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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Revisiting The Power of Grammar

Three articles came my way the other week that reminded me of The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, the book I co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project several years ago. All three pieces were published by the New York Times, and all three had to do with sentences: “My Life’s Sentences” by the marvelous writer Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative” by Constance Hale, and finally “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines”  by Shannon Doyle and Holly Epstein Ojalvo.

Each piece puts the humble sentence in the spotlight to explore not only its grammatical parts but its power to move and delight us, to quicken or quiet our heartbeats and pulse through its rhythm, its arrangement, its use of words and choice of punctuation. Each also encourages us to become more aware of the sentence—or as Constance Hale puts it, to become “sentence connoisseurs”—which Doyle and Ojalvo suggest we can do by inviting students to collect and look at sentences alongside us.

Interestingly enough, collecting sentences was exactly how Mary and I began the work that ultimately led to The Power of Grammar. We gathered sentences that had stayed in our minds, like this one from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, which does, indeed, contain a whole narrative between the first word and the period:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three.

And we revisited favorite children’s books to cull wonderful sentences from authors like William Steig, Roald Dahl and Sandra Cisneros.

In terms of study, we didn’t focus on nomenclature or academic vocabulary—that is, we didn’t teach the difference between phrases or clauses or ask students to identify simple versus compound sentences. Instead we asked students to use great sentences as mentor texts, apprenticing themselves to master sentence craftsmen. And what happened when they did that seemed like magic.

In a fourth grade room, for instance, we brought in these two sentence from Leo Lionni‘s picture book Swimmy:

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again. He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly . . . a lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine . . .  strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread . . . a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks . . . an eel whose tail was too far away to remember . . . and sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.

We studied these sentences closely, just as we’d study craft moves like leads, to see what the writer was up to, using the language the students came up with. The first sentence, the class decided, gave us a sense of where the character was, what he was doing and how he felt. The second sentence was like a list that described what the character was seeing, with the ellipses suggesting that he was moving through both time and place.

We then asked students to look through their writer’s notebooks to see if they had any lists or journeys they might revise using Lionni’s sentence as a mentor, and a student named Mariah found this, which she had written in response to a prompt:

Things I saw on the way to school:

my mom’s face – 2 times

my room

the number 6 train

the gates of the school

my teacher

Apprenticing herself to Lionni’s sentence, Mariah began revising in a way that ultimately allowed her to craft these two sentences, which she later turned into a poem:

The trip to school was full of things to look at, and as I looked from one thing to another I became full of sad-loneliness. I saw my mommy’s face with a sort of funny smile when I woke . . . my room, full of all the things I wasn’t allowed to take with me . . . the train, rushing everyone away from their homes and the people who knew them and loved them inside and out . . . the gates of the school that locked my mommy out . . . my mommy’s face turning away from me and leaving me . . . and the arms of my teacher in a green sweater, who wrapped around me like a living tree.

The shift from her initial notebook entry to her final revision seems breathtaking. She moved from being a recorder of information to a writer who’s using grammatical structures, language and punctuation to fully render an experience in a way that moves and engages her readers. And as readers of The Power of Grammar can see, she was far from the only one.

Unfortunately, though, with genre studies ruling writing workshop these days and the Common Core Standards taking root, it’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to do this kind of work. But on the heels of these recent articles, I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there’s an opportunity here to engage in sentence apprenticeship again.

Those of us who’ve been looking at text complexity, for instance, know that one factor that makes a text complex is sentence structure, with texts on the high end of the complexity band increasingly employing sentences with more subordinate phrases and clauses, more intricate details and imagery, along with subtle shifts in reasoning, mood and tone, and sometimes parenthetical asides. Inviting students to apprentice themselves to such sentences and emulate them with their own material can help them better navigate complex sentences as they move into more complex texts. For as Anne Lamott says to aspiring writers in her inspirational handbook Bird by Bird, “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader and that is the real payoff.”

Working with sentences this way also opens the door to students falling in love with language (without which literacy risks remaining merely functional). It also helps students feel the enchantment Jhumpa Lahiri describes when she writes: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time . . . To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

So perhaps it’s time to start collecting sentences again and inviting our students to do the same, not to identify things like appositives or gerunds, but to attend to their power and beauty and think about how they affect us. I’m attaching a few I’ve found recently that in different ways all stood out for me. Please feel free to share them and to share as well any wonderful sentences you or your students discover.