Not long ago, it was very difficult to find any literature that reflected the extraordinary mix of people and cultures in the United States. This was the case in part because many people believed that the experiences of some people were not worthy of classroom discussion. Things are much different today. Many people have come to experience the similarities and differences of the different cultures that make up America. Every culture has a rich literary tradition, inherent within them are ideas about life, love, values, peace and struggle.(p.1,
Many people speak about a “multi-cultural” society in the United States. Basically, a “multi-cultural” society is like a neighborhood or an apartment building. It consists of many families from a variety of origins. (p.3-5,
) On a smaller scale, this neighborhood or apartment building may be representative of the nation. (The divisions of the pie vary from place to place.) There are twenty families in this scenario. There are two African American families, one African family, one Puerto Rican family, one Mexican family, one Argentine family, one Brazilian family, one Korean family, two Japanese families, one family from India, one Pakistani family, two Canadian families, three families from the United States whose ancestry can be traced to England, Ireland and Norway, one Native American decent family and two families from the West Indies. Each family represents a sub-culture with in the neighborhood or complex which represents the United States. All of these people have different customs and traditions which have “melted” together to form what is now referred to as the “American” culture, totally unique onto itself. This is the wealth of background information that our students bring into our classrooms.
Poetry was, and in a very real sense, still is one of the most difficult subjects encountered in the Language Arts curriculum. We are asked to teach and learn poems about a variety of subjects with which we do not necessarily agree. Our students have their own ideas about the subject matter of these poems, but sadly, these ideas can not be really explored because the scope of the lesson does not allow for this. Poetry — as it is traditionally taught— is the one area that many students never fully accept and with which teachers rarely ever experience any degree of success. These unfortunate facts are in danger of being compounded in today’s self consciously multi-cultural settings.
As citizens of the United States, we have many avenues through which we can express ourselves. The one place where our freedom of expression is severely limited is in the realm of “Textual Poetic Dictatorship” also known as the classroom text. Students and teachers want freedom of interpretation inside the classroom. It is for this reason, compounded by the added frustration of feeling limited in what we can discuss with regard to poetry, that many teachers really lump all anthologized poetry into one all-encompassing unit called poetry — to be taught usually in May and brushed off for the rest of the year. I have learned not to use this all-encompassing unit at the beginning of the year because it usually makes students run from me and my class. They skip class if they have to so that they can avoid the “dictatorial realm” that poetry lessons tend to establish. I now understand though, that a large part of the problem stemmed from the way that I was taught poetry and the way that I ended up teaching poetry. I followed the examples that had been set for me by the people who taught me to teach, no matter how awful I found them then. These were what I knew best.
For the last two years, my toughest reading groups have been my eighth and sixth grades. Traditionally, they are the largest reading groups consisting of fourteen to eighteen lower leveled (established based upon scores in the reading comprehension section of the Metropolitan testing and the new Connecticut Mastery Test) students who meet during the worst time of day in my classroom. It is that time of day right after lunch and physical education when the greenhouse effect is at its peak. Most of the time my students try to cut up about the odors of perspiration from their classmates or try to sleep while avoiding ten minutes of detention for sleeping in class. It is for this reason that I have chosen these two groups to be the focus of this unit. The lessons is of course adaptable to other grade levels.
From middle school through college, I regarded poetry as a mere annoyance. I had, somewhere in my fifth-grade year, lost any feeling that I once had for poetry. Oddly enough this just about corresponded to the time when I thought that I was too old to be read bed-time stories and poems. I rarely had an opportunity to write any poetry, but I
had lots of opportunity to write long essays about poems that I barely understood the discussions of. Gradually I learned he art of remembering classroom lectures and re-working them so that they sounded original. I guess that all my teachers really wanted to see was that I remembered what they had said because any attempts at originality were met with disapproval. Regurgitated information is not good enough for me, though. I don’t want my students to think of poetry as just another piece of literature to be read, discussed, written about several times, tested on and then filed away to make room for another piece of information in the endless stream of force fed information.
Poetry written before 1960 seemed irrelevant. I could not directly relate the subject of the poems to anything in my time. Poetry of the 1960’s and 1970’s was not taught at my school, though we were living the times. Prior to twelfth grade, I really wasn’t aware of the younger, more “militant” poets, female poets, Native American or Hispanic poets. Many of my teachers did not recognize their contributions to literature in any case. Not having much in the way of background to share with my students about these poets, I have never really been comfortable teaching their works. I tend to gravitate, like most people, to what I am most familiar with. I am sure that, as I did before them, my students see poetry as a closed system of language written by a peculiar group of artists who viewed the world in a specially encoded way to which they, the students are not privy. My students constantly echo James Dickey when he writes in his essay, “How to Read Poetry.” “What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? Many have suspected that it was invented as a school subject because we have to take exams on it.”(p. 375
Dickey goes on to further explain, “But that’s not what poetry feels like either. When you really feel it, a new part of you happens, an old part of is renewed, with delight and surprise.” (p.375
[Bronze]) In my opinion, Dickey is saying that not understanding poetry the way the textbook says that I should is fine. What I feel after an encounter with the poem and what the poem awakens inside me are the most important things. These views, when they are articulated comprise what poetry really is. How then do we assign grades to our students?
Essay tests, that almost forgotten art of stating your opinions and being able to support these opinions with what the poet has said. Essay testing is not a new idea. It is, however, an idea whose time has come again. As Language Arts teachers we want easy lives too. We want multiple choice tests because they simplify the grading tedium. Our students, however suffer because they do not get enough practice with this form of expression. We can not expect our students to write well if we do not allow them opportunities to express themselves in the area of writing. This type of testing falls right into line with the written portion of the Connecticut Mastery Testing in our schools. It is a way of teaching that all arguments must be supported. This too is a form of analysis, but it is analysis of our own ideas, not of ideas which are forced upon us. The desire to rebel and to give up are not as forth-coming as they are when students feel trapped into supporting an idea that they do not fully understand.
The idea of writing for fun, to express yourself and to have an avenue into which you can vent is not a new one. School systems surrounding the New Haven district have been doing this for at least three years in preparation for the CMT. They have reported jumps in test scores which they all attribute to the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” Students are encountering poetry and the essay meanwhile teachers feel the inner satisfaction of not teaching specifically to the test; yet, adequately preparing students according to curriculum mastery requirements.
Because of the ways that we were taught, as teachers, we have for far too many years been held captive by the who’s, what’s, where’s and why’s of literary forms (other than poetry). The rigidity of these questions does not adequately fit the “feeling” one brings to poetry, and so our students are left torn and frustrated between the feeling—the enjoyment of poems— and rote acquisition —what I am required to learn about poems. In my experience, while middle school anthologies offer a variety of poems, they tend to stay with the childhood rhythmical and rhyming variety of poems which is safe. (p. XXIX
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red:
) This type of poem does not require a lot of in depth analysis, but the students, whose ideas we are most concerned with, are not allowed to be fully explored. (Chances are these ideas are not given a chance because of the fear of the arguments from the students about feeling belittled by the poetry choice.) Anthologies go a step further in that they provide answers to the who, what, where, and when, but leave both teachers and students lacking the answers or routes to the answers to the whys? Are my feelings important or irrelevant? As teachers, we need to convey to our students that our responsive feelings and the question of how these poems have impacted our lives are the most important part of the poetry lesson.
Again in his essay, “How to Read Poetry”, Dickey further states that “The beginning of your true encounter with poetry should be simple. It should surpass all classrooms, all textbooks, courses, examinations and go straight to the things that make your own existence exist.” (p.376,
[Bronze]) To this same end I have heard that, Emily Dickenson has said that good poetry should make you feel as if the top of your head had been taken off. Poetry then, and its meaning should come from within us: from the tips of our toenails to the tips of the strands of the tips of the strands of the hair on our heads and all of the stuff in between.
Ignorance is the best asset a poetry teacher could have because it affords the opportunity not to be able to lay down the law. As educators, we tend to hinder our students when very early in their educational careers we start to teach them with much more information than necessary about the poet’s life and place on a historical time line, and then we expect them to assimilate all of this information and say what and how they feel about the poem. This was difficult for most of us in college! When we were in college we had to learn that information because we had to relate the line in the poem to the context of the poem in the author’s life as it relates to the times in which the author lived. Our students should not, in middle school and early high school, be required to respond to questions like that. This is how we kill their feeling for poetry. In the past, when I have required parts of this question to be answered by eleventh graders, in American Literature, I’ve heard “who cares?” When I’ve taught my middle school eighth graders like this, I’ve been met with blank stares. I really cannot blame my students for this, but can you imagine my frustration, Through the implementation of this unit in my classroom, I hope to take away the frustration I have felt with teaching poetry and turn the “who cares” and blank stares into busy students reading and interacting with poetry.
Being most familiar with middle school students, and having already outlined my challenge, I realize that these are the years when we can either make or break great poets. Sixth and eighth grades offer a wide enough range of reading and writing ability levels to focus on poetry journals and other non-demeaning forms of instruction while offering a good wealth of prior knowledge for expanding literary horizons. While background information will be required, overkill can cause frustration and defeat the purpose of the unit. The information that they will need to understand the poem or gather meaning and feeling from the poem may be all that they need. A translated , or updated word or two and/or a picture are all that most students need to form an idea before they can expand upon it.
Working on the premise that young readers will respond to good carefully chose poetry in the same way that they respond to good, carefully chosen fiction, my unit will focus on integrating the reading and writing of poetry in the classroom lessons through out the year. I feel that if poetry is to thrive as something to read and write, then it must not be treated as a curriculum unit taught only when there is nothing left to teach. It must be considered and treated like the good stuff that language is made of. Poetry must be an integral part of the classroom from the first day of school to the final day. (p. 53,
) To achieve this, the unit will focus on the mimicry of good poetic forms and on the writing process; in the end, this kind of practice will provide my students with a variety or audiences beyond the walls of the classroom. The students will feel empowered. Everything hat I have read to date indicates that, more than just simple reading, a hands on approach ( gathering specific word meaning, deriving feeling, picturing and mimicking of poetry) is the most effective method of engaging students in the ideas, techniques and pleasures of poetry.
Reading poetry aloud can give a teacher confidence as—well—as instill confidence in their students. We need not be Elizabeth Taylors or James Earl Joneses to read to our classes. Students appreciate sincere expressive readers. Reading aloud gives classes a taste for words, a phenomenon which is often lost in the silent reading activities of a middle school. By modeling this form of dramatic interpretation, students gain confidence in the art of reading aloud. (p.53,
) Reading aloud allows students to take a poem that feels “like them” and make it come alive for the class. Reading aloud also gives them confidence in their ability to share the final copy of the poem that they end up creating. Having them become poetry readers provides possibilities for discussion and other activities in dialogue. Anything that our students read, think or talk about can become a source of future journal entries.
Reading poetry aloud and incorporating the writing process into a poetry lesson reinforces the idea that language is at the heart of good poetry. Usually, simple ordinary language used in inventive ways holds meaning beyond the words themselves. The lessons go best when they progress form simple to sophisticated. As a starting point, students can write acrostic poetry or three to six lined formula poems like the surrealistic exercise in my introductory sample lesson. As students gain confidence, they will feel more comfortable trying to write longer poems. Emphasize that rhyming in poetry is good, but it is not a necessity. Rhyming poetry, while it lends to the obvious rhythm of the poem, tends to sound elementary or like nursery rhymes. Despite these limitations, many students tend to prefer “rhymies” because they feel safe with the end rhyme to solve their problems. (p.53,
) They know what sound the line is supposed to end with even though when they try to be serious with this type of poetry they end up writing poetry that sounds whimsical or comical. Humorous and nonsense rhymes form a good middle ground because while they must make sense, their subject and their tone make the effect of the rhyme acceptable.
The actual process of mimicking poetry is done on a poem-by-poem basis. Students first engage in a reading or listening activity involving the selection for the lesson. The next step involves updating the poem so that the students can relate to the meaning conveyed. For example, the line in the translation of Lorca’s poem “Arbole, Arbole”, “the wind, playboy of towers, embraces the girl about her waist.” (p.131
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red:
) This line may require a little bit of explanation as it employs a little personification. The wind acts like a flirtatious man who moves from girl to girl with embraces. As the poem probably takes place in Spain, a little explanation of bull-fighters and Andalusian ponies is probably also necessary as they are also referred to in the story. The teacher may ask students to write a poem about an element of nature in a new way, giving it human characteristics and a place or setting. The poem also makes use of vivid colors. Since this poem was originally written in Spanish, and both a Spanish and English copy should be given to the students, the teacher may prefer to ask the students to write a poem using color words either in Spanish or English.
The form of the writing process that I have chosen is a personal version of the seven step writing process developed and taught to me by Nina Zaragosa in 1988. The seven steps in the process are: 1. Plan; 2. Write; 3. Edit; 4. Re-write; 5. Peer Edit; 6. Publish; and finally 7. Share. In step one, the students choose one or two of their favorite poems among those they have already written and would like to see published in a quarterly magazine. In step two, students should try to re-work the poem to make it longer and/or more exciting. Sometimes when students re-write or add to one of their original creations, they end up changing the piece so much that the end result is what the student really wanted to impart to the reader.
In step three, the students may find that they like to addition to the poem better than their original version, but they should be encouraged to look at the new version of the poem and think about parts that they would like to keep or omit. Sometimes the students may still find that they like the like the addition to the first draft of the poem better than their first draft poem because the old part of the poem seems too close to the idea or work of the original author whose work was mimicked. In step four, the author re-writes the new and improved version of he poem. When this step is complete, they are ready for step five, peer-editing.
During the peer-editing segment, each student gives his or her poem to two or three other students to check for spelling and offer suggestions on improving the descriptiveness of the poem. Through these suggestions the author can pick and choose what they would like to keep and add to their poem. In step six the author gets to illustrate and write the ‘perfect final copy of their poem, and in step seven they can share their poem with their classmates, reading the poem as it “should” be read and/or have it published in the school newspaper or posted on the wall outside the classroom. Students may also use this format when they are asked to write a review or the poetry collection selected for the unit. There is no destructive or constructive criticism during share time and it is the only time in the process when talking is not allowed.
Share time is a very special time. It is done once in a while and by appointment only. Students have to wait a while and hence they are more eager to read their final copy when the time comes. During share time students must be reminded that there is no criticism or talking. Students are required to listen and applaud each participant’s work. Share time is also a good time to have visitors come to your classroom from other classes, and other staff who are able to take a break. Coffee and tea should be on hand. Creating a special atmosphere during share time is a good way to encourage student participation. Share time should be planned as a culminating activity for the unit.
Teachers using this unit may focus on any poetry that they choose. Each unit should consist of two poems it they are short, one long poem or several excerpts from longer poems which revolve around a common theme. Kenneth Koch, for example, the author upon whose research the idea of forming mini-units is based, suggests that William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” can be the poem for the unit based on the question “How did something get to be the way that it is?” Like Koch, I have chosen poetry written for adults as a foundation in how words are used to convey profound meanings. The main goal of this unit is to have students take charge of language and not feel dominated and afraid of it.
Each mini unit consists of four parts. The first part is the introduction to the poem. It is copied and handed out to the students. They are allowed time to read it to themselves and are encouraged to jot down any ideas that they may have about it. Then they are to silently read along while the teacher reads the poem aloud to them. The teacher should read the poem to the students the first two or three times units of poetry are used then, randomly assign the reading to a student who can stay after school to prepare for it. The students don’t become dependent on the teacher always being the first one to read the poem aloud.
Once the poem has been read through in its entirety, a second reading for clarification of unfamiliar words and clarification of the meanings of words and phrases which are stilted or are no longer in use today becomes the second part of each mini unit. Sometimes a poem can become clear by making use of the picture or scene that it evokes. In step three, the students are asked to create a poem of their own which may be similar to the poem just read based only on the discussed theme of the poem. Finally in step four, the evaluation tool of the unit comes into play. The tool that you choose may be the poem written in response to the assignment or the written critique or a written essay can compare their first impressions of the poem to the ideas that they have about the poem since they’ve written about them. The unit may last anywhere from five to eight half hour sessions or, if used on the upper elementary level English class, for two one hour sessions on two consecutive poetry days.
At the end of this unit I have provided eight sample mini unit lessons around specific listed themes. The students should have a vote in which units they use; however, the teacher should decide how many units there should be and when the units are taught. This decision should be made after implementing the introductory unit which directly follows. Remember not to bunch the units up together in one month. Try to do the units throughout the course of the year. Three or four units plus the introductory unit is six to ten longer adult reading level poems in one school year as opposed to twenty rhymies in one month; the result will be worth your time.