Saturday, March 23, 2019

2019 Post #9 -- Structure in a Free Verse Poem

by Jason Stephenson

With great sadness I learned of Mary Oliver’s passing earlier this year. A thoughtful and insightful American poet, she plumbed nature for great truths. I shared her famous poem “Wild Geese” with my Creative Writing 2 students last school year. On the Brain Pickings website, Mary Oliver reads the full text of her beloved poem. (I always play a poem for my students if I can find an audio file of the poet reading their work.)

After a first reading / listening, my students know to number the lines of the poem to make our discussion and analysis of it easier. We keep things pretty simple. Two questions guide my students as they annotate hard copies of the poem:

What do you notice?
What do you wonder?

Once students have had enough time on their own to ponder the poem, they debrief with a partner and then the whole class. I mark up the poem on my SmartBoard with their comments and keep a running list on the marker board of the different writing craft moves they point out: poetic terms (free verse, metaphor) and invented terms (mysterious title, noun pairs).

Even though the poem is free verse, “Wild Geese” still contains some patterns that hold it together. Free verse poetry is sometimes unfairly characterized as being disorganized, but a closer look usually reveals some form of structure. Mary Oliver’s use of repetition, anaphora, and point of view breaks up “Wild Geese” into natural sections.

  • Section 1, lines 1-5: The first three sentences all begin with You. Moreover, the first two sentences begin with the same phrase: “You do not have to…” This section is in second person point of view. 
  • Section 2, lines 6-13: Three sentences in the middle of the poem all begin with the word Meanwhile. The middle section of the poem also contains multiple pairs of nouns: “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain” (line 8), “the prairies and the deep trees” (line 10), and “the mountains and the rivers” (line 11). The noun pairs create a sense of unity. This section changes to third person point of view. 
  • Section 3, lines 14-18: While there is no repetition in this section, there is a shift. The poem moves back to second person point of view: you and your are mentioned four times, but it is not exactly clear if this you is the same you from Section 1. 

Once my students have finished their discussion, I invite my students to pick a few of the craft moves from Oliver in “Wild Geese” to try in their own piece of writing in their notebooks, no matter the genre.

Further Reading:

Jason Stephenson taught high school English and creative writing for eleven years and now serves as the Director of Secondary English Language Arts at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Friday, March 22, 2019

2019 Post #9 -- "You Mean Line Breaks Don't Just Make a Poem Seem Longer?"

One of the first poems I use in 7th grade is "Ode to Enchanted Light" by Pablo Neruda. This poem is quite short, and I am sure to include a visual with the poem. Before reading the poem aloud, I make an observation to the class - “Did you know this poem is only 3 sentences long? As I read today, think about why the author chose to write 3 sentences over 15 lines.”

Next, I read the poem aloud to the students. As I read, students are marking up their own copies of the poems - either sketchnoting, or writing ideas in the margin. Students work in pairs to reread the poem, and I ask them to notice punctuation. How does punctuation help the reader to better understand the poem?

Students usually realize the punctuation reminds them to stop or pause as they are reading the poem. By this point, I am circling the room listening to the conversations students are having about the poem. Usually someone will notice the line breaks, and we will discuss them as well. Why does the poet use line breaks?

Students begin to see the repeated “l” sound in the first stanza, and soon we discuss how the poet uses 3 stanzas, 3 sentences. Then, I ask students to cut the poem and rearrange the poem into sentences. This physical transformation helps students to see how ideas are formed through the poem. My students enjoy cutting the poem and rearranging it. It helps them to see the poem as lines of text, which also helps them to understand the meaning of the poem.

Finally, we hold a discussion about the meaning of the poem and how the rearrangement helps us to truly comprehend the poem. We use this idea on other poems we read throughout the year to help us comprehend.

Further Reading:

Rose Birkhead is a Reading Specialist in Holland, PA. She teaches 7th and 8th grade Literacy classes and strives to create a positive learning environment where her students feel successful on a daily basis.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

2019 Post #7 -- "How to Dismantle a Heart"

by Todd Nesloney

I once heard educator Angela Maiers say “If you really want to reach someone (child or adult) find out what breaks their heart and then start there”.  There is so much truth in that statement. When we have something on our hearts, something that stirs our souls, and breaks us from within, we move heaven and earth to find a solution. It can easily consume us to the point of desperation.

When working with students, I’ve seen first hand how passionate they become about causes that are personal to them.  And in my experience I’ve also seen the importance of issues that are timely and include children their age.

One important conversation educators need to be having with students today is the conversation around refugees.  Poetry helps us see difficult topics in a new light.

One such poem is “How to Dismantle a Heart” by Rodney Gomez.

I think this is a powerful poem to begin conversation with a question as simple as, “How does this make you feel when you read it?”  

An important video to show to go along with this conversation is “Home” by Warsan Shire.

When wanting to further conversation about the topic, the book Refugee by Alan Gratz is an incredible piece of literature that is easy to digest and will hook your students (and you the teacher) almost immediately.  It tells the story of three refugee families from three different time periods, all from the perspective of the children.

We can not shy away from difficult conversations. As educators, it’s our responsibility to make sure we have those conversations and use literature as a bridge into them. But it is important to remember to put the politics and your personal beliefs aside and allow the students to guide the conversation. You’ll be amazed at the depth that can arise.

Further Reading: 

Todd Nesloney is an award-winning principal in Texas, international speaker, and author of 3 books including the hit Sparks in The Dark which he co-wrote with Travis Crowder.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

2019 Post #6 -- A Poem in a Picture Book

by Brett Vogelsinger

Former Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Filipe Herrera, shares his memoir in the poem-as-a-picture-book entitled "Imagine."

The book is beautifully written and illustrated, weaving some Spanish words into the English poem as it follows Herrara's trajectory as a child of migrant workers to his first experiences learning English to his post as Poet Laureate.  It concludes with the words "Imagine what you could do."

I tell my ninth-grade students that for today's Poem of the Day we are going to have an elementary school library class experience, and I ask them to gather around.  Some of them choose to sit on the floor just like they did for "carpet time" back in elementary school.  Nostalgia for this kind of reading runs deep and strong.

I make sure every student gets to ponder each page, reading it slower than most poems, for the format breaks it up into illustrated pieces we want to savor.

The last line, "Imagine what you could do," has landscape illustration paired with it that hearkens back to Herrera's youth.

In their Writer's Notebooks, students might take that same line and illustrate it in a way that inspires them and relates to either their early life or to their future goals and what they would like to accomplish.

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

2019 Post #5 -- Snow Day Revolution

by Brett Vogelsinger

If you live in a region that gets the occasional snow day, you know how exciting they can be for students and teachers alike. Snow days offer an unexpected period of found time, the opportunity to slow down, push back a deadline, and catch your breath.

Billy Collins' poem "Snow Day" captures how it feels to be a "willing prisoner" to the snow. I love to share this poem with my students when we return from a snow day.  After our first reading, I ask students to keep an eye on something during our second read.

Collins mentions "a revolution of snow" in his poem.  Where do we see the language of revolution threaded through this poem?  How does he subtly build on this idea elsewhere with his imagery and diction?  Like tracking animal footprints into the woods, students enjoy the challenge of following the words that suggest revolution: white flag, government buildings smothered, anarchic cause, a riot afoot, a queen about to fall.

I should mention here that Billy Collins' exceptional Poetry 180 project advocates sharing poetry without much commentary or analysis at all, and this poem is ideal to share in that way as well.  It is the perfect invitation back to school after the welcome but unexpected interruption of a snowstorm.  And everyone loves that list of nursery school names at the end!

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Monday, March 18, 2019

2019 Post #4 -- An Ode to Food

by Joel Garza

I’m something of a romantic--that is, when it comes to poetry. I am drawn most quickly, most deeply to those poems that seem to be a recollection of a spontaneous and powerful experience, an overflow of emotions recorded artfully for a reader to taste. A poem, in these cases, happens to the poet and happens to the reader.

Here’s such a poem: “Ode to Cheese Fries” by José Olivarez. I think it’s an accessible and relatable and beautiful poem on its own. But if you’re interested in a full intellectual meal inspired by Olivarez’s poem, follow these steps.

Ask your readers & writers to think carefully about one of their favorite things to eat. Start with the senses that surround and complement taste: What does it look like? What does it sound & smell like? How does its texture heighten its flavor? It’s okay to respond in single words--full sentences might come later, or they might not.

Now ask your readers & writers to look at what surrounds that food--take a look at yourself enjoying the food as if you’re above the action of you eating it. What setting do you associate this food with? (Your grandmother’s house, a local baseball stadium, a food court in a mall) Who is seated near you as you eat this delectable thing? What languages or decor or music provides the best foundation for your tastebuds? Finally, what’s the aftereffect / afterglow like that compels you to remember & return to this food?

First course:
It’s time to read the Olivarez poem. Ask your readers & writers to listen carefully while you read. Ask them to underline their favorite single feature of the poem--a word, a line, a turn of phrase, whatever. Read it out loud a second time, and have them say the underlined thing out loud with you. It’s really fun to see which lines pop for most readers, which images excite only certain folk.    

Main course:
Now it’s time for them to write their own ode. Congratulate them on all of the ingredients they’ve compiled in their prewriting: their reflections about senses and setting of their favorite food (the appetizer), their secret ingredient that excited them most about the first course (the Olivarez poem). The main course is their own dish cooked up their own way. ¡Buen provecho!

Further Reading:

Joel Garza is Upper School chair of the English department at Greenhill School. Here’s what he’s reading these days. Joel--in collaboration with Scott Bayer, Adrian Nester, & Melissa Smith--assembled this hyperdoc for #THEBOOKCHAT devoted to José Olivarez’s collection Citizen Illegal.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

2019 Post #3 -- Near Rhyme

by Brett Vogelsinger

Gabriel Fried's poem, "Twilight Field" establishes a delightfully creepy mood with simple langauge and one short stanza:

Twilight Field

The spirits play a children's game;
they pose as trees in clover.
I look. They stay. I look. They stay.
I look again. They're closer.

The second read of this poem demands a choral reading from the class, which adds to the sinister overtones.  And if a student just happens to be open the door and come in late as you read the last word of the poem together as a class . . . well that's just perfect!  For me, this poem catpures that feeling we can sometimes experience when alone with nature, that something is watching us or drawing near, for in nature, we are never entirely in solitude. (Note: The Dr. Who fans in your class will impulsively want to point out a connection to The Weeping Angels at this point as well!)

I use this poem on days when I want to maintain my Poem of the Day routine, but I have limited time.  I write this statement on the board: "This poem has an excellent example of 'near rhyme.'"

After two readings, I ask students to defend this statement, even if they have never heard of "near rhyme" before.  In each class, someone is able to infer what that term must mean, and the student points out that "clover" and "closer" seem to rhyme, but do not excatly rhyme, and the repeated "a" sound (assonance) in "game" and "stay" create a similar effect.

While I do not make it a formal homework assignment, I invite students to pay attention to the lyrics the next time they listen to their favorite music.  Where in the lyrics can they spot an example of near rhyme?  Songwriters often employ near rhyme in order to fit the needed ideas within the rhythm of the music without compromising the overall rhyme scheme.  Put to music, near rhymes sound even more like real rhymes.

While literary terms can be dry when learned in isolation, taught in the context of a quick, enjoyable poem and favorite music they seem far less daunting.

For another Gabriel Fried poem to share, see this post from last year's collection.

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

2019 Post #2 -- Cultural Clues

by Brett Vogelsinger

Safia Elhillo's beautiful poem "first adornment" captures a moment that is personally meaningful but also culturally rich.  Elhillo describes herself as "Sudanese by way of Washington DC" in her bio, and much of the imagery in this poem highlights her Sudanese roots.

Challenge students to use clues from within "first adornment" to explore the cultural roots of its poet. In this poem clues such as Ramadan, the stones in the rice, the crushed hibiscus, the henna, suggest certain climates and regions of the world.  With guiding questions, you might see how close you can lead the class to Sudan.

After revealing that these images reference Sudanese culture, a question flood might be appropriate.  Ask the class to generate plentiful questions based on the poem, flooding its margins:  What does this poem make you wonder about this culture? What questions do you have about Sudan after reading this poem?

Sadly, many students receive too little exposure to cultures outside of their own.  I recently heard of an elementary school student who was given the opportunity to research the culture of any country in the world.  He chose Mozambique because he thought the name was fascinating, and it made him want to learn more.  He was redirected by his teacher to choose Brazil because he was told "no one has really heard of Mozambique," which, to me, seems even greater reason to research it and bring it to the class. (On a brighter note, he enjoyed researching and learning about Brazil.)

Poems give us the chance to introduce voices from all over the world.  By starting class with a new one each day, students experience inquiry into cultures they may never study in a social studies or history class, which is just one more reason to start sharing more poetry.

Further Reading:

Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.