For 15 years, I was a high school English teacher, first in New Jersey, then in Virginia. I alternated between American and British literature but overall spent more time with American. There are some American poets I love: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe and many others. My love of poetry does not extend to sitting and reading a book of poetry straight through, but I do for instance enjoy Knopf's Poem-a-Day for National Poetry Month in April. I have also been known to pick up Leaves of Grass and randomly read a few poems. However, my love of poetry and specific poems does not mean I was always successful at instilling this love in my students, but I did try.
I recently wrote a blog post at work about the influence Walt Whitman's war work had on his poetry. Sometimes I was successful at interesting students in a poem or poet if I could connect the writer or work to a historical event or period. Sometimes just referencing the poet's life experiences was enough to interest students who wrote poetry. For some reason, in thinking about other posts related to topics I could explore at work, where I am part of a team that creates resources to help teachers work with primary sources with their students, I came up with a couple of ideas unrelated to primary sources. Having no other venue for sharing, I decided to write about them here.
1. Using as many poems as needed based on the size of the class, cut each poem into strips of paper one or two lines of poetry long.
2. Number all the strips from the same poem with the same number. (Often Dickinson's work is published with numbers rather than titles, so just use those numbers.)
3. Give one strip of poetry to each student in the class and ask him or her to spend a few minutes silently reading the line and jotting down thoughts, emotions, or meaning the line prompts. Encourage taking time to look up unfamiliar words.
4. Next, move students into groups based on the poem number. Ideally groups will have about three members. Long experience taught me this was the perfect number for groupings in my setting. (Luckily many of Dickinson's poems are quite short so if students each have two lines, small groups are possible.)
5. Ask students to try to put the lines together into their correct order. The capitalization and punctuation of many of Dickinson's works ensure this is not as straightforward as it might seem. In this way, without lecture or pre-reading, students will make discoveries about free- verse and Dickinson's work in general. (Circulate to nudge students in the right direction, or provide collections of her work to double check their product.)
5.5. Take time now or after step six to discuss observations students have made about Dickinson's format, thereby developing a definition of free-verse.
7. Finally, provide white paper or construction paper, asking the groups to write out the whole poem, embellishing with illustrations, related terms, or other decorative elements. Ask each student to transfer at least one of his or her comments about an individual line or the whole to a sticky note. Post the poems and the stickies around the room.
8. Through the study of the poems over the next few classes, encourage everyone to record thoughts to post about as many poems as they would like.
I'd love to hear back if anyone decides to try this out.