Suniti Namjoshi, an Indian poet and writer, said, "Poetry is the sound of the human animal." Namjoshi delves into two important ideas here. The first is that poetry is somehow a visceral experience implying that poetry is instinctive and that every person has this innate ability. This will give confidence to apprehensive students who may have poetry anxiety. Second, Namjoshi emphasizes a component of poetry that is often overlooked, sound. In his "Essay on Criticism," Alexander Pope writes, "The
must seem an
" indicating that the sound of a line within a poem should implicate the meaning of the text. Along with other style devices, students will give sound to their poetry as a further component of the sense that they are trying to convey in their poetry. It is in these two ways that this quote becomes our inspiration in this unit. Students will use the crafts learned in each lesson to answer the question: "How can you express your human animal in words, sounds, and emotion?" Middle school students are unique in their own way and, as teenagers, need confidence to find their inner creature and give it voice in a positive, safe place. This unit intends to unleash that animal from within students through a poetic unit seeded in Language Arts skills but nourished by imagination and sound.
One may ask: Why study poetry and not a coming of age novel or short stories students can relate to? Poetry provides many practical applications for middle school adolescents who, very often, lack motivation. Chiefly, poetry is appealing for many reasons including length. Prose can be complex and extensive; however, poetry is short making it easier to see the text as a whole. Therefore, it encourages deeper investigation and allows students to weigh each word or phrase. Poetry is replete with figurative language and sounds that convey a multi-layered meaning adding a sense of mystery and understanding. Middle school students can also personally connect to the emotions provoked in many poems. Often a poem becomes a visceral experience for students, as indicated by Namjoshi, awakening deeper understandings within the kids. Poetry can even be a mnemonic device to help in other subjects. Therefore, by studying the patterns of sounds in poetry and practicing the creation of these patterns, students will learn a skill useful throughout their educational careers.
Through the years, I have noticed many of my students lack the skills to turn their words into poetry. As the demands of Language Arts teachers grow due to standardized testing, they are forced to focus on what are determined to be the "most valuable skills" in order to pass the Connecticut Mastery Tests. Specific skills which help to form a general understanding of the text, develop interpretations from the text, make connections to the text, and examine the content and structure of the text have been the concentration. Although author's craft is studied within examining the content and structure of a text, often the style devices are omitted or saved until last due to all of the students' other academic needs. Sound and tone are poetic topics that are never even reached even though they are fundamental to expression and comprehension. This is a growing problem every year and has been evident through the classroom assessments I have given to my students. This curriculum unit will teach students to use style devices such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, etc. in a natural way in their writing without necessarily terming these crafts until the end of the unit. I intend not only to concentrate on the proper use of such tools. I also want students to understand how other authors use them. I plan to use model poems as well as songs to show their effective use.
Besides the many different tools students have to use in order to help create or enhance their poetry, such as word use, figurative language, and the like, one of the most prevalent yet unassuming devices available to students studying poetry falls upon deaf ears. That device – sound, is one of the most unconcealed components of the art of poetry and yet one of the most elusive. The deliberate tone used to communicate the poetry expresses the meaning of the words. Over the years, I have taught many different lessons on the use of all the writing tools available in order to convey meaning to the reader, but I have spent little time focusing on simple sound as a way to communicate meaning. Students rarely consider the way something is read an important element to understanding the text. In the unit, students will study sound as a form of communicating ideas. Students will identify different sounds or patterns of sound in poems and words and interpret it as further analysis. We will study the difference in meaning and emotion a poem can convey when it is read in different ways.
By studying these two important elements, the analytical conventions of figurative language and the mystery and emotion of sound in poetry, this curriculum unit will attempt to inspire students to not only effectively use the tools of style available to them, but add personality to the way they express their pieces. Students will study model pieces in order to create their own repertoire of art and share these pieces of art in the safety of the classroom.
There is a new middle school Language Arts curriculum in New Haven as well. Each quarter of the school year focuses on a different genre and includes specific core texts to be used to teach particular skills. The third quarter in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade concentrates primarily on poetry and reader's theater; however, unlike the other units, this period does not include any core texts or specific poems to be studied. Not only does the curriculum not outline what to read, it also does not give a clear plan as how to teach poetry. Therefore, teachers must create their own poetic canon to be studied within the quarter and design an approach to the subject. In this sense, the curriculum is flexible and teaching can be based on kids' interests and needs.
This unit includes a new, yet classic, poetic canon of works to be used as models to help develop students' poetic aspirations. It will initiate an open mic forum where students can give voice to their poems in order to exhibit mastery of all the tools mentioned as well as present the sounds of their poetry. It is also in this forum that students will be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the melodic harmony within their pieces and identify the message that those pieces may convey. By understanding the significance of expression in poetry, the unit establishes the impact of sound in poetry.