Me: “Today we are going to talk about poetry! Who’s excited?”
Every class I’ve ever had: *crickets*
I’m not sure about your students, but mine don’t love poetry. A few years ago, when we switched to the standards which shall not be named and our focus shifted to informational text, I saw a downward trend in the ability of my students to “attack” a poem. For a lot of them, even my advanced kids, poetry is challenging and really makes them think. My students, especially the ones who are used to breezing through with good grades, hate being wrong! They hate doing work that can be subjective and more open to interpretation. When the work is more gray than black and white, my students tend to express their vulnerability through negative comments and closing themselves off from peer-to-peer or teacher-to-student interaction.
For years, I’ve taught my students the TP-CASTT method of poetry analysis as one way to attack a poem. It’s formulaic, but for students who shudder at the mere mention of the word poetry (think of the hyena in The Lion King who shudders at the word “Mufasa”), it provides an icebreaker.
TP-CASTT is an acronym for a method of poetry analysis:
T – Title – Before reading the poem, read the title and consider what the poem might be about.
P – Paraphrase – Put the plot of the poem into your own words.
C – Connotation – Mark the figurative language in the poem.
A – Attitude – Identify the tone(s) within the poem.
S – Shift – Identify any shifts within the poem.
T – Title (again) – Re-examine the title on an interpretive level.
T – Theme – Identify the possible theme(s) of the poem.
For the most part, I can anticipate that students will struggle most with tone and theme when we’re working with poems, but occasionally the figurative language struggle is real! This has been one of those years.
As my students were working with Plath’s “Mirror,” I realized that a review of simile and metaphor was needed. While students could rattle off the definitions of the terms, and they could even identify them in the poem, they struggled understanding the metaphor because they were struggling with the context. When my students came to class the next day, we paused our study of “Mirror” and instead focused just on metaphors through what I like to call an “arts and crafts day.”
As they entered the classroom, each student received a blank piece of printer paper and an index card with a one-line metaphor. Some of the metaphors I borrowed from other poems or song lyrics: “Hope is the thing with feathers…” and “my heart is a stereo…,” for example. Others I made up: “Bill is the bacon in my BLT…” and “she is a prime number” were two of my favorites. My students were challenged to write a poem that included the metaphor and provided context and meaning for it. Once their poems were drafted, they wrote their final versions on the printer paper and illustrated it to add to the context of the poem.
Once students were asked to create context and meaning for a metaphor, they were able to apply that skill to a reading a “Mirror” and were able to apply metaphor to theme.
I don’t know that I’m ever going to have a classroom full of students who sit and read poetry for fun, but as their knowledge and skills grow and develop, they are less reluctant to interact with a poem. At the end of the day, I want my classroom to be full of chattering students rather than chirping crickets (metaphorically speaking).
WVCTE is wondering how you engage your students with poetry. What are the biggest obstacles to understanding and student engagement? What is your favorite poetry lesson?