Poetry Literature Circles

This post is brought to you by Zach Czaia, a poet and high school English teacher working in Minneapolis, MN. His second poetry collection, Knucklehead, was published in 2021 with Nodin Press. Check out his poetry podcast, Open Your Hands on Spotify or Google Podcasts or follow him on social media @czaiazach. 

Some Notes on Literature Circles & Poetry Collections

Overall School Context & Rationale for the Unit

Where I teach, at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in South Minneapolis, our English department has made a whole-department move to reading and writing workshop centered instruction. We start all of our classes with students doing independent reading from a book of their choice. There has been a huge and positive change in our school community since this move 4 years ago, in that we truly have a school culture where reading is seen as a good thing. Kids are reading and getting hooked on books. At the same time, the main genre that students are going back to again and again is the novel, and most specifically the YA novel. (Though we have well-stocked and well-curated nonfiction libraries as well.) 

As a poet myself and someone who loves reading and teaching contemporary poetry, I’ve spent a good number of English department dollars on collections from wonderful living poets—and have been sad to see more than a few of these collections being ignored during independent reading time. If only they knew what they were missing out on, I thought in my nerdy poet brain, then they’d gravitate toward the poetry stacks more often. And then, this summer I had the great pleasure of reading Melissa Alter Smith and Lindsay Illich’s Teach Living Poets. I was struck by how much students gained from reading poems in context of the collection. I wanted to continue to give students CHOICE in their reading but also wanted to have student experience what it’s  like to IMMERSE oneself in an entire collection of a poet’s work. So, I looked at contemporary collections where I already had 2-3 copies of the book, ordered a few more in the summer, and geared up for a “Literature Circles” mini-unit for the start of my 12th grade AP English sections. 

Student Discussion as aid to Analysis AND Creative Writing

After having students do a kind of “collection sampling day,” I had students rank their collection preferences. And then did my very best to get students AT LEAST their top 1, 2, or 3 pick. (That happened with most students, but admittedly not all.)

Then, I divided up the students and had them set up their own reading schedules with the understanding that they would have 4 different 15-20 minute discussions over the next two weeks of class. They used this planning sheet to make a reading plan for finishing the collection during that time.

Many of these students I had taught as juniors, and as part of work last year in our poetry unit, had done a good deal of their own writing of poetry and workshopping of poetry using Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (maybe more on that for another blog post). So they definitely had good rapport and ability to have engaged student-led discussions of poetry with each other. But since this was an AP course, in addition to having the poems in the collections be ‘mentor texts’ for students’ own creative portfolios, I also wanted to be sure the discussions got students looking at particular literary tools that they’d be able to use for analysis of the poems. Looking at some of the AP essay prompts from previous years, I settled on diction, structure, and sound as particularly useful tools for students to dive into.

DICTION (Discussion 1)

Students got a lot out of the “Most Significant Word” activity with a common shared mentor text we discussed as a whole class, Ada Limon’s “A New National Anthem,” so I decided that would be a great subject for small group discussion. As preparation, the night before students would read a chunk of the collection together, and then pick one “poem in common” as a small group and then discuss what word they chose as the most significant. The discussions that followed (and I had them record all of them, though full disclosure, I definitely did NOT listen to all of them) were excellent–full of evidence based arguments for the word’s significance. 

Structure and Sound (Discussion 2)

Brian Sztabnik’s AP Classroom mini-lessons on how stanza breaks affected pacing in Lord Byron’s “Solitude” and how alliteration contributed to the overall meaning in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 really gave students a ‘grip’ on the two tools of sound structure. And then allowed them to consider the way their collection poets were using these tools in their own contemporary poems. So the question of: “How is the poet using sound or structure to contribute to meaning?” was a guiding question for student discussions in this second discussion.

Author Interviews (Discussion 3)

I realized as I began listening to recordings (and of course eavesdropping in on students’ conversations during my classes) that a lot of the students could have understood more and more deeply from their poems if they understood a bit about their poets’ biographies. For instance, one of the groups was reading Teri Cross Davis’ poem “Bad Girls Album Cover” but had missed the allusion to the Donna Summers album cover in the opening title. (And so were confused by the second half of the poem, not aware that Davis was describing the cover itself.) When this same group learned from an interview with the poet that Davis was looking at using album covers in a number of the poems she was doing in the collection, they had a ‘key’ for unlocking a lot of the collection. (NOTE: They expressed that they would have found this useful EARLIER in the discussions rather than in the third one.) I found this list of author interviews useful as a starting point for the students in my two sections, here, and here. Then, students discussed how the interviews helped reveal a deeper understanding of particular poems in their third discussions.

Great Theme Debate (Discussion 4)

Again, a shameless theft from Teach Living Poets! I loved the way this book concluded by having students prepare arguments for why a particular theme was the most important one in the book. (A great practice for the kind of evidence-based argumentation students need to in AP analysis.) So I adapted this activity for individual collections and each student made their case–and had a lot of fun–arguing for why their theme was the most important one in the collection. 

“Own Your Growth” Letters (Closing Assessments)

I often find it is useful for students to check in with THEMSELVES on how they have grown over a particular stretch of instruction. So after the final discussion, I had students use this rubric to share the ways they grew as students of their poet’s collections, participants in discussion, and poets (they had been creating a few poems during this time, too–specifically in the sonnet and “Golden Shovel” form). 

To make it interesting, I encouraged students to choose an audience besides me to write to about this growth. Many of them chose classmates within their groups or the poets of the collections they read. I’m attaching here a few terrific samples from letters that students wrote to Jose Olivarez and Nate Marshall. (And, in the case of Nate, I sent these on, and Nate himself gave a thank you back!) 


Summing up, moving on

As I write this reflection, I’m still finishing up the current Poetry Unit. (Students have completed a round of Critical Response Process discussions on their own poems, many inspired by prompts in the ever-helpful Teach Living Poets.) I always have students write a lot of their own poems, but a difference I notice now is the way students are CONNECTING their own work to the work of these “collection poets.” For instance, one of my students in a discussion of her poem said just this week, “You know Michael Kleber-Diggs? He writes a lot about police brutality in his poems–I’m trying to do that, too, in this poem.” Overhearing that made my nerdy teacher-poet-heart sing. There’s an extra layer of richness to the student poems this year that I know is because they have engaged deeply with contemporary poets. It’s a little too early to tell if that is translating to stronger analysis on our AP essays, too, but those do seem stronger as well. No matter what, I’ll be doing this again–students had a lot of fun with it, and I did too.

Thank you, Zach for sharing your success with Poetry Lit Circles with us!

Please check out Zach’s new poetry collection! Knucklehead offers signposts, way stations, and commanding views along one person’s journey toward enlightenment and compassion through living a fully human life, day by day. Order it here!

If you have a best practice, idea, or story to share, and would like to write a guest post, please email me at msmith@lncharter.org or reach out on social media @MelAlterSmith.

All pictures in this post are shared with student permission.

4 thoughts on “Poetry Literature Circles

  1. Love this! Would like to do this with Counting Descent, Citizen Illegal, and I see Finna, what others did you use? I would like 6-7 circles.


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