Saturday, April 14, 2018

2018 Bonus Post -- Reckoning With Enemies

Thanks for following along with Go Poems this year.  Enjoy using the 30 new ideas (and 30 ideas from 2017) in your classroom, and look for new posts coming in March of 2019.  If you are interested in writing a post for Go Poems, please contact me on Twitter @theVogelman, as it is never too early to start planning posts for next year. 

For now, enjoy this special bonus post from Carol Jago to conclude our project this year, and help your students reckon with "enemies."

by Carol Jago

Public discourse has become brutally contentious. We seem to be losing the ability to consider those who think differently from us with any equanimity.

In his poem “Enemies” Wendell Berry reflects on this dilemma.

1. Before reading the poem, ask students to write for a few minutes about whether they think one should forgive one’s enemies.

2. Read the poem aloud and then have students read the poem once more silently. Invite them to talk with a partner about the apparent contradiction expressed in the first two stanzas.

3. How is forgiveness like “sunlight / on a green branch”?

4. What would it mean to think of enemies “as monsters like yourself”?

Further Reading: 

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school in Santa Monica, CA for many years and served as president of the National Council of Teachers of English. The Poetry Foundation website is her “go to” source in April and always.

Friday, April 13, 2018

2018 Poem #30 -- Mythology Goes To the Hairdresser

by Kate Baker

Jehanne Dubrow’s “Penelope Considers a New Do,” published in her compilation Stateside, is one of my favorite poems to read with students who are studying Homer’s Odyssey as it puts a modern and alternative perspective on the mythology of circumspect Penelope, Odysseus’ long enduring wife. Dubrow’s poem is rich in symbolism and allusion as she channels Penelope’s tale, weaving it into her own story of being a military wife who is home while the husband is deployed overseas. There is even an audio version available, read by the poet.

Students can begin by close reading the poem, identifying the modern and mythical allusions, enjambed and end-stopped lines, and examples of alliteration as they discuss the implications of trying to change one’s hairstyle in attempt to better one’s life: how does one’s appearances dictate one’s mindset and perspective on life? Can cutting one’s hair really result in an improved outlook? Will magazines and hairstylists realistically offer solutions to one’s plights in life? Students can consider how Penelope has coped with Odysseus’ absence and compare/contrast her coping strategies to their own understandings of waiting and identity.

But the beauty of Dubrow’s poem is found in the structure: four stanzas of four lines each with each line indented so as to give the poem its shape -- anyone who has cut his/her bangs will recognize that the stanzas look like sections of hair that have been snipped on an angle. To extend the lesson, students can work in groups or individually to write or find other poems that are written in basic block format and rearrange the text so as to give it a symbolic shape or visual design. The rearranged and original poems can be presented to the class and students can discuss the artistic choices made in the arrangement. 

Further Reading:

English teacher, coach, and author Kate Baker is on the executive boards of the Flipped Learning Network and the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. Adept at integrating technology in her classes using flipped-blended learning strategies, Kate has been recognized as a CEL’s TEacher Leader of Excellence for 2017, a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator, and an Edmodo Certified Trainer. Twitter: @KtBkr4 Blog: Baker's BYOD

Thursday, April 12, 2018

2018 Poem #29 -- Bringing History Into the English Classroom

“Propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers” (Zusak 59).

While reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief with my ninth-grade Honors English classes, one question continually arises: How could people let the atrocities of the Holocaust happen? In order to help students better understand the power that Adolf Hitler held over Nazi Germany, I lead them in an exploration of propaganda, beginning with a poem written by Austrian children in the 1930s. Students are horrified to see “Thoughts on the F├╝hrer” elevate Hitler to a deity with the authority to lead—and cleanse—the people. I pose two questions to students as they consider the poem: How do the young people writing this poem feel about Hitler? How do you think they were stirred to feel so strongly?

Every class begins with Poem of the Day, which quickly engages students and directs their thinking to the day’s content, but this poem particularly sparks student interest. As the lesson progresses, I show pictures of propaganda in society today and in Nazi Germany, and students analyze the emotional impact of each example. The New York Times documentary  “From North Korea, with Dread” even includes an example of contemporary students singing a tribute that resonates eerily with this poem. I also include primary source images of indoctrination in German classrooms and Hitler Youth, bringing to life the experiences of main characters from The Book Thief, Liesel and Rudy. Students then apply their knowledge of propaganda to The Book Thief, combing the novel for evidence of how Nazi propaganda influences characters’ actions.

When studying a historical fiction work such as The Book Thief, poetry proves to be an insightful window into the past that simultaneously facilitates student understanding of history and stretches their thinking.

Further Reading:

Amanda Kloth is an English Language Arts student teacher and history enthusiast from southeastern PA.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

2018 Poem #28 -- Introducing Students to Poetry Through "Introduction to Poetry"

by Will Melvin

Quite often when I “teach” poetry, students want to drive down to the root question: what does it mean? I sometimes struggled to show students that oftentimes poetry doesn’t have to mean anything. That an emotion, an idea, a moment can be just that, and that a poem can scoop up that emotion, idea, or moment and serve it to you in a delightful way without asking anything in return. Students struggle with that—heck, adults struggle with that!—and Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” helps me work through this struggle with them.

I usually begin by asking students to journal about subjects about which they a great deal. I ask them to think about things that people “get wrong” about their subject. I discuss teaching and some of my pet peeves concerning the work we do as educators and how some things that other teachers do can pick at me a bit. The students generate their topics and their small frustrations, and we read “Introduction to Poetry.”

Collins’s poem is delightful in its simplicity. We read it a few times together in class and really discuss the poem’s form: how Collins uses personification and metaphor to talk to us about how he wants us to read poetry. We notice the severe shift in the poem’s finale, how Collins turns the tone through his final use of metaphor:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Those two stanzas provide a touchstone for our work with poetry for the remainder of the year: poetry just is; it needn’t be anything beyond that. And that lesson can be a powerful reminder for students.

Once we have unpacked the form and the use of metaphor, the poem provides an opportunity for us to write alongside Collins. We go back to our opening freewrite, and I sketch out my “Introduction to Teaching” while students compose their own “Introduction to ____” poems.

This exercise is a blast for three reasons. First, students toy with voice, metaphor, and imagery in personal ways. Second, they thematically practice what Collins preached, again in personal ways. And third, I get to know more about my students through this exercise. They introduce me to video games, traveling, important places, “letting go,” growing up, and on and on. Their topics inform me about their lives in ways only poetry can.

And that is always a nice reminder of the power of introducing students to poetry.

Further Reading: 

Will Melvin teaches tenth and eleventh-grade English at CB South High School in Warrington, PA. Follow him on Twitter (@CB_Melvin10).

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

2018 Poem #27 -- Over Our Heads On Purpose

by Brett Vogelsinger

Teens have an complicated relationship with poetry.  On one hand, we have some students pouring their hearts out in private, personal journals or publicly alongside the Instapoets without even an invitation from a teacher; on the other hand, we have students who perceive the genre as pretentious and irrelevant, who roll their eyes the first time a teacher mentions the word "poem."  How do we bridge that gap and invite students from both ends of this spectrum to learn something new with us? 

One trick is finding a poem with just the right level of challenge. 

As teachers we are sometimes told to "pitch it where they can hit it," encouraged to give students reading and materials that allow them to experience success.  We are also told to "scaffold" so that students can grasp challenging texts and tasks as we gradually reduce our level of intervention and support.  

Students can also benefit by pitching a poem where they cannot hit it yet, as long as the poem is a brief one.  We can then challenge them to join us in building a scaffold. 

One such poem is "Landscape" by Robin Coste Lewis. The poem is approachable in that it is short and none of the words are, in isolation, unfamiliar or intimidating.  The poem itself, however, is not completely understandable on the first read.  Invite students to ask questions of the poem and determine how they might unlock more meaning. 

For example, one of the first questions that arises with this poem for me and my students:  Who or what is "Mamere?' Why the references to borders and fires? Is this a poem about an individual or history or a conflict?  How might the copyright date of 2018 be significant? How might we find answers to these questions? 

We talk about how we might research the meaning of "Mamere" and how the poet's background and biography might influence our reading of the poem.  How might we connect this to something else we have read? How can we reach the poet to ask a question?  Where is the poet being intentionally ambiguous? Where does she want us to be a little confused? 

I will not share my own interpretation or research on the poem here.  I invite you instead to explore it with your students and model with your students what it looks like to be a little bemused and perplexed in your reading and the joy of finding your way out of a more challenging poem.  Both the natural poets and the skeptics may find this approach engaging in your classroom, especially when your own 

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He is the faculty adviser for the school literary magazine, Sevenatenine.  Besides his annual blogging adventure on this site, he has published work on Nerdy Book Club, The New York Times Learning Network, and Edutopia and you can follow him on Twitter (@theVogelman).

Monday, April 9, 2018

2018 Post #26 -- Take a Bite Out of Poetry

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

During a summer graduate class, I found myself re-inspired while participating in a poetry lesson modeled after Nancie Atwell’s writing-reading workshop. That afternoon, I dusted off Naming the World, making a promise to include more poetry the following school year.

Weeks later, I started a September class period with a poem by Ronald Wallace. To engage my students, I projected “You Can’t Write a Poem about McDonald’s” on the board and asked them what they thought.

Some groups, wanting to disprove the statement, created their own poems. Other tables believed McDonald’s was not an appropriate topic for a poem or would not make a strong writing piece. Still, others wondered if the clause was in fact a poem since quotation marks flanked both sides of it.

Once table groups shared their theories, I revealed that “You Can’t Write a Poem about McDonald’s” was indeed a poem. Students exclaimed phrases such as, “No way!” or “I told you so!” or “Really?” Intrigued by their enthusiasm, I wondered what their responses would be to the actual text.

After reading the poem and inviting students to share their highlighted lines, our room erupted with meaningful conversations. My nervous-unsure-second-week-of-school seventh graders transformed into investigators and analyzers. As I moved between groups, listening in on their discussions and asking questions to push their thoughts further, their commentary on diction, personification, imagery, similes, and symbolism led to dialogues on larger issues of consumerism, waste, world hunger, food accessibility, and the fast-food industry.

Additionally, we revisited “You Can’t Write a Poem about McDonald’s” during a later class period to discuss effective titles since my students’ initial reactions were so intense.

This poem’s ability to challenge my students’ beliefs of acceptable poetry topics while inviting them to take a platform through their own writing has made it one of my favorites.

Further Reading:

Lauren Heimlich Foley teaches seventh-grade English Language Arts at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

2018 Poem #25 -- Reclaiming Identity

by Kelsey Hughes

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool” is a perfect choice for the classroom for many reasons—its brevity (which is, of course, appealing to students at first glance) allows for deep-digging into a small space; the speaker’s voice is palpable and relevant to many teens; and the possibilities for connecting the poem’s themes and tone to a class novel are endless.

This year, I used “We Real Cool” when teaching S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I presented the poem to students at the beginning of class and let Brooks read the poem herself (Listen here). Her introduction provides a good backstory before reading the poem, and by listening to Brooks read aloud, the students are able to benefit from hearing her rhythm and her voice as she reads the poem beautifully. The students then re-read the poem multiple times on their own, marking up the text each time through a new layer--be it through line-by-line extractions of meaning, notes about repetition and figurative language, or even insights into the poem’s progression. After ample time with the text, we “tear apart” and discuss the poem together on the SmartBoard.

After making sense of the poem in isolation, I then ask the students to make a connection between this poem and The Outsiders. I intentionally leave the question, “How does this poem connect to The Outsiders?” open-ended, as the connections range from connections of theme to tone and form. Students surprise me with the amount of meaningful connections they can make with this poem.

After discussing their connections, I then had them look at the definition of “reclaim”* and ask how the speaker here is reclaiming his identity. I then take them to the moment in The Outsiders where the Greasers are almost pronouncing their own “manifesto” before the big rumble; here, we closely read this excerpt and discuss how Greasers are “reclaiming” their identities and why they might need to do this.

A creative writing option would be to have students write a poem in which they reclaim their own identities. This could be a pastiche poem, where students utilize the form and the repetition of “We” or “I” to create their own manifesto. An added challenge would be to require the students to incorporate gradual shift in tone that Brooks creates in “We Real Cool.”

Further Reading:

Kelsey R. Hughes is a writer and English Teacher at Lenape and Holicong Middle Schools in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her published and unpublished works can be found at

*reclaim: retrieve or recover (something previously lost, given, or paid); obtain the return of.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

2018 Post #24 -- Line by Line

by Allison Marchetti

There are poems that resonate deeply, and then there are poems that literally take the breath inside of us away. One such poem is “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz, about a mother who cannot bring herself to talk to her son about his dead father.

One thing that gives this poem its emotional power is the line breaks. Take, first instance, the first line:

My mother never forgave my father

The enjambed line begs the question, for what? For leaving her? Infidelity? Money problems?

The first time I ever read this poem (in high school) I could almost feel my heart stop when I came to the second line:

for killing himself.

When I first introduce my students to this poem, I let them know that it explores very emotionally sensitive material, and I give them the option to leave the room during our examination of it. Then I turn off the lights and let the poem “play,” -- that is, I run a PowerPoint into which I’ve typed up the poem, one line per slide. I put a timer on so each slide advances after 2 to 3 seconds. The poem unfolds slowly and painfully, and the surprise that originally registers on my students’ faces turns to horror.

The students are eager and shy to discuss this poem. We start with something technical -- the line breaks -- to ease our way in. What is the effect of breaking the first line after the word “father”? What is the significance of ending lines on words like “spring” and “born”? How do the line breaks in lines three through six affect the story? What else do you notice about the line breaks?

To expand this idea into a writer's workshop lesson, invite students to work in their notebooks. We write new lines or borrow old ones and play around with enjambment to create lines that shock or surprise.

Students love to type up their lines, print them, cut them up and arrange them in different ways on their desks. They use their phones to snap photos of the different stanzas and read them aloud to each other for feedback.

I love watching their faces light up and shift and change as they listen to the different versions of one another’s poems.

Further Reading:

Allison Marchetti is coauthor—with Rebekah O'Dell—of Writing with Mentors and Beyond Literary Analysis. Their popular blog Moving Writers focuses on writing instruction in middle and high school classrooms with an emphasis on voice and authenticity.