Fun with poetry

Today I received a hard-bound copy of Pine Tree Poetry's national anthology of student poetry from 2007. Eleven of the ninth grade students I had last year were published.

When I do my annual poetry anthology (link leads to last year's assignment, which I might tweak for this year), one of the expectations is students will submit their favorite original poem to Pine Tree for consideration.

Something new I plan to add to the unit is a memorization and recitation component. While part of me thinks it will simply be enjoyable to listen to students recite professionally published poetry from memory, my primary motivation is to build their recitation skills so our school can field strong competitors for next year's Poetry Out Loud competition.

After learning about Poetry Out Loud last year, I finally managed to organize a school-wide poetry recitation competition at my school. While there were only a few who participated, we did generate a winner who will represent us against other schools at the Massachusetts semi-final event on March 8th.

Another activity I do over the course of the poetry unit involves a poetry slam, which is different than recitation, as students read their own work, which may or may not be memorized. For a great three minute primer on poetry slams, check out Geof Hewitt's Guide to Poetry Slam. Two years ago at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference, I attended a poetry slam seminar led by Geof himself, a former Vermont Poetry Slam Champion. Geof was a vivid and energetic teacher, and helped me discover exciting ways to breathe life into poetry.

Before we can do poetry, students and I must get through The Old Man and the Sea (which won't be too long now, as the novella is a quick read). The culminating activity for this unit is an essay in the style of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System English Language Arts Long Composition. While there are few things that make me want to do like Oedipus and gouge my eyes out more than reading five paragraph essays, I teach the format because it's something my freshmen will have to do next year.

There are other (and, arguably, better) ways to teach thesis statements, topic sentences, supporting details, organization, and concluding paragraphs, but I would be doing my students a disservice (and probably engendering the wrath of my department chair and all the 10th grade English teachers) if I didn't explicitly teach this style of writing and provide students with exposure to the 10 odd prompts of which they are likely to encounter one of when they take the mandatory test next year.

While my school definitely takes the MCAS test seriously, the administrative team realizes that one need not always "teach to the test" to succeed at the test. It's really about arming students with the intellectual arrows they'll need to shoot down the rogue test questions. Can students summarize? Can students infer? Can students synthesize? Can they read critically? Can they discern a main idea? Can they craft a thesis statement? Can they build and maintain an argument with supporting details? A test teaches skills, and there are disparate ways to impart skills. (Knowledge, on the other hand, is a different story.)

One reason I enjoy our poetry unit (aside from the fact that I love breaking down words and studying them in their distilled simplicity) is its independent nature. Students are given a task that involves research, writing, and analysis. They are given a timeline and suggested checklist for when each component should be completed. They are then given multiple days of class time to use at their discretion as they progress through the requirements. As a teacher, I loves this, as it allows me to move and mingle about the students, informally checking in, answering questions, asking questions, and, hopefully, piquing their curiosity and interest.

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