Teaching Fun! A Poetry Reading Exercise

I’m teaching a middle school summer session enrichment class. Reading and Writing Workshop. Every year I do something a little different than the year before. This time, summer school began  just after I finished a two day professional development workshop with a visiting Columbia University professor, Sheridan Blau. For two days we talked about reading and writing. I loved it. Professor Blau offered practiced classroom activities. We read poetry and wrote commentaries. We talked about what a commentary is. Conversation wandered into philosophical ends of education. All of this I loved. I want more opportunities like this, to nudge my content knowledge and teaching enthusiasm, and at the end of those two days, I wondered how much ambivalence or discouragement in this profession might be reckoned by a few days of thoughtful, practical PD.

And application. In the middle of the first poetry reading exercise I thought, I’m using this. Here it is:

Read the poem three times
Each time, underline words/ phrases/ parts you don’t know or understand (use different colored pencils, inks or highlighters if you have them)
Make margin notes as needed
At the end of each reading, rate your understanding of the piece (1low – 10high)
At the end of each reading, ask a question or two
After three readings, write the story of your reading

One thing Professor Blau emphasized is the value of rereading. We need to encourage more of that. Students who might not understand much after a first reading will probably understand more after a second and third reading. More yet after writing about their reading. More yet after talking with others about the reading.

I think a lot about time and flow in the classroom. This particular reading exercise requires sustained attention to a single piece of literature. The order and repetition of tasks is a kind of promise that you too can glean something from this poem you’ve never seen before, just by following directions. The process sets the reader up for success. Everyone has something to say about the piece. Everyone has an unanswered question.

The other day I tried this exercise with a small group of middle schoolers. We read “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I chose this poem because it’s short. It’s a little, nonthreatening vignette. You don’t need to feel super smart to get a picture in your mind. I appreciate how literally accessible imagist poetry is.

We read the poem three times, marking lines and notes. Depending on age group, you might pause after each reading so all students catch up before starting the next reading. First time through, you might say aloud each step. Do this exercise along with your students. Be surprised by your own new reading.

This time, my reading hinged on the line “Forgive me.” A kind of command, softened by lack of punctuation. No period, no exclamation point, but no question mark either. I say prayers like that, with the expectation God forgives. I drop the please. This time I thought why there is no sorry first.

One of the students noticed the language too. When we talked as a group, the question came up, How old is the speaker? A couple of boys pictured a kid because the action, eating fruit meant for later, calling it delicious and sweet, seemed childish to them. But another kid raised the point that the kid doesn’t say sorry. Wouldn’t a kid say sorry? I asked what the relationship might be, between the speaker and to whom he is speaking. Child/ parent. Spouses. And which makes more sense? Spouses. Because of the line “Forgive me” instead of any apology first.

Then one boy said, What if it’s about more? I thought we were done talking about the poem. I was happy we figured out what an ice box was and glad the group talked about voice. I hadn’t been sure what we might find when we read. I asked what he meant. What if he’s sorry for something else he did? Like what? Something he shouldn’t have. A couple of other boys nodded. Why do you think that? Because fruit isn’t that big a deal, we decided.

I extended our discussion by showing a few other poems by Williams Carlos Williams. Just looking at the shape of each piece, what do you notice? They’re all short. We talked about Williams’s career as a doctor, how he wrote poems on prescription pads in his office. I love this detail about Williams’s writing. When I bring it up in classes, I ask students how the shape of their notebook or screen influences how or what they write.

A couple of days later, we returned to this exercise, reading “I Died For Beauty, But Was Scarce” by Emily Dickinson.

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I chose this poem because it isn’t so simple as eating cold, sweet plums your wife was saving for breakfast. This poem challenges a young reader, vocabulary first. Once we sorted out scarce, adjoining, brethren and kinsmen, we had an odd scene to think about. The group was more attentive to the steps of the reading exercise this time and during discussion, we went quickly to the philosophical: are truth and beauty equal? Can an ugly truth be beautiful? How do you die for beauty? And then the image of moss reaching our lips. Why moss? Maybe because it’s gross to say our tongues are eaten by worms and that’s why we can’t talk anymore. But what about truth and beauty being family?

We talked more about how we read the poem, about how much nicer it is to reread and grip the content of a piece and, by the third reading or as you write the story of your reading, form an idea about the piece’s meaning. But better to talk after reading, to compare your understanding with others’ and ask questions, take a thought prompted by literature and talk about what it means to you. Earlier this year I had a conversation with a colleague about the intended social nature of reading, how we add to one another’s understanding because each of us have different perceptions/ associations/ experiences and the whole wandering conversation opens doors in our understanding of literature but also of people.

I love that about reading, teaching literature. Let us go humbly to these conversations.


Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

All the feelings! This time of year is wild/ unfun/ sad/ exhausting/ promising for international teachers. I wanted to find a way to put all of the following in one coherent piece but I’m tired and decided to just share the whole deal in three parts.

Sometime Two Weeks Ago: Selling The Car

I’ve been fraying. A few weeks ago my friend Pamela looked around the apartment and said it could be emptied in three hours. You’d be surprised, she said. At the end of our first year here, someone in the singles apartment shoved a couch out the window and since then I’ve imagined doing the same, just chucking stuff out the window to watch it smash. My high school art teacher told me that’s what he did when his pottery didn’t fire right. He took the contents of the kiln behind a building and threw the plates, bowls, pots at brick wall. Clay leaving chalk marks on the brick, the fine sift of dust. I don’t need to throw anything out the window, it’s just something that sounds fun that I should have done when I was twenty because now it’d get me in too much trouble. When Grant picks up a loose paving stone on a walk and drops it again and again to see how it lands in the grass or sand or on concrete, I tell him to watch his toes. I’m curious how many drops before it cracks too.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Justin what he needed. I’ve been doing this for months, asking what he needs or what Claire or Grant needs, because I’m so keen on having a good farewell to Kuwait that I don’t want to error as wife or mom, missing a moment or experience or conversation that will best exit us from here and shuttle us on to Seoul. On Saturday I realized this was a reach from the start. I took the kids to the Avenues for a last walk around before Ramadan starts. Claire said it was dumb, why’d we have to go, Seoul will have malls too. And I said to her, But I can look around here and see you and Grant when you were toddlers. I won’t have that in Seoul. She patted my arm, gave me a hug. This is difficult, to pay attention to four people at once. Later that afternoon, after a tremendous cry in my bedroom, after Claire and Grant apologized for not listening the first time, after I assured them it wasn’t that, not really, I did say: We have to figure out how to do this together.

Claire and Grant are big enough to get that we are a family together. They get that Justin and I can only do so much. Claire and Grant need to help us be a family too. Some of this has nothing to do with moving. That’s how being a family works. We have a lot going on. And some of what’s happening – not listening, scrapping in the backseat, me yelling in the kitchen – it would happen if we weren’t moving. We’d still have to figure things out. But since we are moving, each of us has heightened emotional responses. Like dropping a grocery bag and breaking glass jars lands me in my bedroom sobbing. It’s like being a teenager. Or pregnant.

When I asked Justin what he needed he said he needed to sell the car. We’d sold his Pajero, but still had my Kia. He posted the sale online, I called a name another teacher passed along, we stopped at car rental places after school. Our Kia is two years too old, one rental agent said. There are too many cars, he said. We asked what a fair price would be, to ask for our too old Kia, and he suggested we knock about two thousand dollars off our asking price, already down about the same from expected US resale.  He shrugged. No one wanted the car. I thought we might just give it away.

Then we got a call from Sathvik on a Friday afternoon. He showed up with cash in a plastic grocery bag. We sold just below the Kuwait range, on argument that to pass inspection Sathvik may need to replace the pocked hood and chipped windshield. Fair enough. This year when Justin took his car for reregistration, the inspector turned him away for thumb sized scuff on the front passenger door. The guy must not have liked the look of Justin. Sathvik is Indian. A few guys might not like the look of him. In a land that runs on stamps and squiggled signatures, you need a little right place right time luck and a lot of acquiescence. Some nationalities need a little (lot) more luck and acquiescence than we do. I remember years ago asking Adam, a Sudanese man who helps the school with paperwork, how he handled the seeming whim of offices: you go one day and are told to return the next, you return the next and you are told you need an additional stamp, you get the additional stamp and you are told the date on the original document is wrong and now you must begin again. We’d just watched a woman behind the counter shout and fling a file of papers to the floor. Adam said, Sarah, no, when he sensed I was about to stand. We both needed me to be nice. We were next. He has managed nearly two decades of paperwork by letting others be bigger than he is, by saying yes with a smile. Justin painted white out on the scuff and was waved through the next inspection.

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