Saturday, May 03, 2014

Plentiful Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs: 7th Graders Practice Critical Reading, Grammar, More

My seventh graders have nearly completed their "March Madness of Poetry" experience.  Thanks for the idea and the selection of poems to colleague Mr. Pat Hall, who credits our former colleague Mr. Ben Williamson, who in turn credited another source.   The earliest explanation of the idea that I saw in a glance at Google is a teacher's blog here:

Shall I extol the unforeseen good results of this activity?

Close reading habits established
Sitting in a discussion circle, the students and I approach each poem in a "region" in the same way.  Each student reads until he or she reaches a period, then the next takes up the reading.  After we've read it one time, we pause to deal with any difficult words or allusions, giving me the opportunity to practice word attack skills with the kids.  Then we read again.  Close reading of anything, poetry or prose, demands at least two readings line-by-line, and they've absorbed that habit, now, after doing it for 32 poems in a row.  But there's more to it:

Students then work with the questions, "What does the poet give us for our mind's eye, or other senses?  Are there any characters involved in this poem?  Just what's going on?"  Kids had the option to observe patterns in form instead of content, giving me more opportunities to give names to what they noticed in rhyme, rhythm, and organization.  (I loved it yesterday when a student, commenting on a classmate's original poem, said, "Oh!  He used a couplet at the end to make a kind of punchline, like a Shakespeare sonnet!")

Best of all:  After moderating these discussions for a couple of days, I could let students to discuss the poems without my involvement.   I sat in the circle and checked their names for each incident of participation, intervening only to observe that certain students were speaking over others.  A couple of days later, the class organized into smaller groups to discuss at their own rate, as I circulated among the groups.

Evidence expected for every opinion
During these round-table discussions, we save opinions and theories until we've accumulated a solid set of observations.  (This is, by the way, a copy of the activity I do at the start of every year with a painting, an activity I learned in a life-changing hour when Professor Irving B. Holley tried it on me and my classmates back at Duke.)  The questions then become, "What do we sense about the tone of this speaker? What can we infer about the speaker's attitude towards the subject?"  About patterns, we always ask, "So what?  So there's a rhyme, so the sentences get shorter in the middle and then real long at the end: what's the effect on us?"

Among my favorite moments in the past couple of weeks involved corrections made by students who are not so confident in their own reading and writing.   More than once, they put the brakes on discussions that were headed off a slope into la-la land, pointing out discrepancies between another student's conclusion and the evidence in the text.

Once, reading a poem about an idyllic afternoon in a hammock, the kids confused the increasing "darkness" of the early evening with "darkness" in the sense of depression.  They read the final line as a bitter conclusion: "I have wasted my life."  I pointed out that they'd all laughed when we'd reached that line the first time, and admonished them to include their own gut reactions as part of what they observe:  "If the poem makes you laugh, then either that's what the poet wants you to do, or it's a bad poem."

But what else is more important to learn about writing than the need to cite specific phrases in a text to support one's judgement?

Grammar concepts demonstrated and practiced
After an intense week of close reading, we took a break.  My classes chose locations on campus for an exercise in personification.  I gave them forms with questions:  "What's an object you see?   If it were a living creature, what subject pronoun would you use for it:  he?  she?  they?   What do you observe with all your senses?"  Other questions asked for observations and speculations about feelings, past, and even the relationship between the object and the student observer.  After each set of observations, students expressed the observations in two sentences, each to begin with the subject pronoun (he, she, they).

(I was alarmed to see several seventh graders squeezing under the bus in our parking lot.  They explained, "We're trying to figure out if it's male or female.")

The next day, we reviewed all the methods we'd seen for combining clauses, and I challenged them to write a piece naming the inanimate object in the title (The American Flag, Clouds, The Trophy, Old Water Fountain in the Gym).  Their challenge was to combine the ten sentences they wrote into just three- to - five sentences, using phrases (absolute, appositive, verbal) or subordinate clauses (relative pronoun, adverb).

The punchline, here, was to present each class with their own sentences typed in the same format as the poetry we've been reading.  Kids automatically applied the close reading technique to each other's work, finding all kinds of things to admire, and places where these first drafts could be clarified or developed!

Instant 60-second essays improvised
In the final stage of this activity, we'll work through the first round of competition, then sweet sixteen,  etc., to the final four and the playoffs.  I allow one minute for students to speak for one poem over the other, and then we vote on the winner. (In classes where one gender predominates, we add votes to the underrepresented gender.  Two girls in a boy-heavy class get three votes each.)

We hear impassioned ten-second essays that support opinion with specific reasons:  "Jabberwocky uses rhymes and made-up words in a way that's amusing and thought-provoking," v. "The Road Not Taken uses rhyme as much as Jabberwocky but also has a life-message."   The ones who say, "I vote for this poem because I like it" quickly realize how lame that sounds by comparison.  Yes!

I don't speak; but I make sure that every student speaks up once before anyone is permitted to speak in favor of another poem.   One holdout smiled at me and said, "I'm saving my turn for the next poem."

Besides, it's great to hear seventh graders saying, among themselves, "I love that poem!"  or "I don't really like that poem, because it's so creepy, but it's so true," and even, "I didn't like that poem, but I can't stop thinking about it."

I expect to have students write short essays after the playoffs to explain why one poem deserved to win, one last opportunity to teach quoting from text to support opinions.  

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