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. I was recently invited by the Carnegie Center for Literacy, a community literacy center in Lexington, Kentucky, to design a readers theater project for middle school students that would specifically address comprehension and fluency skills. The invitation gave me an opportunity to hone an instructional strategy I had been developing in which students become “collaborators with texts” by translating the text from one mode to another. This is a skill that Miles Myers describes in Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy as a trademark of those readers who are genuinely literate. Myers purports that readers who can apply their understanding of what they read by reinventing it in alternative formats signal their command of the material. Futhermore, he suggests that “the expert reader … often needs to work in a collaborative setting in order to solve particular kinds of problems.”
The Carnegie Center had specified two objectives: (1) they wanted the work to involve readers theater, an instructional intervention known to encourage reading comprehension and fluency partially because of its reliance on oral repetition of the text during rehearsals; and (2) they wanted to focus on middle school students, a group of readers who may no longer be receiving formal “reading” instruction in their language arts classes. I added a third goal: I wanted the students to work as a team to produce a final performance that they felt proud of—something that felt, for them, both challenging and satisfying. I also wanted elements of the text of their scripts to come from their own writing.
Earlier in the year, I had collaborated with college students in a Foundations of Education course to write original readers theater scripts that drew on their teaching journals, course texts, and notes they had made during classroom observations as source material. Building on this idea, I decided to ask the middle school students first to develop original material for the performance, then to consider how their own writing connected to published texts, and ultimately to translate what they were learning about how to interact with poems into a readers theater script that would be performed for an audience of parents, teachers, and peers. I saw the work as an extension of Allen's idea of guided reading, which she says brings “readers up to a conscious level of decision making to make sense of the text.” Allen says that she wants to encourage her students to become their own guides by relying initially on using modeled guidelines created for and with them.
Poetry served as the core content for the work. Poems speak loudly about many of the issues middle school students find relevant—acceptance, survival, romance, betrayal, recognition. I suspected that the students would join the workshop with specific biases about “how poems mean,” as John Ciardi says. I expected they would have been taught to think of comprehension of poetry as a sort of careful dissection, perhaps in a search for the individual elements that make the poem hold together as a piece of literature. I wanted to push the students to reconsider this idea and to experience provocative ways of examining poems, ways that felt more personal, more imaginative, and more dialogic. Teaching them exploratory methods for interacting with poems would not only allow the students to develop interesting material for a readers theater script, but it would also offer them experiences of analyzing poems that differ from the kind Billy Collins describes in “Introduction to Poetry”: “all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it”.
Imagining the Classroom Script
With the assistance of three college student volunteers, I implemented a series of four three-hour after-school workshops for seventh and eighth graders designed to offer the students a variety of interactions with poems. Each subsequent phase of the workshop asked the students to think in more sophisticated ways about how to “read” poetry. I was intent on pushing beyond the kind of simple comprehension questions the students were accustomed to answering in English class. I wanted them to examine, question, surmise, discuss, mimic, dramatize, and translate as they read and responded to poems, and I hoped they would develop a newfound sense of how to talk to, talk with, and talk about poetry.
The workshop included four dovetailed lessons, each developed to generate material for the script and also to offer students opportunities to practice their reading fluency. I laid out the objectives for the sessions using the framework included below. Each class meeting had a specific set of focuses that asked the students to practice collaboration, comprehension, and reading fluency skill sets:
Outline of Session Topics
Guiding Topics for Workshop Sessions
Learning a Language of Response (Priming for Fluency)
Writing Responses and Imitating Structures (Developing Fluency)
Generating a Performance Project (Practicing Fluency)
Performing for an Audience (Demonstrating Fluency)
Act I: Redefining Comprehension
The students began the first workshop by responding to a selection of poems about poetry including Billy Collins's “Introduction to Poetry,” Pablo Neruda's “Poetry,” and Archibald MacLeish's “Ars Poetica.” The poems were written on large pieces of colored paper and taped to the wall when the students came into the room. I gave them sticky notes and asked them to read the poems and then write a response using one of several sentence stems I provided. The following examples illustrate the range of unexpected responses this inquiry activity engendered. About Collins's “Introduction to Poetry,” whose speaker reveals an unease that the readers of poems are too concerned with interrogating lines for “meaning” to see the images that lie within and between the lines, one student wrote: “So I was sitting next to this poem waiting for the bus, and it … starts bossing me around saying 'I say, don't cross your legs.' It was small, had big ears and was singed.” To Neruda's poem, one student wrote, “In this poem's pockets are … birds, twigs, and the moon.” To “Ars Poetica,” a student wrote “This poem is hiding … its mismatched socks.” Another student wrote, “This poem is hiding … the secret of poetry and it's being stubborn as a mule about it.” The ways the students read and comprehended the poems were connected closely to the tone and content of the individual pieces. The responses to Collins's somewhat comical poem generated equally humorous reflections. To the more lyrical language of Neruda's poem on poetry, the students wrote lovely, creative lines of their own: “If this poem were a burrito, it would … belong to a nest of birds and would be filled with dirt and insects like bees” (see below).
The objective of asking the students to respond to the poems in such unconventional ways was to assist them in developing a dialogue with the poems that would not only assure an understanding of the ideas contained within each reading, but would also establish a personal connection with the pieces and allow the students to “talk back” to the ideas from what I call the “aesthetic perspective.” I was inviting the students to respond to art in “artful” ways, not in “academic” ways. And they accepted the invitation willingly. When asked at the end of the first session what words they would use to describe their experience, the students included thrilling, helpful, inspiring, fun, and cool.
A second objective was to develop student-generated poetic language that would ultimately be woven into the readers theater script. I built on this idea and on the opening exercises by asking students to read another set of poems and to respond with questions that the lines brought up for them. For this activity, I had chosen an unfamiliar and somewhat “difficult” poem (especially in terms of the contextualized language), Nikki Giovanni's “kidnap poem” from Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, which begins with these mysterious lines: “ever been kidnapped / by a poet”.
I asked the students to work line by line through the poem, pretending that they were “talking back” to the lines, asking interesting questions of them. This exercise prompted the students to interact with the poem in more explicit ways than was typical for them, encouraging them to imagine unusual, but helpful, questions for the poet:
Example of Student’s Response to “kidnap poem” by Nikki Giovanni
Giovanni’s Words Student’s Questions
“in lilacs” Are lilacs edible?
“blend into the beach” Like bury yourself in the sand?
“play the lyre” What does the lyre look like?
“to win you” Like a medal?
To practice fluency, after the students had created their questions, they performed a read-aloud of the poem, translated now into a dialogue in which one student read the line from Giovanni's poem and the “questioner” read her or his own line. Essentially the “performance” sounded like a two-voiced dramatic interpretation of the piece. (See Goudvis and Harvey and Wilhelm for more ideas on reading aloud as a tool for improving comprehension.)
I wanted the students to think of themselves as writers whose words and ideas are important. Dovetailing the professional poet's lines with the students' questions in the read-aloud privileged both voices—the voice of the practiced writer and the equally important voice of the apprentice working to understand how the language and ideas of the poem worked. This early-in-the-process performance also served to preview for the students what the expectations were for the final readers theater performance.
Act II: Generating a Dialogue with Poetry
In each session of the workshop, the students read poems aloud, wrote reflections in journals, developed “aesthetic” responses to the poems—both writing and performance-based—and drafted material that would be used in the final readers theater script. In the second session, for example, to prepare the students for performing for an audience, I asked them to choose lines from the poems to render as tableaux. The exercise was adapted from Brazilian theater activist Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed technique “Complete the Image,” in which players improvise sculptural images of concepts using only their bodies as clay, capable of conveying meaning through gesture (see photo below). This activity served as a rehearsal for the scenes the students would develop for the final performance.
The students also used model poems, such as Jane Yolen's satirical “Fat Is Not a Fairy Tale,” to generate poems of their own. One goal of this work was to offer the students the opportunity to interact with the poems in ways that were similar to how novice visual artists interact with the work of masters. At any fine museum, it is common to find students practicing their understanding of how to draw or paint by mimicking elements of the paintings in the galleries. I asked the students to respond to Yolen's poem by writing a poem of their own that mimicked her structures, her tone, and her use of language. Here is an excerpt from one student's response.
Student’s Response to “Fat Is Not a Fairy Tale” by Jane Yolen
Yolen’s Lines Student’s Lines
“I am thinking of a I am thinking of a
fairy tale, …” movie star,
where he is not
plastered on every girl’s
It was clear from the student's reworking of Yolen's concept that she understood the satirical tone and the import of the lines. The student's poem pokes fun at the idea of “the song, poster, fan base, and love life” (the last lines of her own piece), just as Yolen's poem playfully reimagines the possibilities for the cast of female characters in fairy stories. The “conversation” the student had with the poem was significant; she had to examine both the construction of the poem and the theme in order to mimic it.
Act III: Putting It Together
In the third session, the students worked together to draft the readers theater script by choosing lines from their journals, excerpts from the published poems we had read together, and excerpts from their own poems to generate a document that shimmered with the same kind of unusual imagery and unexpected juxtaposition of words and phrases that we often find in poetry. The directions for this assignment asked the students to look for “interesting” language, “compelling” ideas, and “memorable” lines:
Excerpt from “Doublespeak: Talking Back to Poetry”
Director I: Scene Eight: Interrogating Poetry
All Readers: The secret of poetry
Director II: Is
Reader 4: The fact that it’s wearing smiley-
faced boxer shorts
All Readers: The secret of poetry
Director I: Is
Reader 7: The moon sitting on the world,
All Readers: The secret of poetry
Director II: Is
Reader 6: A dark night in Central Park,
walking through streets, scary
woods and being ambushed
All Readers: The secret of poetry
Director I: Is
Reader 5: Wavy
I intentionally did not ask the students to attempt to create a linear narrative for the script. In fact, I encouraged them to let the lines “speak to each other in whatever language seemed appropriate.” The result was a highly improvisational and creative product. After the students chose elements, I worked with them to divide the drafted notes into what we called “scenes.” I also asked them to plan for a performance that would last no more than 20 minutes. My role in the drafting process was considerable. I coached the students as they mined their writing for lines and phrases; I guided them as they dovetailed the language; and I assisted them in seeing how certain lines might fit together to create a “scene.” Ultimately, I served as the editor for the project, making suggestions for revision and offering them insight into what it might be like to perform the script.
In the final workshop session, I rehearsed the students for the performance, helping them to establish a variety of tableaux that would accompany the lines and coaching them about the elements of a theatrical production: interpretation, intonation, volume, pace, gesture, etc. The students practiced performing the words, the phrases, the lines, and the scenes repeatedly. As the director, I stopped them often, asking them to reread or to practice the line again. The students found this process highly engaging; they were invested in creating a quality performance, and they worked diligently. We continued to revise the script as we rehearsed.
Act IV: Performing for an Audience
In the last hour of the final workshop, we moved to the school’s library and set the stage for the performance. Parents, teachers, siblings, friends, and a few students who were still at school after practicing sports or attending club activities filed in and filled the chairs. The students were nervous about the performance, but they were also excited to show their families and friends what they had created. They stumbled over words or lines occasionally as they performed, but it was clear to the students and to the audience that what they had been able to accomplish in terms of developing deep connections to interesting ideas and what they had been able to achieve in terms of reading aloud fluently in just a few weeks was unexpected, even remarkable:
It was even more obvious from the students’ responses to questions I asked about what they thought of the workshops that their level of engagement with the texts and with each other was high. One student wrote in her journal: “I think Reader’s Theater has been really fun. It’s helped me learn more about poetry and it’s enjoyable too. I sound like someone in a commercial. ‘Join Reader’s Theater and you TOO can learn about poetry. Amaze your friends with your knowledge of all things rhyming TODAY!” Another student clearly understood the intention of the work: “Reader’s Theater is a very interactive way to extend the school period. For example … language arts *cough, cough*. The workshop leader is slyly bringing us into an extra class of LA.” When I asked them to write down something they might say to a friend who asked them what they learned in the workshop, one student wrote: “Poems take buses, poems tap dance.” Another student suggested, “You are a poem. Get used to it.”
Act V: Drawing Conclusions
The students in the workshop developed a dialogue with each other and with the poems, signaling their considerable understanding of the authors’ writing structures, themes, use of literary techniques, and imagistic language. Allen reminds us that “choosing the right texts is critical to making students eager text users.” I would suggest that it is equally important, especially when the text is a poem, to choose the right strategies for asking the students to respond to the text. Activities that encourage a collaborative approach, both in terms of students working together in imaginative ways to deepen their understanding of the texts and in terms of interacting with the poems dialogically in an effort to deepen their relationships with the texts, offer unexpected learning rewards. Teachers who adapt “aesthetic” approaches to introducing the artful impulses that underlie poems run the risk of making textbook comprehension questions obsolete. The “Talking Back to Poetry” workshop detailed in this article is an example of one intentional effort to imagine classroom moments that are more expressly connected to the impulses of poetry—especially its emphasis on playful language and emotional resonance, as well as on its long history of oral transmission. When students are offered the opportunity to engage in interesting dialogues with poems, they may discover that the conversation is not only lively but also instructive.
Toby Emert is an associate professor of Education at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta, Georgia. His poems have appeared in a variety of journals, including the Yalobusha Review, the Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, the Wisconsin Review, Water-Stone Review, and Zone 3. A former middle and high school English and drama teacher, Emert travels throughout the U.S. offering...