Last year on Go Poems, I wrote about teaching poetry like an appetizer, giving students a number of poems to choose from to discover which taste best to them. With the success of last year’s “rappers as poets” sampler, I thought that this year I could tackle some more classic poetry, the Romantics.
Simply saying the word “romance” in a middle school can send a class into a frenzy of “Ewwww!" This, like many dislikes, is usually rooted in miseducation or misunderstanding. I decided to accept the challenge of “making old poetry cool again” and get students to realize that they can relate to these “old guy poets,” as one student so eloquently put it.
I start by asking students what they think “Romance” is and what it means. Here you get your standard “love” answers. I explain to students that romance in the Romantic era was more than that; it was a retreat to simpler means and the appreciation of nature. I ask students to think about the last time they took a walk -- just to take a walk -- or went outside with no rhyme or reason. After that, I pass out their Romantic packet, which features poems from Wordsworth, Blake, and Whitman; I ask students to read through them, picking one to annotate.
Giving student choice allows them to get more into what they are reading. By creating a sense of context with the explanation of the Romantic period, students are able to understand the poetry a little bit better. While analysis is nice and at times impressive, the best part of this is the opportunity for readers response. By giving choice, students do not feel forced to connect with a text; they feel that they can be more honest in the connections that they have, moving past what they think the “right” answer is and closer to what resonates with them.
Some questions you might want to ask are, “What do all these poems have in common?” or even “What seems ‘romantic’ about them?” I have come to realize in the past few years that these types of conversations about poetry spike greater interest than simply talking about figurative language or form.
Thy summer's play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
My Pretty Rose Tree
A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said 'I've a pretty rose tree,'
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.
Then I went to my pretty rose tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.
Other poems included in my sampler this year:
A Slumber did my Spirit Seal by William Wordsworth
O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman
Zach Sibel is an 8th grade English teacher at Tohickon Middle School and a lover of poetry, hip-hop, and all things writing. For more about my class you can find me on Twitter @MrSibelENG . Please don’t hesitate to reach out!