Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post is brought to you by guest writers, Kristin Dreyer and Nikki Lehman, co-teachers at Chantilly High School in Chantilly, Virginia. They have been teaching at Chantilly for the past 18 years and have co-taught together three years throughout the course of their careers; this year they are embarking on an English 10 journey for the first time. They enjoy collaborating and taking risks in their teaching— challenging each other to move beyond their comfort zones! You can follow them on Twitter @CHS_writer and @kdreyer12.
When our 10th graders walked into class last week, they were confused—and intrigued— by the tablecloths, electric candlelight and mints at their tables.
“Are we having a fancy dinner?” one of them asked.
“Sort of.” We smiled knowing we had piqued their interest before we had even begun to read a line together.
As teachers, we know poetry is a genre brimming with rich language and emotion, but for some reason our students view poetry as inaccessible. We wanted to find a way to incorporate poetry to begin our second quarter together, but anticipated resistance. Nikki began to pull ideas from her poetry unit in her Creative Writing class, while Kristin dove into research to support our initial thoughts.
As Kristin began pulling together potential ideas for our lessons, she became inspired by an idea executed by teacher, Monet Hardison, and documented by researcher, Amy Rottman, which they termed “blind date poetry.” She loved the idea of enticing students to try out poetry by “dating” unknown poems, choosing them based only on a few key words offered on the front of an envelope. She formed our first lesson based on their concept, and together we expanded the activity to include a symbolic creation and gallery walk.
In one 90-minute class period, we began by asking students to freewrite about their preconceptions about poetry; not surprisingly, during discussion, we heard the familiar “it’s too difficult,” “I’m not smart enough to get it,” “it always has to rhyme.” We asked them to keep an open mind and be willing to take risks as we began to meet and mingle with the poems they might want to “get to know” on a deeper level.
To hook them, we knew the poems we presented had to say something to our kids about the lives they lead and what is important to them. Nikki had been spending time on Twitter and reading blogs (like this one!) to find ideas for new poems, especially those written by current/contemporary poets. Some of the poets/poems we chose/considered this year based on our favorites, past student favorites, and recommendations:
Kim Addonizio (“Scary Movies”)
Margaret Atwood (“A Sad Child”)
Catherine Barnett (“Epistemology”)
Billy Collins (“The Lanyard”, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House”)
Rupi Kaur (various poems)
Michael Lee (“Pass On”)
Jon Loomis (“Deer Hit”)
Taylor Mali (“How Falling in Love is like Owning a Dog”)
Mary Oliver (“Crossing the Swamp”, “The Journey”)
Simon F. Ortiz (“My Father’s Song”)
Clint Smith (“Playground Elegy”)
Dean Young (“Belief in Magic”)
Next year, we’re looking forward to adding more poets (for example, we’ve been reading Elizabeth Acevedo and José Olivarez thanks to the #teachlivingpoets movement!)
After the freewrite, we placed a group of envelopes on each of our students’ tables with the key words of the poems facing up. Students then “dated” at least five poems, spending time reading and attempting to connect with each one. If they found one that didn’t fit, they put it back in the hopes that maybe one of their peers would find their match.
Some students immediately connected with poems and others were more resistant. We also found that some students needed additional scaffolding/support throughout the dating process, so we adapted this response/checklist to fit the purpose of our activity.
What we found occurring naturally: students were chatting about the poems they found interesting, and even recommending them to their friends! As we circulated around the room, we felt like nervous best friends waiting to find out how a blind date went. We hoped they would choose their best matches and were rewarded when one of our students found the first poem she ever liked, telling us, “I finally ‘get’ a poem.” This activity was a non-threatening way to get them to read a poem without any preconceived notions; since the poems were hidden inside envelopes, students weren’t intimidated by their language or length.
Once our students found a poem they wanted to “spend more time” with, we asked them to read it again, paying attention to the emotions it conjured within them- the ways in which they found connections to their lives. Next, adapting Karla Hilliard’s purposeful play activity, we asked students to create a symbolic representation of their poem using Play-Doh- something beyond plot which revealed their thinking and understanding. Finally, students wrote a short explanation of their sculpture on an index card, which they paired with their poems. Quietly, students participated in a gallery walk so they could view their classmates’ products and understand the inspiration and emotions behind them.
To round out our mini-unit, we explored songs as poetry and utilized a digital choice board to allow students more time to explore and practice reading and writing poetry. Ultimately, students will turn in a portfolio of several poems they have written accompanied by a reflection on the process.
Although we may not change all our students’ minds, we hope to have fostered an appreciation for poetry and an understanding that poetry of our time is not a genre to be “stood up,” but rather something worth developing a relationship with that will last throughout our lives.
Thank you for the awesome post, Kristin and Nikki! I can’t wait to try this in my class.
And thank you, reader!
Keep up the #TeachLivingPoets tweets featuring your classroom activities and favorite poems!
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