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.