Imagine a PE class where students where students watched videos of great athletes, learned rules, and memorized terms, but never actually played the game. Imagine a music class where students attended concerts, studied music theory and music history, but never actually sang or played a note. Imagine an English class where students read great poets; learned literary terms like paradox, assonance, and metaphor; and never actually wrote a poem.
Oh, wait…that was my class for much of my teaching career.
But turning students loose to write whatever they wanted didn’t exactly promote learning—the poetry was either Dr. Seuss-ish rhythm-and-rhyme or else emotive rambling. No one was learning anything. I did try it, but I quit.
Then I realized that as a volleyball coach, I don’t just set up the court and say, “Have fun.” (Neither do PE or music teachers.) I teach terms, strategies, rules, plays. We watch each other, other teams, and ideally, professionals. And we try it ourselves. That’s the goal. Some of us learn that we’re have a gift for this, and doing it well is satisfying and fun. Some of us simply learn that it’s a lot harder than it looks. All of us grow in our appreciation for seeing it done well.
This is exactly what I want for my students out of a study of poetry!
So here’s what I do: After we’ve done a close reading and annotation of a poem, I give the students a generalized template of what the poet did, and ask them just to try a rough draft. (See below for samples.) They share it with their table group of 4, and at the end of the reading part of the unit, I ask students to choose one rough draft poem to publish as a final draft. (See below for samples.) I also ask them for a paragraph on why they chose that poem to publish.
Here’s what students said about the poem they chose to publish (and one even broke into poetry to say it!):
I chose this poem because even though the word number was small, it had a strong meaning to it….Also, I liked how the original poem used similes as well as paradox. While I was writing this poem, I learned how to…use imagery, and I think I did well on the 2nd and 3rd line. I enjoyed doing this because I was able to compare happiness with some other thing (sunflowers). Even though I don’t like writing poems, I had fun and it was easier for me to write it because of the template we got.
…. I liked the way the author used such small words to convey an idea so big….Whenever I attempt to write poetry, I always try too hard to make it really deep and philosophical, but when writing these poems I realized that all you have to do is convert your feelings into words and add a little zest to it with poetic elements. I’m really looking forward to continuing this unit!
As I thought and wrote, tried and hoped,
I learned ideas are hard to come by.
So if there’s one you really like, don’t give up.
Put pencil or pen onto paper,
Continue continue to tamper.
.... I have been so used to writing with a certain rhyme scheme or meter. This one has neither devices, but I am proud that it still sounds like a poem when read. To make it poetic, I used other devices such as alliteration in line 12, parallelism in line 13, assonance in line 3, consonance in 16, and attempted to incorporate a paradox in line 16. I enjoyed voicing out my opinion because the things in this poem are true, but to express it in a poem is much more fun than just plainly stating what I prefer.
I liked how this enabled me to say a lot with a few tiny words. I learned that if you phrase things correctly you can give it a powerful meaning. My poem summed up where I want to travel very briefly, but also with a lot of explanation.
…Through writing this poem I was able to learn how to use the different poetic devices since just reading a poem and trying to understand it is difficult. However, by actually writing one made me understand how to use alliteration, internal rhyme, and figurative image better.
These are some students who understand and appreciate poetry! But can they do it?
Here are some of their poems:
My #1 Wish
I have a huge bundle of wanderlust
A big bag whose satin-smooth borders contain
My traveling aspirations
I open the bag so my adventures can finally begin
I open the bag to set my wildest dreams free
Like how a willow tree can't beautify the earth if the seed isn't planted
Its smooth, gracefully elongated wood with gently weeping leaves are held in the seed
And will only emerge when planted
Heated by fever
Seems I’ve seized disease
Today I bear company
Of my brother
Who pushes boredom at bay
With a simple puppet show
And a few others
A week later
We switched places
Kindness doesn't always get a trophy
A Simple Statement
I prefer solid colors.
I prefer phone calls.
I prefer homes with no paintings and vases.
I prefer water
To orange juice or tea
I prefer the smell of fresh laundry to perfume.
I prefer winter.
I prefer silk.
I prefer rice and plain foods alike.
I prefer brutal honesty
To lies that spare my feelings.
I prefer people with the same personality
In school, at work or at home.
I prefer matte.
I prefer pencil.
I prefer simplicity to ease the complexity of my mind.
One Model Poem Final
Out of hundred students
Those who care for their grades
Those who don’t
--nearly all the rest,
Those who work hard for their planned future
Those who work hard,
because they’re pressured into it
Has a future
--A hundred out of a hundred
Unchanged, probably as long as the world exists
I’m always in awe at the end of the study at how much students learn by doing. And yet every year, as I proceed through the unit anew and get crunched for time, I come so close to dropping writing to models so we can read a few more poems. Every time I don’t give in to this pressure, I’m so thankful.
How do you set up a context where your students learn by doing?
Here are the professionals we observed: “For the New Year, 1981” by Denise Levertov; “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden; “Possibilities” and “A Contribution to Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska.
Here are the templates we followed:
Here are other templates I’ve used in the past: