Monday, May 24, 2010

May 24th: Poetry 101

The past few weeks, I've been doing a unit on creative writing with my students.  It seems to be an area they aren't too familiar with, and I thought it would be fun to see what we could do.  For two weeks, I talked about short stories.  I love short stories, and I've certainly got plenty to teach about them, but for some reason I just didn't like my lessons very much.  They went okay, but it just seemed that I couldn't make the lessons come out to be exactly what I wanted.  For one thing, this was before I got my new computer, and so I had to make do without some of the resources I had had. 

This week and next, however, I'm doing poetry.  Now, usually prose rather than poetry is more my style.  However, I've had a lot of fun teaching about poetry.  It just seemed the lesson put itself together, and I found so many things that I want to do that I'll have to stretch it to two weeks.  You know, it may sound a bit strange, but it seems a lot of the information I'm teaching I'm pulling from my memories of 6th and 7th grade Reading and English classes.  Yes, I am teaching college sophomores, but in their second language, which they are still learning.  Besides, while they may know many things about literature and poetry in Chinese, writing in English is such a different thing that many of the basics are new information.  If anyone sees my middle school teachers Mrs. Walter or Mrs. Duncan, tell them I said thank you for the inspiration I'm taking from their classes.

I started out teaching them a few vocabulary words to use when discussing poetry: line, stanza, verse, refrain.  Then I discussed how poetry can be classified in different ways: rhyming or blank verse, closed and open verse, meter, etc.  I taught them about rhyme schemes and counting syllables.  Then we discussed how there are many forms of poetry, usually recognizable by number of lines, subject matter, rhyme scheme, or syllables, and I gave more information about a couple of examples (the sonnet and the epic poem). After the break, I talked about imagery and ways of putting imagery and feeling into the poem.  We already learned about similes and metaphors a few weeks ago, so I reviewed those, and then talked about allegory, alliteration (consonance), and personification.  I love this example of metaphorical writing I found online: 

"In the downpour, her umbrella was a zebra leaping among its brown and tan sisters in the town square."

It was an especially good example for my three Friday classes, as it was pouring rain and there were umbrellas left dripping all around the edge of the classroom.  For alliteration/consonance I gave the example of a few common tongue twisters: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.  Just for fun, I impressed them with my rendition of "How much wood would a wood chuck chuck..."  It's nothing much to boast about, but I think I'm pretty good at tongue twisters, and that's my favorite. 

I had printed a couple of pages of poems to use as examples in class.  I picked some that I like, that made good examples, and that are well-known enough that I felt it would do them good to be familiar with them.  Of course I chose one of the most famous poems in English, "The Road Not Taken."  The other poems were "Sonnet 43: How do I Love Thee" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams, "Life is Fine" by Langston Hughes, "Who Has Seen the Wind?" by Christina Rossetti, and "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. 

Now, some of these were easy for them to understand with their level of English than others.  With the sonnet, I did stop to talk about the term "thee" and how it was used long ago.  One student mentioned during the part on sonnets that she knew that Shakespeare is the most famous writer, and wrote many sonnets, but that she had a difficult time understanding him.  I reassured her that that was natural; the language has changed so much in the four hundred years since the printing of the First Folio that he's hardly light reading for American students, either. 

Now, I had to include "The Raven."  It's one of the most famous poems in English, and besides, its rhythm and words are perfect examples of all the finer points of imagery.  However, I knew that vocabulary level would probably be above their ability to make sense of the poem on their own; words like "dreary", "quaff," and "lore" are not among the words that would be on a high-priority-to-learn list.  So, I did what I remember doing in my 9th grade English class: watch the Simpsons version.  Now, I know, the Simpsons aren't exactly the most shining example of American entertainment to introduce students to American culture, but in 1990 they did a Halloween special in which the children are reading this poem and picturing it acted out.  It really is quite a good rendering of the poem (and the narrator has the perfect voice for such a chilling piece--James Earl Jones (Darth Vader)).  I hoped that by showing it acted out that at least the students could get a grasp of the story and emotion of the poem; one more little piece of cultural information that they can be familiar with.  If you want to watch it, the link I used is at

So, poetry is fun to teach! I assigned homework to the students; most of my classes tried to hide their dislike of homework, but my last class on Friday had their guard down and there was a collective groan.  They all laughed when I told them that such is life.  They had to go find a poem in English (I gave them several websites to make it easier), write it into their journals, and answer a few questions about it based on the day's lesson.  Now, if they are groaning about that, little do they know that next week they'll be writing poetry. :)


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