Saturday, May 9, 2015

Feasting at the Poetry Buffet

     It's fourth period on a Friday afternoon, and twenty 8th graders are in various stages of wrapping up their poetry projects.  Some of them are sampling selections from the "Poetry Buffet," an extensive hodge podge of laminated poems I've collected over the years;  some are writing personal responses to poems they finished reading.  Other students are creating original "found" poetry on Read.Write.Think.'s Word Mover App.  (You've got to check it out;  they loved it!)

By student request, we are listening to Bach's Prelude in D Minor on guitar.  The only two disruptions in the lesson occur when students announce "I feel a poem coming on!" at which point, we must all stop to hear their dramatic readings of "I, Too, Sing America," by Langston Hughes, and "About the Teeth of Sharks," by John Ciardi.  Not only are the presentations vastly entertaining, some students feel inspired to look for one or both of those poems to add to their "buffet" collection.

     In other words, it was one of those perfect days that just kind of happens.

     For the first time in my teaching career, I decided to use National Poetry Month as an opportunity to immerse my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in poetry.  Their primary activity, the "Poetry Buffet," had students roaming from desk to desk, reading the poems that caught their fancy and writing a brief personal response to each.  Occasionally, we would gather as a class to enjoy such professional recordings as Christopher Lee reciting "The Raven."  Structured analysis took the form of two "Examine the Elements" assignments in which the students looked for examples of the sound devices and figurative language we'd studied the first semester.  It was all very low key.

     Throughout the month, students were offered extra credit for interacting with poetry in various ways.  In addition to the spontaneous recitations mentioned above, they were encouraged to send me "Poetweets" via Twitter --

-- or to submit original creations like this gem:
     Not only was the overall student response to the unit unexpectedly positive -- enthusiastic, even -- but a number of parents also felt compelled to chime in with their own fond memories of poetry "back in the day" . . .

especially when I sent out the announcement about our participation in National Poem in Your Pocket Day:

Turns out this mom's treasured memory was of William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say":

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

     Time and again, I was surprised by the poems that spoke to the children and to their parents.  Time and again, the children were surprised that poetry spoke to them at all, something I learned from the culminating essay, a reflection on insights and discoveries they'd had about poetry throughout the month.  Other insights?

     "I used to think poetry always had to rhyme."

     "I was surprised how much fun it is to write poetry!"

     "I learned that I really enjoy reading poetry aloud."

     "I couldn't believe how many different forms of poetry there are."

     The poems taught the students more about poetry.  Their poetry taught me more about them.  We read.  We wrote.  We recited.  Everyone grew from the experience.  Not a bad way to spend the month of April.

     (If you are interested in compiling your own "Poetry Buffet," Poetry Speaks to Children is a magnificent resource, beautifully illustrated and filled with an incredibly diverse collection of poems.)