Exploring Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse”

Today’s post is brought to you by guest author Ann Cox. Ann Cox has over twenty years of experience teaching high school English, including AP Literature and Composition, Creative Writing, and Speech. She also spent several years as a teacher consultant for the Illinois State Writing Project. When she’s not working, Ann enjoys crafting, reading, and spending time with her family. You can reach her at annkellycox@gmail.com.

If you’re looking for a way to introduce poetry into your classroom this year, “Abandoned Farmhouse” is a great choice. The poem works well for a couple of reasons:

  1. It dispels two myths that my students often believe–that poetry is difficult to understand, and that poetry must rhyme.
  2. It is deceptively simple. Students find the poem easy to comprehend, but as they discuss the piece in more detail, they can discover elements such as personification, figurative language, diction, and repetition.

I like to begin this lesson by projecting the photo below. Ask students to examine the objects in the room, then make inferences about what type of person resides here. Give students a minute or two to write, then open up a brief discussion about who might sleep in a room like this. Encourage students to point out details from the photo that help support their inferences.

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Once we’ve had a brief discussion about the photograph, students are ready to examine the poem. With any poem we encounter in class, I like to either read the piece aloud or play a recording of it (Check out this video of Ted Kooser reading “Abandoned Farmhouse.”). We listen to the poem twice–the first time just to appreciate the poem, the second time to examine the poem more closely. I give students a copy of the poem and ask them to mark particular words/phrases/lines that catch their attention. You may also wish to pose a more specific question, such as “What do we learn about the people who lived here?”, and encourage students to mark those details in the poem.

I frequently start poetry discussions with general questions, such as: 

  • What jumps out at you?
  • What do you notice?

Sometimes these questions are enough to spark a great conversation, but if the discussion stalls, you might also consider asking the following questions:

  • Who is the speaker in this poem? (What poetic device is being used here?)
  • What do we learn about the former inhabitants of this house?
  • Why did the people abandon this farmhouse?
  • While this poem doesn’t rhyme, it does use other poetic devices. Which ones did you notice? What effect do they have on the poem? Depending on the level of your students, you may have to be more specific in your questioning. Ask them to find examples of repetition or figurative language, for example.

My students, regardless of age or ability level, often struggle to identify the tone of a poem. While the discussion should generate some initial ideas, I do an activity that requires students to dig deeper into “Abandoned Farmhouse.” First, distribute clean copies of the poem. Then ask students to do the following: 

  • Circle diction that indicates the tone. 
  • Select one word to describe the tone & write the word in large letters at the top or bottom of the page. Depending on your students’ familiarity with tone, you may wish to provide a list of tone words such as this one from Scholastic.
  • Draw a picture that illustrates the tone word you selected.

Here are two finished examples of this activity:

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Over the years, I have used “Abandoned Farmhouse” with both pre-AP sophomores as well as junior/senior creative writing classes. There are several extensions to this lesson I have found to be successful:

  • Use this poem as an introduction to a unit on Of Mice and Men. Speculating on why the people abandoned their farm can lead into a lesson on the factors that caused the rise of migrant workers in California.
  • Pair the poem with John Mellencamp’s song “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Have students compare each writer’s use of imagery and diction to create different tones. You could even have students do some research on the U.S. farming crisis in the 1980’s to deepen their understanding of the song.
  • Encourage students to write a poem about their own bedroom, the objects someone might find there, and what those items “say” about you. The slam poet Taylor Mali has a great ready-made handout you can use. This activity might be a good alternative or extension to the “Where I’m From” poems that have become popular in many classrooms. 
  • This poem naturally lends itself to wondering about the former inhabitants of the house. Invite students to create the dialogue between the husband and wife that led to their departure. This would also be a great way to review how to correctly punctuate dialogue.
  • Invite students to wonder what happened after the family abandoned the farmhouse. They could write a story or narrative poem that answers “Where are they now?”
  • Ask students to consider how objects can tell a person’s story. You could apply this idea to a character in literature (What would the character have in their backpack/car/nightstand?) or even to a short story students might be working on for a creative writing unit.

In my research for this post, I discovered that Ted Kooser had been U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. I’ve been thinking a lot about that position lately, as I spent some time this summer reading the poetry of our newest Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. I wondered how much (or how little) our students know about this prestigious position and the poets who have held the title. 

Together these musings sparked the idea for a new series here at Teach Living Poets. The Poet Laureate Project will feature a different U.S. Poet Laureate each month during the 2019-2020 school year. I plan to spotlight one or two of their poems, suggest activities to use these pieces in the classroom, and touch upon their contributions to the promotion of poetry in America.

I hope you found my Ted Kooser suggestions helpful. Join me again next month, when the featured Poet Laureate will be Rita Dove.

Thank you, Ann, for sharing this lesson with us! I am looking forward to learning more about US Poet Laureates with you throughout the year!

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with TeachLivingPoets.com? Be a guest author! Email me at msmith@lncharter.org. 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

If you want to order a #TeachLivingPoets shirt, check out my awesome sister-in-law’s Facebook store Megan’s Makes. Shirt options are: gray unisex crew-neck S-XXXL, black unisex crew-neck S-XXXL, white women’s v-neck S-XL. All shirts are $20, PayPal accepted.

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