Today’s post is brought to you by guest author Tia Miller. Tia teaches AP Literature, AP Language, AP Seminar, and Dual Credit English at Chapmanville Regional High School in southern West Virginia. She is currently working on her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Marshall University.
This past semester, inspired by Melissa Smith and other awesome teachers in my PLN and encouraged by some extra money to spend on books for my classroom, I decided to teach my first poetry collection. Mind you, the very notion of reading a poetry collection, personally, was a rather exceptional idea for me, much less the attempt to teach one, but I took the leap anyway and found an exciting new addition for my curriculum.
The collection I chose was Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead which is a collection of poems written in the 1930s about the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster near Gauley Bridge, WV. Hawks Nest is only about two hours away from our part of the state and the disaster is a little known bit of state history, so I was hoping the collection would both educate and connect with my students.
Thanks to ideas collected from my friends, Adrian Nester’s post on teaching Counting Descent, and Susan Barber’s post on APLitHelp, I had a pretty good idea of how to begin and where I wanted to end. My problem came when we hit the middle of the collection. We had already discussed what I had wanted to from the first half of the poems, and I couldn’t start them on their final project until we had completely read the entire collection. I ended up smashing together ideas from several different places and came up with what turned out to be a definite “keeper.”
To begin, I created a series of hexagons. (You can find some blank ones here.) Inside each hexagon, I placed the title of one of the poems my students had already been assigned to read, leaving plenty of white space around the text. The next morning, I copied a set of hexagons (they had been assigned 15 poems at this point) for each group. Once each group had cut apart their shapes, I explained their task.
One of the things my PLN had encouraged me to emphasize was the nature of a poetry collection. These poems have been collected together and placed in this particular order for a reason; one way of approaching the study of a collection is to figure out why. I told my students that they had a hexagon representing each of the poems they had read. Their job was to determine connections between the poems and show those by matching edge to edge on the corresponding shapes then writing the connection between the two touching edges.
I encouraged them to think outside the box. After all, these poems all revolve around the same topic – the disaster and its effects – and many people named in one poem show up again in another poem. I tried to push them to think about other connections between the poems such as structure or techniques the author used.
I explained that they were essentially making a map of connections between poems. If they put two edges together, a connection had to be found between those poems. If they felt more than two poems connected in some way, corners could also be used, but in the end, if two “poems” were touching, there had to be an established connection between them.
What excited me most about this activity was that no two final maps were the same. Each group found different ways of connecting and making sense out of the poems as you can see from the pictures.
The next time I do this activity, I’ll make sure to take some time at the end to have students be reflective about the process and to share out, perhaps the two most insightful connections each group made.
What I loved about this activity the most was how engaged the students were. I was just standing back, watching them discuss, flip through pages in their books, argue their points, and rearrange their shapes over and over. Any time I can be extraneous in my own classroom is a win in my book.
I’m very glad I took the chance on teaching a poetry collection. As a whole, the class responded quite positively. I look forward to trying it again next year!
Thank you, Tia, for sharing this inventive hands-on activity with us! I will definitely be trying this one myself when we read our poetry collections in the spring. This year, my seniors will read RA Villanueva’s Reliquaria, Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, and Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf. My juniors will read Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches and Jose Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal.
More helpful posts on teaching poetry collections can be found here:
Please share the awesome things you do in your classroom with contemporary poetry on Twitter using the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets.
Thank you for reading!