Saturday, March 24, 2018

2018 Poem #10 -- Easy Essaying About A Poem

by Katherine Bomer
I think poems and true essays (not the five-paragraph formula) share several features, for instance how they invite readers to make different meanings and bring varied interpretations to them.  So it makes sense to use informal essaying, or writing to think, as one way to demonstrate that poems can have multiple interpretations.

I choose an evocative, slightly mysterious poem, preferably unrhymed. Perhaps a poem that starts one place and ends up in another, or a poem that has a title that sets up a scenario in your mind, but then the body of the poem takes you to another, even an opposite place. "Commercial Break" by Jacqueline Woodson is a great one to use with middle school students.

I read and show the title by itself first. I ask students to write what they are thinking in their Writer's Notebooks for just one minute, asking several open-ended questions as invitations for students to follow their thinking, not as a checklist or requirement to answer each one. What are you anticipating? What are you noticing? What images arise? What questions or confusions arise?

Next, I read aloud and project the first stanza, or the first 1/3 if a poem is structured in one stanza. I ask them to write for two minutes: now what are you noticing/anticipating/wondering? How is your thinking changing?

I repeat this process, revealing only a stanza or two, or another 1/3 of a poem, until reaching the end, when I ask: now what are you making of this poem? How and why did your thinking change?

Students share their mini-essays with partners or small groups and we talk about the multiple pathways to a single poem. If the poem has enough depth or edge, it can often lead to powerful class discussions and even to future essay writing!

For high school students, try “Poppies” by Jennifer Grotz.  

Further Reading:

Katherine Bomer writes about helping students learn to love writing. Her book The Journey Is Everything investigates how teachers can make essay writing a highlight of their students' writing experience.

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