Teaching poetry with a Common Core edge
By Alex on December 6th, 2012
The Common Core State Standards gives poetry reading a central place in the curriculum again, so Wendy Murray of Scholastic Teaching Resources turned to poetry expert, Georgia Heard, for advice on how to get students to fall in love with poetry and do the kind of analytical reading the CCSS require. Georgia is the author of the forthcoming book, Poetry Lessons to Meet the Common Core State Standards,and a poetry consultant who travels to schools throughout the United States and around the world.
Murray: The CCSS seems to emphasize an analytical approach to teaching poetry, so teachers are now concerned that having students bring personal knowledge and response to their understanding of a poem is out of favor.
Heard: Teachers need to interpret CCSS in ways that are true to how children learn and how poems are constructed for response. Poems, and all literature for that matter, are written to appeal to us emotionally, so connections to our lives have to play a role. I think we can bring both kinds of reading stances in. Blend the two. We have to get away from this either/or mentality, where one approach is in and another is totally out.
Murray: Can you tell us more about these two different stances?
Heard: Readers shift between an efferent and an aesthetic experience of text, something that Louise Rosenblatt theorized many decades ago. The reading process isn’t visible, but it makes intuitive sense that we both analyze—the efferent response—and respond on a more aesthetic, subjective level. The aesthetic response is where the life is. It’s about the memories and personal experiences we bring to a poem, as well as our enjoyment of a poem’s sounds and rhythms. All these elements make the poem meaningful to us. An efferent response to poetry is a traditional approach. It’s how poetry used to be taught, where teachers would focus on reading for meter and rhyme scheme, and define what literary devices are in the poem before discussing the meaning.
Murray: What do you suggest teachers do when inviting students to respond to a poem?
Heard: The CCSS wants students to provide text-dependent answers. This is a good thing and something we can help students grow into, but we have to let the aesthetic response lead. Students have to fall in love with a poem first. That is the doorway. Then we can figure out what a poem really means and how its craft and structure come into play.
Murray: How do you help teachers realize that they don’t have to do it all in a single lesson?
Heard: I love the word explicate, from the Latin “to unfold.” When you come to understand a poem, you do so gradually. Think about a poem that you read when you were young and then reread years later and it had a different, deeper meaning. This unfolding can take years because your experiences change.
Murray: But within the short span of a poetry unit, how do you model forthis slow reading for students?
Heard: I’ve devised a sequence called “Living with a Poem for One Week” It models that process of deeper and deeper reading. It is CCSS aligned because it does involve analytic response, looking at craft and structure. You take five to ten minutes every day with the same poem, Monday through Friday. Start with open response. Students can write in a journal or talk to one another about the poem. Then bring the poem back on Tuesday. Go a little deeper with a question or prompt like, “So let’s talk about what is at the heart of this poem.”
Murray: So you’re addressing Common Core ideals by getting at comprehension, finding theme?
Heard: Yes, but the key is to have students discover a poem’s big ideas without intimidating them with a feeling that there are right and wrong responses. You can’t understand a poem without bringing your experiences to it, and students need to know that their experiences are a valid tool for comprehension. But they nonetheless have to find the evidence in the poem to support their understandings. In a sense, they have to prove that their responses are reasonable.
Murray: Is this process all conversation?
Heard: No, it’s a bunch of things. Children need to individually wade through a poem and do their own thinking, so one strategy is to give them copies of the poem and have them read it and visualize it by drawing it. They get the big picture by literally making illustrations beside lines and stanzas. The Common Core emphasizes key ideas and details, and when you illustrate the poem, you illustrate the details and then can stand back and say what you think the details all add up to in terms of a message, or main theme.
Murray: Interesting! Could this activity be helpful for teachers in spotting students who are having trouble understanding the poem?
Heard: Yes, helpful for teachers and students, too. I tell students, “if there is a part of the poem you can’t draw, that is a murky place—a place where your understanding isn’t clear. You can have a conversation with your reading partner about it.” Usually different viewpoints emerge. Understanding deepens. And we then come back together to discuss it as a class to arrive at greater clarity about particular points in a poem that are more challenging for one reason or another.
Murray:In other words, you’re linking students’ personal connections with the poet’s intended meanings, guiding students to reckon with the text to support their ideas?
Heard: Yes, and by, say, Wednesday or Thursday, you have kids look at the poet’s craft and structure. You can do that by, for example, having them clap out the rhythm of a poem. And if the rhythm changes, then ask, “Why do you think the poet did that? Might it reflect a change in meaning?” Look together at imagery, line breaks, stanzas—allthe structures and devices poets use—to deepen and support meaning.
Murray: Close, analytic reading à la Common Core!
Heard: Yes, but notice all this teaching is built upon the students’ initial response to the poem. And you can meet the CCSS by also bringing in the historical context of the poem and the biographical details of the poet. Ask, “Does the poem reflect a larger moment in cultural history?” By Friday, they know the poem. Really know it. Students develop an amazing affinity with the poem and want to keep the poem in their poetry folders as though it’s something cherished they own—because they’ve done this slow unfolding.
Murray: Are there a couple of poems that are especially great for this weeklong look?
Heard: “Things” by Eloise Greenfield. It’s rhythmic, it’s fun, but it also has a deeper meaning. “Skywish” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Also very accessible but you can unfold it to understand a more complex idea. Students love to talk about how the ellipses and dashes in “Skywish” support the meaning of the poem, so it’s a good one for modeling how poets use punctuation to develop meaning.
Murray: Okay, but just to play devil’s advocate, isn’t CCSS asking us to not select easy and accessible texts as often, and get kids exposed to complex texts sooner?
Heard: You can get there, but don’t start there! Again, think of a gradual build toward more and more challenging poems as the school year unfolds. The CCSS authors emphasize end of year goals. Take the CCSS exemplar text “Autumn” by Emily Dickenson, which is recommended for grades two and three. You try to analyze that poem early in the year before your students have had experience with poetry and have learned about metaphor, rhythm, stanzas, and they won’t be ready. But by spring, they will love it.
Murray: Any last words of advice?
Heard: Trust your instincts. Do what you’ve always done in terms of leading students to greater sophistication of content and skill by the year’s end. To do that, expose them to a wide variety of poets and poetry. Go to websites like poems.com, favoritepoems.org, and kidslitosphere.org. Get beyond just the fun of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. It’s like listening to one kind of music over and over again. There are poets who can move us and get us through difficult times. There are poets from various cultures who open our eyes to newness. This is the world of poetry. The students I’ve worked with embrace this world readily when we bring it to them slowly and with joy.
No comments yet