Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The War Between Your Students and Poetry

the poetry comes out and the heads drop ! 

When I announce to my classes that we are about to begin a poetry unit, I am almost always greeted with the same symphony of groans and complaints. But why?
Poetry is one of the hardest texts to teach. For a teacher it's like explaining faith or the color blue, you see it, you know it's there and it's beautiful, but struggle to find the right words.
For many English teachers locating the metaphors and deciphering the imagery is easy but for many of our students, its scary uncertain territory, where they feel they are most often going to be wrong.
Close reading strategies are one of the many ways to address these problems with our students, but  today I want to post about the access point - the little crack in the forbidding wall of poetry that will allow your students even the smallest window into the foreign landscape of poetry.

Sensory Swapping 

The context: I got this idea from a talented teacher (where most of my ideas come from) and adapted it to suit my needs. I was in the middle of a war unit with my senior accelerated class. The grouping was an interesting mix of very high functioning AP students who didn't want the rigor of AP their senior year and very low functioning students who had to struggle to stay out of the College Prep track (what we used to call basic English). They were all relatively nice students, but none of them great creative thinkers by any stretch of the imagination.

The texts we covered in the unit: "Why Men Love War", "Guests of the Nation," "Love Note from the Middle East"

The goals: to introduce poetry as another genre that deals with the many complicated aspects of war; to have students form connections between the poetry and other genres that we have been reading; to have students use poetry conventions such as metaphor and imagery in their own writing.

The set up: I had students form one big circle with their desks, all of us facing each other (I feel that this works best with kids who don't want to share their creative writing). All of the students had a pack of poems in front of them and their writer's notebooks.

The activity: I started class with having the students create a list of "things" they consider to be hard. I had them share their lists with each other. Some examples I heard were "picking a college,"  "getting up in the morning," "making enough money," or  "my class" (ha-ha). I explained that one of the main conventions of poetry is its use of sensory details and not clear narrative or sentences to express an idea, emotion, or message.  I then created a list of the five senses on the board with some examples of sensory details from my classroom. I was sure to explain the need for specific details here. We could say the walls are white or we could say the color white of eggs shells. We then all watched a video of actual footage taken in World War I while the students filled the page with every sensory detail they could imagine from these scenes. After that we went around the circle and everyone shared their best detail. I encouraged stealing ideas at this point.
Now here comes the scary part. You see the fear build in their eyes as soon as you give the next instructions so get ready.
What I had them do was take their war imagery from the video and use it to describe one of the "hard things" on the list they started when they walked into class. They could write a poem or complete sentences if they wanted - whatever was most comfortable.
I had to model at this point to quell the panic - something like "Okay, my "hard thing" is dealing with bullies in school so I would write:  "I walked through the hallway minefield, careful the duck below the machine gun insults." They seemed to get the idea pretty quickly.
After about ten minutes, we went around the circle and shared our writing.
I was shocked at the amazing gems of insight I got from this bunch. An activity like this stripped away the confusing and complex nature of poetry and brought it down the the simplicity of the senses. Students were creating insightful and unexpected metaphors by describing concrete images and then swapping them out for an unrelated yet appropriate idea, event, or  message i.e. the hard day as a war.
They surprised themselves and they surprised me.

Now that the access point was open, there was no closing it. I hit them with this video and then we read some Wilfred Owens. We discussed poetry as a form of story telling - a topic for another post - and students formed connections between the sensory details uses and the big thematic ideas of his poem (injustice, loss of innocents, and the cyclical nature of war.)

   I ended with showing them this spoken word poem and we connected the event of falling in love to a war. 

The modification: You could really use sensory swapping as an effective intro to anything - youtube clips of athletes competing in a race and Carpe Diem poetry for example. I teach a double period history and English class so also used this lesson with my co-teacher to intro World War I.

I would love to hear from anyone else out there - what do you use as an access point to poetry? If anyone used sensory swapping, please share your experiences.

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