Making Poetry Meaningful

I am a poetry snob. Perhaps one could call me uncultured, but I am very picky about the poetry I choose to read. To be perfectly honest, I really only enjoy two poets: Edgar Allen Poe, and myself. Well, in general. There are isolated poems from various poets that I enjoy. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Tennyson), “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (Dickenson), and a few others. So suffice it to say that I empathized with my students when it came time for our poetry unit each year. Writing poetry comes easily to me, but that’s not the case for most students. In fact, in my years of teaching English, I found that the predominant reason for my students disliking poetry was that they struggled with writing it. Also, they’d had countless other teachers who had made them memorize and recite poems (I won’t editorialize on that practice…the fact that I NEVER made my students memorize and recite poetry in my class should speak for itself), which mostly served to turn them off of poetry completely.

I found that they also struggled with identifying different poetic devices within poems and analyzing poetry for any sort of meaning. Often, this was due to the fact that the poets they were forced to read were dry and confusing. What if my students were just like me? What if the poet they would enjoy reading the most were themselves? How could I get my students to write meaningful poems when they didn’t know how to write poetry?

First, I started small. I had to disabuse my students of the notion that all poetry had to rhyme or have some set rhythm and meter. That was difficult. Once I got that through their heads, though, I would show them examples of acrostic poems. I always had my students begin with an acrostic poem of their name. Eventually, the majority of my students were able to construct a reasonable attempt at an acrostic poem.

To help them understand rhyme and rhythm (and meter) I would use songs/song lyrics. This is also how I taught the poetic device: refrain. The jump from song to poem was easy with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I found (in my biased opinion, of course) that the best poems for teaching meter/rhythm were Poe’s poems. My two favorites are “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” Incidentally, when my own middle school teacher required that we choose a poem to memorize and recite, I chose “The Raven” simply to be obnoxious. It was the longest one I thought I could actually memorize. I got about 3 stanzas in before she forced me to stop and sit down. Yeah, I was “that kid.”

Occasionally, I would give the traditional quiz on the various poetic devices, but I never gave an end-of-unit test. Instead, I wanted what they’d learned to be meaningful to them. From the onset of the unit, I let them know that they would be creating their very own poetry product: a calendar. I would usually have it be the full next calendar year, January-December, although, that might change based on the time of year during which the poetry unit was taught.

I picked 11 of the most important (to me, as the teacher; the most prolific, common, whatever you want to call them) poetic devices we studied during the unit. Then, I told students that they would be responsible for writing their own poems for each month: one poem per month; one device per poem. The 12th month/poem was a free choice for them. I encouraged them to relate the poem to the month, season, or event that occurred during the month. I strongly suggested they think about personal connections to months: birthdays, family trips/vacations, etc. Of course I gave them the major holidays (New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), but also suggested things like winter break, spring break, exams, summer break, back to school, etc.

I printed out the calendars for them and gave them free reign to decorate them according to their poems (if it focused on a birthday, then they would label that day on the calendar and illustrate it appropriately; if it was Valentine’s Day, same thing). They left ample space for their poems on each month.

I found that the vast majority of my students responded well to this authentic task. I had lots of students who would decide to give the calendar as a gift to a parent or relative (depending on the time of year you can suggest it as a Mother’s Day gift or a holiday gift for a parent/relative). Many of them expressed their excitement that the calendar would be hanging somewhere (on the fridge, in a parent/relative’s office, etc.), and they put in quite a bit of effort. It became meaningful to them. They suddenly were able to write poetry because they had a purpose and context. Over the years I got some very poignant, touching work (Veteran’s Day poems, poems to grandparents or others who had died, etc.). Not all of the poetry was going to win awards, but the students took the assignment seriously and did a reasonably good job. I was easily able to tell who had mastered the various poetic devices and other literary concepts.

The best part about this assignment was that it could be tailored to any level. I started with it in 7th grade and used it all the way up through my high school students. I had poems as simple as limericks and haikus all the way up to full-blown Shakespearean sonnets. And not only did the kids (many of them, anyway) actually enjoy writing the poems, but they (dare I say “all”?) enjoyed coloring and illustrating the months in the calendar. And I was able to photocopy the best ones to keep and display in my room that year and use as examples in subsequent years.

Creating the calendar (in its entirety – writing the poems, illustrating the pages, etc.) usually took about 2 weeks. Sometimes less, depending on the students, but never more. With my honors kids, I would often assign a certain amount as homework so it didn’t stretch too far into class time. I found that the kids needed my help, though, in many cases, so I shied away from assigning the whole (or majority of) thing as homework.

If this sounds like something you’d like to do in your classroom, you are in luck. I’ve already created the templates and rubrics for the project. All you have to do is decide which poetic devices you want to assess.

Click here for the Poetry Calendar Project.

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