After English Class: Some Thoughts On Reading Poetry

Last week I had the privilege of leading a three-day workshop on the Foundations of Writing Workshop in Bangkok for middle school teachers from NESA schools. We explored the structure mini-lessons, the role of mentor texts, the thinking behind unit planning and the art of conferring. We also looked at writer’s notebooks, where I introduced the participants to the idea of quickwrites as a strategy for generating notebook entries.

For those of you unfamiliar with quickwrites, it’s a practice whereby a teacher reads aloud a short projected text then invites students to write something inspired by it for no more than three minutes. Like flash drafts, which they’re often confused with, the point is to write fast, though the purpose of quickwrites is not to get a first draft of something you’re planning to write down on paper in one fell swoop. Rather, as Linda Rief explains in Read Write Teach, a quickwrite “is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper. It is writing for the surprise of not knowing you were going to write what you wrote.” And to give the teachers a feel for the power of quickwrites, I shared the poem “After English Class,” from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am!, then asked them to write about whatever it brought to mind.

The range of writing this poem inspired was nothing short of stunning. Some wrote about themselves as teachers and wondered if they’d inadvertently killed poetry for their students. Some wrote about texts they’d decided to “drive by” because they’d grown complicated, too. Some wrote about the stillness of winter, others about the magic of snow. And I wrote about my mother, who, for reasons I couldn’t remember, once shared with me the moment she felt defeated by a poem. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” which she was required to read in high school—and it seemed so impenetrable to her that she stopped reading poetry.

Ancient Mariner & AlbatrossThat made me remember my own undoing with poetry in high school, which came by way of Mr. Loudon and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” First there was all the thee‘s, thy‘s, may’st‘s and haths‘s, and then there was the albatross—a symbol of Jesus, Mr. Loudon said—which was tied like a weight around the Mariner’s neck, like the poem felt tied around mine.

Fortunately, though, at some point in my thirties, I discovered poems by poets who spoke to me, like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye. That made me realized how important it is for kids to be able to find poems that speak to them and to follow Billy Collins’s advice in “Introduction to Poetry,” and ask students “to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide,” rather than “tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”

But . . . as is clear from the title of my new book, I also believe in helping students become deeper readers and thinkers. And that makes me think that the problem for Jean Little’s narrator, my mother, and me wasn’t that the poem we each read had hidden meaning, but that the meaning didn’t belonged to us. It belonged to the teacher.

Consider, for instance, what happened in a fifth grade class who’d been studying poetry. The students had had lots of opportunities to find poems that delighted or spoke to them, but instructionally, we focused on interpreting poems that used figurative language to convey their meaning, using a strategy I wrote about in “Figuring Out Figurative Language.” At this point, they’d read several poems that used a central metaphor, including Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” which uses the metaphor of a crystal stair. And you can see the class’s thinking about the crystal stair below:

Crystal Stair K:W Chart

We’d also focused on using talk to deepen the students’ understanding of poems and decided to celebrate the end of the unit with a formal grand conversation that the kids would conduct themselves. And for that, we chose the poem “Inside” from Nikki Grime’s wonderful Bronx Masquerade, which also uses a central metaphor.

Inside Bronx MasqueradeAfter reading the poem out loud twice and giving each student their own copy, we invited the kids to turn and talk first to ensure that everyone was thinking. Then they formed a circle for a whole class discussion.

Right from the get-go everyone agreed that the coconut was figurative, not literal, and many thought that, as one student put it, “this is a bullying poem.” Building on that, another student said the poem reminded him of the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” which made him think that the bullying involved name calling, not pushing or hitting, because of the phrases “booted words” and “wicked whispers shaped like knuckles.”

The poem also reminded many students of Rob in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Risingwhich they’d read earlier in the year. Rob, they recalled, was physically bullied, and he tried to deal with that and other problems by holding all his feelings inside, locked in an imaginary suitcase. But there was disagreement about whether the poem’s narrator was also holding her feelings inside, with some thinking she does because she keeps her sweetness inside, while others thought not because she expresses her feelings directly to the bully.

Amid all this, though, one student shared that she was confused about how a coconut compared to bullying—and hearing her admit that helped others acknowledge Coconutthat they were also confused. This opened the door to others to explain how they made sense of that. One student, for instance, said, “Bullying isn’t like a coconut, she is. Outside she’s hard but inside she’s soft. You could push her and she won’t get hurt but on the inside she might be hurting.” Another saw it slightly differently. “Everything like the outside of the coconut,” she said, “keeps her from being bullied, but inside she’s sweet. So when she’s bullied she doesn’t care because in her heart she knows she’s sweet.” And that led another student to this ‘aha’ moment: “And when she says ‘Your loss is someone else’s gain’, she means that she could have shared her sweetness with the bully if he hadn’t been so mean.

With the period almost over and everyone nodding as they let these ideas sink in, I drew the conversation to a close and noticed and named what the class had done. Right away they’d gotten that the coconut was figurative, but they had to keep talking to figure out what it truly meant. They also connected this text to another, which also helped them out, for by comparing how Rob and the poem’s narrator handled a bully, they’d realized that the authors had different things to say about how to deal with bullying.

Finally, I asked them how they thought it went, and many said just what the students who’d read “Louisa’s Liberation” did, “That was hard, but fun.” Many also wanted to keep the poem, because they liked it so much. So perhaps what happens after English class depends not just on what poem you choose, but how you choose to teach it—and who truly owns the meaning.

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Some Thoughts on the Words Evidence and Claim

fresh crime scene with yellow tape at night

I’ve thought about writing this post for a while but was finally inspired—and emboldened—by a wonderful article I recently read called “Reading Is About More Than Evidence” by educator Mia Hood. Her work in classrooms led her to observe and question many of the same practices I’d noticed, too, but before I launch into that, I first want to be crystal clear: I dearly want students to have deep and meaningful text-based discussions that are rooted in the details they’ve noticed and what they think the author might be exploring about the human condition and life through the details she’s woven across the text. And I want them to write their ideas about that in the most thoughtful, insightful and text-based way possible.

Claim DefinitionBut to be frank, I don’t like the word evidence. It’s a word I associate with courtrooms, crime scenes and forensic labs, not really with reading and writing. And when I look up the noun form of the word claim in the dictionary (as I did in my earlier post about rigor), the word has some strange connotations, which can also be seen in the thesaurus where words like pretense, right, assertion and declaration are listed as synonyms. There’s something a little aggressive about these words; they invite challenge, dispute and/or concession, not consideration and reflection—and for me, they conjure up visions of miners staking claims to land they then protect with rifles and baited traps.

Mia Hood worries that the word evidence has “seeped into our students’ ways of thinking about [texts]” in ways that are making them “think that a text’s raison d’etre is to serve as War Dancesevidence.” And this is often reinforced by the tasks we set students up to do as they read. I’m reminded, for instance, of a high school teacher I worked with who had his students read Sherman Alexie‘s intriguing and complex (in terms of ideas, if not Lexile levels) story “Breaking and Entering” from his collection War DancesIt’s about a Native American film editor—whose job, as he sees it, is to “omit all necessary information” in the films he edits—who recounts how he came to kill an unarmed black teenager who had broken into his basement to steal things. The story raises all kinds of questions about race, identity, power, and the manipulation of information; yet the teacher was using the text not to deeply explore these ideas, but to help students hone their argument skills by having them debate whether or not the character was guilty of murder or had acted in self-defense. And after a first read to get the gist—and have a brief talk about the story—they were then asked to reread it in order to collect evidence for their debate position.

I wasn’t there when the debates took place, but I’m often in classrooms where students argue two sides of an issue either in response to a prompt or assignment, as in the case What Do Fish Have To Do With Anythingabove, or to students’ ideas. The latter happened in another classroom I worked in where students were reading Avi’s odd but compelling story “What Do Fish Have To Do With Anything.” In this story, the main character Willie is intrigued with a homeless man who appears across the street from the apartment house where he lives with his depressed mother who doesn’t want Willie to go near the man. Wille’s father had abandoned the two of them six months previously, and as happens with many students I’ve read this story with, some think the homeless man is Willie’s father. In fact, some hold on to that idea right up till the end, at which point, with no further clues appearing to support it, they have to shift and consider instead what the writer might be trying to show if the homeless man was just that.

This particular class, however, had also been practicing ‘grand conversations’, which their teacher described as student-led discussion in which students make differing claims about a text. Shortly after they encountered the homeless man in the story, she suggested that rather having me facilitate their discussion, we let them have a grand conversation, which the students enthusiastically leapt into. The problem was that the students seemed to think that the point of the conversation was not, as Grand Conversations authors Ralph Dr. Seuss Arguing CreaturesPeterson and Maryanne Eeds wrote, to “experience in a dramatic way what it means to construct meaning,” and the students “take note of the shifts in thinking that occur as the interpretation of a text evolves,” but win an argument. And as the students started to argue their claim, their voices rose, they stopped listening to each other and seemed intent on only making their point.

These students would have benefitted much more by reading forward with their minds still open, attending closely to all the text held rather than hunting only for details that would support their prematurely made claim. But by focusing our teaching on how to make claims and back them up with evidence, we sometimes neglect teaching them how to construct an insightful and supportable idea in the first place. And I think this is in part because of our word choice. We talk about claims instead of interpretations and evidence instead of details and this has several effects. One is that, intentionally or not, we often ask students to make claims before they’ve really had a chance to think deeply about a text, which often leads to superficial or shallow claims. And sometimes we accept those so long as they’re backed up with evidence. But the other consequence is even more troubling.

In a thought-provoking piece from The New York Times called “Young Minds in Critical Condition” author Michael S. Roth explores what college students stand to lose if they—and we—value their critical and arguing skills over their interpretive ones. According to Roth:

“In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. [And in doing so] they may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in classrooms.”

I believe that potential to find or create meaning in books is the greatest gift reading gives us as it impacts not only our understanding of a text, but of ourselves, others and the vladimir-nabokov-caress-the-detail-the-divineworld we live in. I don’t, however, think that we have to stake a claim and argue over which is more important. If we help students see how readers make meaning and construct interpretation by, as the writer Vladimir Nabokov says, “caressing” details and connecting them together to consider whatever nuggets of wisdom they reveal across the entire text, they can then turn those more informed and nuanced interpretations into claims, using the very details they noticed to build their interpretations as evidence.

Of course, teaching students to construct interpretations is much harder than teaching them to support claims with evidence, which is perhaps the other reason why we don’t always go there. But isn’t it worth the time if it helps students build not just one but two capacities to think and understand deeply, as well as gives them a more meaningful—and accurate—vision of what it really means to read?