You can design your English language arts lessons in a way that promotes a shared vision in the classroom and helps each student to reconsider the type of learner they want to be during the school year. This academic year, I moved into grade three, a cohort challenged by Covid-19. I’ve started every one of the last 15 years with a short poetry unit, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to use poetry to help the students redefine themselves.
The word poetry derives from the ancient Greek poētēs, which means “maker, author, poet.” This ancient art form stretches back thousands of years, with origins in epic storytelling—think Homer’s Odyssey—to religious rituals, blessings, songs, and dedications. Often it was both, including creation myths for gods and humankind, as in the Mayan Popul Voh. Poetry has always been a means both to tell a great story and to find the spiritual truth in life.
Why Start with Poetry?
In a previous article, I outlined how I used poetry to engage students with classroom agreements. I’ve also described another example of a short unit of what I call “pop-up” poetry in another blog post.
The reasons for a short unit are numerous. First, teachers will have pressure to follow an existing curriculum, so there’s only time for a short project. Second, coming off different breaks throughout the school year, writing skills may need refreshing.
Poetry offers a gentle, accessible reintroduction to the craft. At the same time, it is an excellent informal assessment: It tells me a lot about a student’s language and vocabulary; confidence with that language and ideas; and spelling, handwriting, and grammar.
Re-Creation Myth Poems
This year I tried something new: “re-creation myth” poems in which the students imagined themselves reborn with the qualities, powers, and temperament of the best influences in the natural world around them. I did this using the following nine-step structure:
1. Every poetry unit I teach begins with an inspiring and accessible mentor text. “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee,” by N. Scott Momaday, is a wonderful example of how you can describe yourself with the very best qualities of the natural world.
2. Next, we discussed (and I listed) characteristics that define a successful learner—of any age. I made a class chart for the students to use by picking at least three that they wanted to apply to them.
3. We identified all the natural landscape features of our home state (Oregon), from different trees and animals to rivers and the volcanoes.
4. The students matched a chosen characteristic of a learner with the appropriate natural feature that most appealed to them. For example, if they want to stand tall and be more confident, they might match this with a ponderosa pine tree. They can write their ideas as notes, like this:
Confident = ponderosa pine tree
Inspiring = Deschutes River
Determined = Three Sisters Mountains
5. After I modeled my own example (below), my students wrote up their notes as complete sentences.
I will be determined like a ponderosa pine tree.
I will be calmer like a cloud.
6. Having written lines like the above, I also modeled editing to improve the description by using adjectives—a skill first introduced in first grade. The adjective had to have the same starting sound as the natural feature, which meant using the skill of alliteration—another figurative language skill that needed refreshing. For more confident writers, I expected the use of a comma with two adjectives. For example:
I will be determined like a persevering, pointed ponderosa pine tree.
I will be calmer like a cuddly, comfy cloud.
7. During some final editing time, I read every handwritten poem and picked out any high-frequency spelling words that needed to be changed. I left low-frequency and more ambitious words unchanged, as they were an excellent reflection of the students’ current spelling skill.
8. To publish the poem, I wanted the students to use their best handwriting on fresh paper, including using a handwriting pen over the top of the pencil. I introduced the students to the idea of line breaks, so that their sentence became a verse. For example:
I will be
like a persevering,
pointed ponderosa pine.
I also wrote each of my examples a second time, changing the number of words on each line, to show students a playful element of poetry.
9. The final stage was introducing the students to the skill of recital—reading the poem aloud with an ear for rhythm and little pauses on the line breaks to create dramatic emphasis. I filmed each student and shared with families via our digital portfolio site.
A Creative Challenge Worth the Effort
My students found the conceptual nature of the task initially challenging, so a lot of oral scaffolding was required. Some students hadn’t written a poem before, let alone tried to picture their personal growth aligned with an appropriate natural feature. I also found that a wide range of basic conventions needed to be refreshed: punctuation, handwriting, use of titles, dates, etc.
Luckily, since the exercise involved only a small amount of writing, I was able to address these issues and gather useful notes that have helped me adjust this full writing unit.
Being able to put their vision for personal growth into poems gave every student a chance to express their voice and creativity. Mini poetry units like this are especially useful in terms of helping me understand all of my students as writers in a short space of time. Lastly, I’m proud of trying something new this year and growing as a teacher and a writer myself. After all, we’re all on a learning journey, and poetry makes it much more enjoyable.