The Power of a Poem

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed., NBCT

There are some points in the school year where a major focus or unit is wrapping up, but starting another major unit just isn’t a great idea. There may be a break approaching, or the schedule is going to be peppered with adjusted schedules. Sometimes it’s good to change the pace a bit and work on shorter “mini-units.”

I found myself in this position at one point last year. We had finished a unit, and the next few weeks would be filled assemblies and visits from the high school guidance counselor as my eighth graders prepared to schedule their classes for their first year of high school. Since we hadn’t done much work with poetry during the year, I decided that was the direction to move. I started with one of my favorite lesson resources: the ELA lessons available on www.achievethecore.org. There I found ideas for Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges.” The discussion questions were excellent, and the topic of the poem, a boy’s walk around his neighborhood with a girl he likes, was one I knew my students would be secretly interested in, even if they played it “cool” during class discussion. What I especially liked was one of the writing tasks at the end of the lesson: take the poem, and write it into narrative form.

We have a literature anthology that includes the poem, so we used that and a good stack of post-it notes as we read the poem. As we moved into discussion, I asked students to discuss the questions in small groups, so they could work together and have more opportunity to share their thoughts than a whole-class discussion would allow. As I introduced the narrative writing task, there was a bit of groaning, but then one hand shot up. The question: “Can I write the story from the girl’s point of view?”

The complaining stopped as everyone paused to consider the possibility. This twist appealed to me. It required close reading of the poem and drawing lots of inferences on the girl’s thoughts and feelings. I agreed that this was a terrific idea. A couple of other students asked about other points of view, such as the shopkeeper’s, or the dog’s. I asked if there was enough information on those characters to allow the writer to produce a reasonable narrative of the events in the poem. With a grin, the student responded, “Enough to write the length of story I want to write–a really, really short one.” We ultimately agreed that the narrative could be written from the boy’s perspective or the girl’s, and in first-person or third-person, as the student chose.

The results of the writing were impressive. I asked students to take the piece to a polished rough draft product, but the pieces were short enough, and the students invested enough that much of what they submitted could’ve been a final draft. What surprised me was how many of them–boys included–chose to write from the girl’s perspective. It was exciting to see the students digging for clues and using everything they could to convey their main character’s thoughts and feelings. Most took key phrases from Soto’s work and embedded them into their narratives. This also meant that they had to focus on their own word choices and use of figurative language, so that Soto’s words weren’t a stark contrast from their own. I didn’t have to encourage them to get feedback from one another; most were eager to share their drafts, asking, “Do you think this works?” or “Did I get across how she must be feeling?” Their enthusiasm was contagious.

I’m not sure who learned more from this lesson, the students or me. The students certainly grew in their understanding and appreciation of poetic devices, figurative language, and narrative points of view and perspective. I learned that the right text, at the right time, set up in the right way for the students, can foster creativity and generate impressive writing. It was a lesson and activity well worth pursuing.

 

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