Friday, November 25, 2011

3:17 PM - No comments

What is Poetry?

A poem is a made thing, a verbal construct, an event in language. 

From How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry
By Edward Hirsch:

The word poiesis means "making," and the oldest term for the poet means "maker." The word poem came into English in the sixteenth century and has been with us ever since to denote a form of fabrication, a verbal composition, a made thing. 

William Carlos Williams defined the poem as "a small (or large) machine made of words." He added that there is nothing redundant about a machine. Wallace Stevens characterized poetry as "a revolation of words by means of the words."

Meter marks a poem as verse, as a made thing, a work of art. 

From Poetic Closure
By Barbara H. Smith:

Meter serves . . . as a frame for the poem, separating it from a "ground" of less highly structured speech and sound. Meter is the stage of the theater in which the poem, the representation of an act of speech, is performed. It is the arena of art, the curtain that rises and falls as well as the music that accompanies the entire performance.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

2:26 PM - No comments

Cindy Nichols' Dialogical Approach to Poetry

Cindy Nichols has been a creative writing teacher and English lecturer for 19 years. She has long battled the notion that poetry is highbrow and inaccessible. One of her noted articles is titled, "Down in the Body in the Undergraduate Poetry Course: Thoughts on Bakhtin, Hypertext and Cheap Wigs." The article asks an important question: What can teachers do to transform poetry's image from a source of fear and loathing to a meaningful genre that truly engages the soul?

Notes from Cindy Nichols
NDSU Magazine

I think it's fairly evident that, yeah, poetry is a marginalized genre in mainstream America. Even in its most popular forms, it simply doesn't sell the way that other genres do, the average person on the street doesn't appear to seek it out, and the great mass of my younger students have long reported feeling uneasy, dumb, indifferent, or occasionally even hostile to it.

Lyric poems tend to invite a lingering, concentrated attention to the way that words mean and feel, and this of course is not at all the kind of attention invited by most mass media, whose bombardment of disparate and shrill messages prompts something like stupefaction. I mean, we just can't sit there on our couches and watch a car bombing full of body parts and screaming children one second and a Viagra commercial featuring Bob Dole the next without overwhelming whatever faculty it is in our hearts and psyches that responds to lyric poetry.

. . . One big problem I see is the "academization" of poetry. Kids just love language patterns, textures and rhythms, they dig even how words and letters look. But somewhere along the line that pleasure is converted into distrust. Analyzing individual poems in the New Critical fashion, at least in the earlier grades, I think is extremely counter-productive. They learn that poetry is some sort of maliciously tricky genre imposed on them in the classroom, some kind of secret code they have to break to please a teacher.

. . .  Another problem is maybe the sheer number of poetry types. Really, the word "poetry" is just entirely insufficient for what falls under that rubric.

. . . In any case, I try to help my students with this by putting any given work in a literary, cultural and social context. On one hand, I try to demystify poetry - help students see that yeah, absolutely, they CAN understand it, it isn't written by Martians or the CIA, and, on the other hand, help them see that no one exactly knows what in the world this stuff really is. It's open and in flux, it's material for play, it's still ultimately mysterious even to the people who write it and write it well.

. . .  It's incredibly important to give students poems that matter to them and speak to them. For the most part, at certain points in their education, I think it's harmful to assign work which is centuries old, in an alien form of English.

I'd rather give them contemporary poems in the language they use everyday, help them see that poetry really does have to do with their lives. Once that foundation is established, they might be more receptive to classics. Once they're trusting and curious, they'll see that "translating" older material is just a necessary step to accessing the fabulous, screwed-up, weirdly familiar lives and minds of their own whack-job ancestors.

. . . I want to help students write and read poetry "dialogically." Maybe the word "conversational" is really enough. What I try to do is bring students into contact with a poem in a way that requires engaged openness. I don't want them observing poems, even though that can certainly be interesting. I want them to respond in kind; carry on a dialogue with a poem in its own language. I'm advocating, in other words, something like study by creative response rather than study by critical analysis.

My feeling in the classroom is: come on, you know you can do this. You think, speak and breathe the language of poetry all the time. It's part of the world. It's in Burger King commercials. It's in the language of your favorite sports newscaster, the wry crack of a dopey uncle, the line of a song that rips you to shreds. Write a poem in response to the poem. Talk back to the poet. Speak "poetry." Listen for the lower note, the odd resonance, the oblique meaning.

Just don't be a provincial and arrogant tourist (critic, theorist, scholar, student) who reads the guidebook, however long and hard, however 'intelligently,' takes a snapshot, and gets back on the bus.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Introducing Poetry - Unit Plan

Introducing Poetry:
Our Voices Break Open

For Young Adult Urban Learners in Grade Nine -
A Poetic Language Arts Unit Learning Plan Design

Unit Learning Plan Overview

In this three-week unit, scheduled very early in the year, learners encounter the literary genre of poetry. Learners expand their understanding of figurative language, and explore the ways we can use poetry and poetic language to express ourselves. Having studied the short story and the novel, students now examine the differences between prose and poetry. Through questions about identity and community, learners consider the power and expressive potential of alliteration, simile, metaphor and other kinds of poetic devices.

Learners will:

•    Review and discover vocabulary associated with poetic literature, in particular, defining the names of seven common poetic devices (Repetition, Rhyme, Simile, Metaphor, Personification, Onomatopoeia and Alliteration);

•    Read poetry, inspecting how key ideas are communicated, and detecting how language is creatively employed to affect tone and meaning;

•    Prepare for and participate in a poetry seminar;

•    Listen to poetry, including hearing a local poet read an original work;

•    Write poetry, exploring use of repetition, detailed images and other devices;

•    Publish a poem to the web via -- and present their work.

Instructional Strategies: The three anchor strategies in the unit are the Socratic Seminar, the BioPoem/ Identity Chart found online at Facing History and Ourselves, and the For My People exercise from Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice.

Big Ideas: Identity and Community

Essential Questions:

•    What is poetry?

•    Why would an author choose to use poetry or poetic language over simple, straight-forward prose?

•    What literary tools have successful poets traditionally used?

•    What is identity?

•    How do I define myself?

•    How do I write effectively about my own feelings and experiences?

•    What is community?

•    What communities do I identify with?

•    How do rules and traditions shape communities?

•    In what ways are we a learning community?

Lesson Plan Outline:

•    Lesson 1 - Introducing Poetry
Highlighting the Writing (What is identity?)

•    Lesson 2 - Identity Charts
Create Identity Charts (How do I define my identity?)

•    Lesson 3 - BioPoem
Write BioPoem (How do others define my identity?)

•    Lesson 4 – Pair, Share and Prepare
Print and Publish BioPoem / pre-seminar (What is community?)

•    Lesson 5 – Just My Type
Print and Publish BioPoem / pre-seminar (How do rules and traditions shape communities?)

•    Lesson 6 –Our Voices Break Open
Socratic Seminar (How does identity relate to community?)

•    Lesson 7 – Perspective
Post-seminar reflection (How do communities define “we and they?”)

•    Lesson 8 - Community Lists
Create Community Lists (What groups or communities do I identify with?)

•    Lesson 9 – For My People
Write Poem (How do I view my community? How do others view it?)

•    Lesson 10 – Pair, Share and Prepare
Print and Publish poem (What does it mean to belong?)

•    Lesson 11 – Fine Print
Print and Publish - Vocabulary Baseball (In what ways are we a community?)

•    Lesson 12 – Identifying Poetry
Unit Assessment/ prepare (How do rules and traditions shape communities?)

•    Lesson 13 - Poetry Showcase
Presentations (Who are we?)

•    Lesson 14 – Poetry Showcase
Presentations (Who are we?)

•    Lesson 15 – Reflection
Reflect on learning (Who are we?)

Learners: 22 mixed ability students of widely diverse cultural backgrounds. Class has reviewed basic literary devices and gone through the seminar process in prior lessons.

fifteen 60-minute sessions

Unit Texts:

Confluence -- Yusef Komunyakaa, We and They -- Rudyard Kipling, For My People -- Margaret Walker, Firework -- Katy Perry, This Is Just to Say -- William Carlos Williams,
I, Too, Sing America -- Langston Hughes, I'm Nobody! Who are you? -- Emily Dickinson, kidnap poem -- Nikki Giovanni, The Sneetches -- Dr. Seuss

Special Resource Requirements: highlighters, computer lab, Katy Perry clip, clip of Sneetches, account, secure a guest poet visit

Materials: student folders and unit forms -- Identity Chart, BioPoem page, Seminar prep sheet, homework sheets 1-5 and Deborah Tannen quote - read and react, Poetry rubric, Seminar rubric, Seminar reflection, Presentation rubric, Figurative Language assessment

Resources - Websites:,,

Christensen, L. (2009). Teaching for joy and justice: Re-Imaging the language arts classroom.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools Publications.

Our voices break open the pink magnolia
where struggle is home to the beast in us.

-- from the poem, Confluence
by Yusef Komunyakaa

Unit Learning Plan Core Learning Strategy Map

Standard: (Writing) Write narratives and other creative texts develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. (d.) Use precise words and phrases, telling details, figurative and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Core Objective: I can express my ideas through a formatted piece of poetry.

Learning Targets: I can shape the meaning of a text through use of poetic language.

Learning Assessments: Poem I (BioPoem)

Core Assessment: Poem II (For My People) - 35%

Standard: (Writing) Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

Core Objective: I can use webware to publish my writing products.

Learning Targets: I can use word-processing software to publish my poetry. I can manipulate text elements in webware to post my poetry online.

Learning Assessments: Poem I (BioPoem) print and webpage

Core Assessment: Poem II (For My People) webpage presentation     - 15%

Standard: (Speaking / Listening) Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, including those by and about Minnesota American Indians,  building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. (a.) Come to discussions prepared having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

Core Objective: I can participate effectively in a collaborative discussion.

Learning Targets: I can verbalize my thoughts clearly. I can actively listen to provide feedback.

Learning Assessments: class discussions, Pair-Shares

Core Assessment: Socratic Seminar (Seminar Summary) - 15%

Standard: (Language) Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. (a.) Interpret figures of speech.

Core Objective: I can identify common poetic devices.

Learning Targets: I can identify figures of speech. I can recognize figurative language.

Learning Assessments: Vocabulary Baseball, Figurative Language handouts (5)

Core Assessment: Figurative Language Assessment - 35%