Poetry is FUN!! (no really!)

The key to poetry in my opinion is figuring out: how are you going to introduce it? The introduction will set the tone for the whole unit. It is imperative that you, as the teacher, establish the expectations for reading poetry. Most students either have never read a poem, have a negative idea of what poetry is (super hard, confusing, etc.) or have never read a poem for fun.

My objective for starting the poetry unit was to establish that poetry is fun, expressive and unique. I choose this poem to read with students during the mini-lesson as it conveys the idea of experiencing the poem and enjoying it versus reading from a purely analytical, academic and “un-fun” way.

Here are the annotations and interpretations which were offered completely by the students in three different classes.

As we read together, I emphasized that knowing all the words should not be our focus (remember we are teaching all ELLs) but rather that we should be noticing the emotions, ideas and images that we experience in our reading.

“A poem, then, must be thought of as an event in time. […] It is an occurrence, a coming-together, a concentration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience; the encounter gives rise to a new experience, a poem.”
-The Poem as Event

Once we documented and discussed our noticings of emotions, ideas and images. Again, based on what the students notice about the text, I was able to map on and provide definitions for the things they noticeed. The literary terms and academic vocabulary for the ideas they were able to idneitfy on their own. With this approach, the student is empowered by knowing that they were able to identify key concepts within the text, and that their own thoughts and understandings of the text are validated. They are the primary sense maker of the text.

“Moreover, we see that even in these rudimentary responses the reader is paying attention to the images, feelings, attitudes, associations that the words evoke in him” T-he Poem as Event

In the poem above, I was able to intorduce the concepts of juxtaposition (between dark and light, fun and torture), symbolism (dark = not knowing something, light = knowing/ understanding), figurative language and imagery. We also took note of the narrator (point-of-view) and the “I” vs. “them” throughout the poem. We also looked at the structure and how the author organized the poem.

While other approaches may attempt to teach terminology, vocabulary or context prior to reading any text, but particularly a poem, our approach does the reverse. Allow the student to notice these moves by the author and then give them a label for their own thought.

“The student reader will be helped to handle critically his own responses to the text. He will be led to the self-ordering and the self-criticism which should usually precede the technical analysis, the labeling, classifying activities which often are made substitutes for poetic experience.” -The Poem as Event

Another way I attempted to keep students minds open and not be intimidated by poetry was to explain that there can be multiple interpretations. So in our lessons, after we would finish reading the poem, I would ask, “OK, what are some possible interpretations to this poem?” The objective of this was to open their mind to the fact that there is no SINGULAR and CORRECT interpretation. That their own perspectives and life experiences will make them interpret and experience the poem in different ways.

“Certain points emerge clearly from even these few excerpts. First of all, the reader is active. He is not a blank tape registering a ready-made message. He is actively involved in building up a poem for himself out of the lines. He must select from the various referents that occur to him in response to the verbal symbols. He must find some context within which these referents can be related. He must be ready to reinterpret earlier parts of the poem in the light of
later parts.” The Poem as Event

Presenting that students should open their mind to multiple possible interpretations was imperative to opening their minds up to imagining and creating meaning when they encountered symbolism. In their independent reading of a poem, when they could recognize that something was a symbol for something else, they usually came up with an initial idea of what it could represent. However, I was able to push their thinking by asking, “OK, great! What else could it represent, given what you have read in the poem.” Two poems in particular they did this with were “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.

“The reader is engaged in a creative process at once intensely personal, since the poem is something lived-through, and intensely social, since the text, as a “control,” can be shared with others. Assessment of the relative validity of different individual interpretations is hence possible, as we have seen, in terms of their
greater or lesser relevance to the text.” -The Poem as Event

So I knew how I wanted to start the poetry unit, and I knew how I wanted to run the lessons and teach into what students were noticing. However, what I had no idea how to do was run the independent/pair or group reading and the process of choosing their own poem. I figured that I could just lay out a bunch or random poems and let them choose, or I could organize them by theme and let them choose. What I didn’t like about organizing by theme is that even that much information of the poem prior to reading would put some type of idea of interpretation of the poem into the student’s minds. And I really wanted them to see that they could come to their own conclusions and interpretations without this prior information. When day 1 came, I hadn’t made up my mind so I just told the kids the two options and asked which they preferred. To my shock but pleasant surprise… they choose to choose without knowing a theme.

During their reading time, their instructions for reading were the same as our lessons together. Experience and FEEL the poem. IMAGINE what the author was presenting to you. This held more meaning than anything else. I told them this everyday… the point is not to be stressed trying to make meaning and notice academic terminology that the author used. I really wanted them to read and EXPERIENCE the poem and FEEL the emotions that the author created.

This post’s focus is on the instruction and reading of poetry. I will write another to address how students created responses and analysis for what they read.

The Poem as Event
Louise M. Rosenblatt
College English, Vol. 26, No. 2. (Nov., 1964), pp. 123-128.

*Mac sent this article after I had already started the unit as food for thought and I was so amazed at how much Louise Rosenblatt’s article “The Poem as Event” aligned with what I was doing with the students without my even having read it!