This week, two inspiring, creative educators -- Austin Kleon and Katherine Schulten -- brought a poem back to the surface of my attention that I had forgotten about for some time. "Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale" by Dan Albergotti is a bittersweet look at what we can do with a period of confinement, ennui, boredom. In times like these, the poem feels both realistic and empowering; it is a poem that wears a wry grin.
I brought this poem to my students during a live class meeting via video conference this week and asked a quick question after our first read. "Why do you think I chose this poem to read with you now?" Of course, that was an easy pitch, and students had no problem identifying links between the idea of being stuck "in the belly of the whale" and being confined during this period of stay-at-home orders and mass quarantine. Fewer of them, though, were aware of the biblical allusion in the title, to the book of Jonah.
A student read the poem a second time on our video conference, and I proposed this question: "What do you notice about the structure of this piece? How is it built?" Your students may note the fact that is is a "to do list," it is made up of short sentences, and that each sentence begins with a verb, the grammatical structure of a command. One student pointed out to my class that the first few items seem realistic, and the poem seems to become more whimsical, then more philosophical as the list progresses. I thought this was a particularly astute observation.
"Let's try writing one like this!" I said to my students. "Call it something like 'Things to Do While Stuck at Home' or 'Things to Do During COVID-19.' There is one catch. Let's take the first three things that come to your mind and exclude them from our list. We want to avoid stating the obvious in poetry." All classes chose the same three things to exclude: sleeping, watching TV, and playing video games.
After a few minutes of drafting, I gave them an assignment to complete after our video conference class time ended. Students could revise their first drafts and post the revised version on a collaborative writing space on OneNote. I would provide feedback for everyone's revised drafts before next week.
Here are some memorable excerpts, written by my students:
Paint the walls. Sing in the shower. Pull weeds from the dirt. Buy a blanket to cuddle up in. Go for a run. Laugh with joy when you're with your family. -- Brielle G.
Make your bed
Wash your clothes
Dust everything in your room
Your room is disgusting
Although you don't see it
Build something with wood and nails
Doesn't matter what it is, just build
Make your family LAUGH -- Christian P.
Pace the concrete sidewalk. Walk among the trees. Get out and live a little.
Try something new. Change your surroundings.
Look up and open your eyes. See the world around you. Move outside your bubble. -- Shayne S.
I am grateful for how this poem helped me to see my students' present situations and perspectives while also allowing us to talk about poetic structure, theme, and grammar. It brought us back to a Writer's Notebook style of response that I have missed since our last day of school, which was refreshing and necessary and lively.
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He is the founding editor of Go Poems, facilitates his school's literary magazine, Sevenatenine, and contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers. You can find him on Twitter @theVogelman.