The first poetry unit I taught during my first year of teaching was engaging, polished, and fun. The two main objectives I had for my students were for them to be able to identify major poetry forms and to be able to use figurative language, including similes and metaphors.
Overall, it was a great unit. We made up silly similes and impressive metaphors, we studied varied mentor texts, we edited and revised, and we ultimately created illustrated poetry books with examples of each poetry form.
All signs of success were there according to our objectives, but I couldn’t help feeling like we could reach for something more. Upon further reflection, I realized that it came down to one crucial question: My students could describe the difference between a limerick and a couplet, but could they articulate why a poem mattered to them? I knew the answer was no.
The next year, I began making significant changes to my language arts instruction (inspired largely by Laurie Pastore and Pam Allyn’s The Complete Year in Reading and Writing). By the time we got to poetry, I knew the unit would little resemble the previous year’s unit, starting with its objectives (from The Complete Year):
- Identify elements of poetry (stanzas, line breaks, white space, rhythm)
- Interpret the poet’s point of view
- Recognize the tone and mood of a poem
- Recognize how the poet uses literary devices to create meaning
- Use knowledge of poetic elements to craft an effective poem
- Craft a strong image in a poem
- Weave an extended metaphor into a poem
We spent each day making discoveries and then building upon those discoveries. We selected mentor texts based on their meaning and their age-appropriateness. We spent ample time writing and revising just a couple of pieces, revisiting to deliberately improve our craft as we identified new strategies through reading. Most of us ended the unit with just one exceptional poem. And when we moved on, we took with us stronger identities as readers and writers, stronger tools for expressing ourselves, and stronger appreciation for poetry as a whole.
The evidence of my students’ improved engagement, achievement, and fulfillment during the second poetry unit would have been enough to convince me that it was a worthwhile change. But years later, an unexpected piece of evidence came my way through the mother of one of those students. She told me that her son had just performed a recitation of Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” and that it had meant a lot to him ever since we analyzed it back in fifth grade.
- Always ask why. We all share the common goal of doing what will most benefit our students. But had I asked myself for the why at the outset of the first unit, I would have recognized that it was more about test prep than my students. Powerful learning is at the core of my why; when I centered on that, the results were transformational.
- Make meaning the priority. Learning only lasts when students make personal connections. In this instance, my students only truly connected with the poetry when we sought out meaning together—seeking not just form but also function, causation, and perspective. I also found myself spending much less energy on cajoling students to participate as they became much more likely to discover personal relevance.
- Embrace the messiness. I went from knowing at the outset exactly what each day of the unit would look like to adjusting plans throughout the unit. Once I got past being intimidated at the thought of letting go of my rigid plans, I began to better notice and respond to my students’ progress. Sometimes we would spend several days on one concept, while at other times we could combine several concepts in one day. I still had our overarching goals and assessments in mind, but I looked more to my students to find out how we would get there.
- Seek authentic personal learning alongside students. In both units, I wrote poems alongside my students for the purpose of modeling. However, only in the second unit was my poetry the result of authentic personal growth. Where I had once believed I had all the answers—the definitions and forms—I now stepped into the unknown with my students in discovering what makes great poetry. And that feeling of genuine discovery had a contagious and synergistic effect.
In the end, this tale of two poetry units is much less about literacy instruction, and much more about our journeys as educators to seek the changes that are necessary to give our students the gift of lasting, personal meaning. We owe this to our students, and we owe it to ourselves.