This morning I taught my second poetry session with a combined group of ninth and eleventh graders. They came into class livelier than they did last week, and even the juniors were chatty. I started them off immediately with a dictation exercise: my choice was "The Base Stealer" by Robert Francis, which I often use with high school students. I know I've written about this poem in other teaching posts, but I'm going to reiterate the details of what transpired in this particular class.
When I dictate a poem, what I'm doing is reading it aloud and asking students to copy out what they hear. I give them every capital letter, every piece of punctuation, every line and stanza break; I spell any difficult words and repeat myself as necessary. The goal is to draw students into a tight focus on the actual, palpable materials of the poem.
For the first line or two, they are always restless: some are bewildered; some are scornful; most think they are obediently bowing to yet another tedious assignment. But before long they are sucked into the moment. Midway through, one boy said, "Wait. How many times did he write 'Come on' in that line?" Another boy worked to sort out the complications of punctuation in the final line: "Commas, and then a dash, and then an exclamation point?" The other students listened to me and listened to each other. The room was very quiet, except for occasional spontaneous remarks about a word.
I mentioned in last week's post that the eleventh-grade class includes several ESL students. As an aid to them, the teachers and I decided to give them photocopies of the poem. Then, as they wrote down the words I was dictating, they could also check them visually. (I've learned that this is also a useful option for students with hearing loss or language delays.)
After I finished the dictation, I broke the class into seven groups of four or five students each and asked them to decide as a group, "What's the most important word in this poem?" They worked on this task for eight or ten minutes, and then we reconvened and shared the words. Interestingly, every single group chose a different word: what we ended up with on the board were taunt, teeter, scattering, ecstatic, poised, between, and he. I chattered briefly about letter sounds, parts of speech, links of connotation or sensation among the words, the personality of the character in the poem; and then I gave them a writing exercise, which began with this instruction:
Choose a physical activity: a sport, falling down the stairs, splitting firewood--something you've done yourself or watched someone else do. Now imagine a couple of seconds of the action, and freeze it in your head, as if you've paused a video clip. Hold onto that picture.Then I threw out the following prompts at two- or three-minute intervals:
Lines 1 and 2. Arms. What the arms doing? Focus on action, shape, where they are in space.After the students finished writing, I asked them to swap their iPads or papers with another student and read that person's draft. As they read, they needed to look for two words in that other person's poem that they liked, and then they needed to share that information with the poet. This simple structured conversation is a first step toward being able to talk more fully about each others' poems in workshop groups, which I hope they'll be ready to do later this fall.
Lines 3 and 4. Hands. What are the fingers doing? Be exact? What are they touching? Does their motion remind you of anything else? What?
Lines 5 and 6. Feet. What are the feet doing? Where are they in space? Have they shifted from one space to another?
Line 7. Unfreeze the video clip. What does the person's body do as soon as the video starts rolling?
At this point several students read their poems aloud, and once again we had some fine first drafts. There were a lot of athletes in this room, and it clearly gave them great pleasure to focus their writing eyes so closely on what their bodies have been trained to perform. This week more juniors decided to share their poems, which was a big plus because the freshmen are eager to find out what's in the heads of the big kids. After last week's session, they told their English teacher they were disappointed at not getting to hear what the eleventh graders had to say. Multi-age, multi-level classes really do help students expand their understanding of one another, and I'm very glad the juniors are softening up so quickly.
For homework, students will need to turn in a second draft that contains at least the following changes:
After your original lines 1 and 2, add at least one line that answers, "What does the person see?"
After your original lines 3 and 4, add at least one line that answers, "What does the person hear?"
After your original lines 5 and 6, add at least one line that answers, "What does the person remember?"