This post first appeared at On the Shoulders of Giants hosted by Center for Teaching Quality

Recently, a reader of my book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class, pushed my thinking. California English teacher, David Jansson, emailed me this interesting question:

I just finished Whole Novels for the Whole Class and am looking forward to implementing those strategies in my classroom next year. Thank you for some wonderful ideas. 

However, I was wondering if you had any thoughts (or resources) on how to use the core ideas of the approach (processing literature in its entirety, student-led discussion, etc.) when studying poetry? Would you recommend looking at a single poem? Several poems by the same author? Several poems organized around a theme?

I had never considered this question before. I do teach poetry, but the “whole novels” method seemed naturally limited to the realm of stories. The nature of the two genres is quite different, and I’d never tried to connect the two in terms of pedagogy. However, as I thought about my general approach to teaching poetry and what I might recommend in response, I began to notice striking connections between my poetry methods and key aspects of the whole novel approach. The more I think about it, the more I have to say about it…(maybe even a short book’s worth!) Thank you, David Jansson, for turning over this stone for me!

Here is my first attempt at sharing poetry, whole novels-style. First, the concept; then tips for classroom practices.

CONCEPT: Just like in whole novel studies, experience is of primary importance in the study of poetry. Too often, students receive the message in their English classes that poetry exists to be analyzed.  They learn terms, strategies and complicated acronyms to remember them--all in the service of solving a “poem-problem” with what, they understand, is supposed to be a clear answer.  As a reader, scholar and writer of poetry, I can say with confidence that poems are not built for a formulated analysis and rarely come with clear answers!  I think the vast majority of English teachers would agree with me on this; yet sometimes, in effort to reach standards and keep kids on track, common classroom methods still push students into the understanding that we read poetry to analyze and arrive at a specific outcome.    

If not analysis or a specific outcome, then what characterizes the experience of poetry?

In the novel, the story is what matters most.  Without it, you’ve pretty much missed the point of reading a novel, right? No matter how progressive the novel, its elements, structures and devices are all in service of telling a powerful story that draws readers in, gives us virtual experience and sends us away with new memories, ideas, feelings and questions. Analysis comes most naturally in the investigation of these feelings, ideas and questions through discussion, rereading and writing (as I show throughout Whole Novels for the Whole Class). 

The nature of poetry is different.  Instead of looking for a story, it is the sounds and images in a poem—and their impact on us as we are involved in their curious interactions—that matter most. Sound and images create the strong, subjective experience, which provokes authentic response.  Once students have an authentic response and real questions, rereading, discussion and analysis of the devices that created the response can make a natural next step.    

How do we draw students into the experience of poetry?

In the case of novel studies, it’s common to break up the extended story experience with questions and discussions, often jumping into analysis too early in the process.  The whole novel approach seeks to depart from these practices in order to allow readers a more fluid, subjective story experience. With poetry, it’s easy enough to read most poems “whole” before doing much else with them, because of their short length. 

Does reading one poem through, one time, create an experience deep enough to provoke authentic response? I think, since most students do not have extensive experience with poetry, the answer is often no.  So we need to design experiences for students that will immerse them in the sounds, images, and feel of poetry.  This is the equivalent of letting them “read the whole book first” in a whole novel study.

PRACTICES: Create an immersive poetry experience for students.  Here are some tips. 

1.     Devote some space in the annual curriculum to poetry, in addition to weaving it into other units.

2.     Begin by creating a variety of reading, speaking and listening experiences with poetry that do not include targeted questions or analysis at all.  Every year I have some students who arrive to my class with a fear or dislike of poetry.  Spending some time away from deconstruction of meaning of poems has always worked to put these students at ease and allow them to open up to poetry anew.

3.     Create an anthology for students. I create a packet of poems as wide-ranging and diverse as possible. I include rhyming and non-rhyming poems, contemporary and ancient poems, poems easily comprehended and others utterly mystifying, classics as well unknown, and always a few written by former students.

An alternative is to create an anthology around a particular theme or image, as David suggests in his message above. One year I created a collection of poems with the common image of rivers, which connected to an ecology unit in science—this is great for helping students with metaphor. I would suggest doing this later in the year (or in a subsequent year), after students have thoroughly experienced the initial, more general poetry unit.

4.     Give students time to read poetry in the packet with no strings attached. I pass out the packets and give students about 10 minutes of quiet reading time. I tell them they may read any poems, in any order. They may write on the packet, underline or highlight, but this is not required. I do ask that they pick one poem that catches their attention, either because they like it, don’t like it, or find it strange.

5.     After about ten minutes, I invite students to read any poem aloud to the class.  We just listen to the poetry.  Nearly everyone wants to join in and read a poem! They may make a comment about why they chose the poem, or not. We may read the same poem several times over if many have chosen it.

6.     Try choral reading. The class picks one of the poems for choral reading. Project the poem, if possible. We read it together in unison.  After reading it once, I ask, “What worked? What needs work?” We decide where to pause. Introduce “line breaks,” as a term. Do we want to pause at every line break? Try it that way! If it’s too much, find some other places to pause.  Mark these on the board if possible. 

Try experimenting with tone and volume.  “Let’s get louder at the end, and then whisper the last line!” Have students explain why they make a certain suggestion. This becomes like a music class, finding the rhythm and expression in the poem.

7.     Give students the assignment of choosing a poem from the packet with a small group and preparing a choral reading, using expression, rhythm, tone. Students can have “solo” lines too.  Gestures may be added.  No words may be added or changed. 

8.     I’m a fan of everyone memorizing a few poems in his or her lifetime. Assign students to choose a poem from the packet (or elsewhere) to memorize and read to the class. 

9.     Check out this amazing activity invented by my mentor, Madeleine Ray, and done here by Nancy Toes Tangel in her Newark 8th grade classroom. Tubes: Experiential Poetry Lesson

10. From here there are many directions students can explore. The key, I've found, is that they are now more open and interested in poetry.

After spending several days and up to two weeks on reading poetry and enjoying the oral/aural art form, the desire to talk about the poems, understand them better, and write original poetry arises naturally in students. They internalize many of the devices poets use without being explicitly taught them, and students feel more connected and curious, when engaging in the more explicit activities, which may have fallen flat without the immersion experience. 

AuthorAriel Sacks