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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