Lesson Share: What is Poetry?

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April is National Poetry Month!
April is National Poetry Month

I volunteered to tackle the topic of poetry in our homeschool co-op for this month. I started with the concept, “What is poetry?” To give full credit, I was inspired by this article in The Atlantic by Mark Yakich: What is a Poem?

Setup

We started with a brainstorm on the topic, “What is poetry?”

You might get a torrent of preconceptions, or — as I did — you might have to pull a few teeth.

How does poetry differ from other things? Like stories? Or essays? Or letters?
What’s common in poems?
How do you know something is a poem?

I wrote their answers and ideas on a white board. Some ideas contradicted other ideas (poetry is “wrong” versus poetry is “right”), some ideas seemed a little (or way) off-base. That’s okay. The main goal here is to get a sense of what their sense already is of poetry. What do they think poetry is? Something special, comical, difficult, mysterious?

Gallery Walk

Then we did a gallery walk of poems I prepared.

A gallery walk is a way to present a variety of artifacts all relevant to a particular topic. You place these artifacts throughout a space and invite students to peruse them and comment upon them, writing down their responses or noting connections between them.

For the poetry gallery walk, I typed up a number of poems specifically chosen to showcase the variety of poetry (and poets) and perhaps challenge some of the more common preconceptions about poems.

  • Classical
  • Free verse
  • Humorous (limerick)
  • Long / Short
  • Rap
  • Prose poetry
  • Blank verse
  • Concrete

For good measure, I also included a page of quotations about poetry.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1I1K6mRPWW0w2cJrd0n74W8KH3tHWmthkWkzAsJzl5_8/edit?usp=sharing

I printed each poem out and taped them to a large poster-size sheet of paper. I then just laid them out helter-skelter on the hardwood floor.

Each student got a pen, and everyone was invited to go around and browse through the poems and write down their responses. They could be honest (“Huh?”) but had to be respectful of others’ comments. They could write general comments on the side or write on the poem itself, perhaps to make specific points.

The younger kids had to have the accompanying adults read the poems to them and help them transcribe their thoughts.

Discussion

After I felt the focus and work power down, I gathered everyone together to discuss their findings.

Are we any closer to an answer?
What did you notice about the poems?
Did they have anything in common? In what ways were they different?
Which ones stood out for you?

I noted that I a number of the comments expressed confusion or puzzlement, and the kids picked out a few poems that they were drawn to (or repelled by).

I took a few (Ron Padgett’s prose poem, Aram Saroyan’s “lighght”) as an example. We read through them and noted how strange they were.

I focused on that idea of strangeness and talked a little about how the Greek etymology of “poem” suggest it is a “thing made.” In other words, whereas other forms of language has a purpose, usually a communicative purpose, poems are just there.

I then told a fable about an old retired man who woke up to find an abstract sculpture on his yard. At first he was confused and repulsed by it, but as he looked at it day after day, it kept inspiring new memories, new reflections in him, until it eventually became a part of his home, and him.

Poems are like that. They resist easy understandings. They slip away from categories of thought. They’re strange sigils. They’re gateways out of mental ruts. That’s what makes them wonderful.

Wrap-Up

I then handed out a number of picture-book anthologies of poetry, and asked the kids to pick one poem they’d like to memorize and recite over the next few weeks.

I think it’s important for kids to sit with a poem for a while, really get to see it every day on their lawn, so to speak.

Here are the books I used:

Other Ideas

The Academy of American Poets has a number of suggestions, lesson plans, and resources to help you celebrate National Poetry Month. One that struck me was the Dear Poet Project, where students watch a video of a selected poet read their selected poem and then write a letter in response directly to that poet (for 5th to 12th graders).

Older kids might also be interested in Asphodel, a project by the poet Quan Barry in which she writes (or invites others to write) one poem a week in response to current events. The NPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge is featuring these poems and interviewing the poets about them for the next few weeks.

And if you have the kind of kids who really really loves poems — and loves writing them — you could challenge them to take part in NaPoWriMo: Write a poem a day for an entire month.

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