Investigating Poetry Because We Love It (and Our Students)

When it comes to love, to falling in love, I remain quite contentedly always a teenager.

I fall hard and with such passion that I think I come close to losing my mind. I am reminded of terms like “gah-gah” and cartoon depictions of people floating off the ground they are so enthralled.

But this falling in love like a teenager is mostly about my love affairs with writers and artists. I discover a writer I love and I am consumed with consuming that writer’s work—all of it, immediately if possible. I discover a new musical group and I am consumed with consuming that group’s work—all of it, immediately if possible.

And with it all, that desire includes returning to those works over and over with nearly the same glee as the first blush.

While my current appointment is in the education department, and I am no longer technically an English teacher, my soul will always be an English teacher. So as I was driving to work yesterday, my granddaughter in her carseat as my dear daughter was well over two decades ago, I was signing loudly (and badly) from The National (my daughter suffered years of R.E.M.).

As I was murdering The National’s “Wasp Nest,” and glancing at my granddaughter in the backseat to see her smiling, my eternal English-teacher Self kicked into motion.

To appease my urge always to be teaching English, including those glorious days of teaching poetry, I began cobbling together a poetry lesson grounded in “Wasp Nest.”

In my ELA methods seminar, then, we did a meta-lesson (talking about what I was doing and why while I was teaching my four teacher candidates the lesson) combining “Wasp Nest” with Langston Hughes’s “Harlem.”

Here I want to highlight some of the key strategies and goals I have found to be both effective and enduring when investigating text, notably poetry, because we love it (and our students).

I often use popular music with high-quality lyrics (in terms of lyrics that include *craft* [1]) as an entry point to the more traditional focus on so-called established or canonized poetry.

Songs allow me to emphasize an important move many students have yet to embrace—repeated experiences with a text, or for print texts, *re-reading*.

In their lives outside of school, lives deeply rooted in pop culture, children and young people do embrace repeated experiences with songs, TV shows, movies, and choice reading (such as comic books).

But since the required reading of traditional schooling—that teachers assign texts we decide or are decided for us and our students in order to analyze the texts in ways that will be repeated on tests—is mostly a chore, students don’t want to read the text the first time, much less more than once.

So my approach is to ask students simply to listen to the song the first time, not handing out the lyrics or demanding any sort of “school” response. I then ask for their thoughts, again emphasizing I have no predetermined expectations—class discussions are not to be about right and wrong, presided over by the teacher-as-authority.

Students often talk about how the song sounds, the music, and typically are perceptive about the tone.

Next, I hand out the lyrics [2] and ask them to *annotate*, but this second time, I still do not guide that annotating.

We share again, often allowing me several teachable moments (please keep in mind that a tremendous amount of good teaching can never be planned, but if a teacher trusts and listen to her/his students, lessons will always blossom).

Finally, I ask student to listen a third time, guiding them to look carefully at the distinction between *literal and figurative language*. Depending on the students, we may revisit what they know about metaphor and simile, but by the teen years, all students have some sense of figurative language.

“Wasp Nest” is a wonderful text for this exploration so I suggest students mark the figurative language. After the third listening, students share the figurative language identified: “cussing a storm” and “killing clothes” two wonderful examples of grammatical constructions of figurative language that challenge students having simplistic views of metaphor and similes.

Yes, we delve into adjective, gerund, and participle because grammatical constructions are part of the writer’s craft.

The discussion of literal and figurative language leads to (or I guide them to) *diction*, *tone*, and *motif*. Two points are key here in my effort to avoid the literary technique hunt.

First, I reserve the use of technical terms mostly to my role in the discussion; I model using technical language, and over the course of the year, students gradually acquire this.

Second, I monitor carefully that discussions of literary and rhetorical techniques remain broad (we frame all technique as “craft”) and within our exploring *what, how, and why*—What is the writer doing? How (technique and craft) is the writer accomplishing the “what”? And why does it matter to the reader?

In “Wasp Nest,” there is a vivid scene with characters (I always emphasize that poetry is *concrete*, depending on *imagery*), but the use of “wasp nest,” “cutting,” “poison,” and “killing” juxtaposed with the speaker’s desire suggests an intriguing tension in the song.

Throughout the discussion of the song, we try to enjoy the lyrics, the song, and the discussion through our analysis—and avoid making a technical and predetermined analysis the goal of the experience with the song.

For a 30 minute lesson, however, the song discussion necessarily gives way to shifting to “Harlem.”

I have always defaulted to the mini-lesson approach, and weave in my content concerns as I keep the focus on text. Yes, I introduce my students to Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, and related literature and history content, but none of that is preparation for a test; nor do I expect students to learn or care about any of that which is so much trivia.

Over a course, much of that will stick and some if not many students will be drawn to our field of literature. But in the grand scheme, as I noted, this is simply authorized trivia.

We’ve more important things to worry about.

The beauty of moving from “Wasp Nest” to “Harlem” is returning students to focus on the literal/figurative language distinction.

While the song is mostly literal with figurative language serving to reinforce the plot and characters, “Harlem” is about “a dream deferred” and drives the tension of this work with mostly metaphorical language, ripe for celebrating the power of imagery (triggering the reader’s five senses) to make meaning more rich than simple literal statements.

“Harlem” as well challenges students in terms of what makes poetry, poetry; the use of *punctuation* as craft; and the power of the *rhetorical question*.

I won’t belabor further the details of a discussion, but with the poem, we follow similar patterns including my reading the poem aloud multiple times, students annotating, and discussions in which I model technical language while students are encouraged to have their wide range of affective and cognitive responses, including making claims beyond the text and asking questions.

While discussing “Wasp Nest,” we distinguish between details of the scene and characters we can confirm with the text along with our impressions, noting both are important but in formal schooling that impressions not supported by the text are often not accepted.

“Harlem” allows a similar examination of “dreams”—Hughes has a racial and historical context literally in mind, but the poem can be applied to a wide range of “dreams” other than those.

I want end here by stressing that no lesson should be restricted by trying to do everything possible with any text; set a time, let it happen, and move on once the time passes.

And above all else, exploring text is about the joy of language, the love of text and your students—and not about sacrificing that text on the alter of the literary technique hunt.

“Wasp Nest” and “Harlem” make me happy to be alive, happy to be human, happy to be fully human because of the magic that is language. My students deserve the opportunity to see that joy in me, and to come to that joy themselves.

School can be and should be a sanctuary for that joy—not a place where joy goes to die.


[1] Throughout, I will place key instructional goals between asterisks.

[2] The lyrics for “Wasp Nest”:

The National, Cherry Tree

You’re cussing a storm in a cocktail dress
Your mother wore when she was young
Red sun saint around your neck
A wet martini in a paper cup
You’re a wasp nest

Your eyes are broken bottles
And I’m afraid to ask
And all your wrath and cutting beauty
You’re poison in the pretty glass
You’re a wasp nest

You’re all humming live wires
Under your killing clothes
Get over here I wanna
Kiss your skinny throat
You’re a wasp nest

6 comments

  1. howardat58

    I have a simple question: When in the past did poetry become something to read rather than to speak? I ask because my mother spent years translating the works of Mallarme into English, and also wrote poems herself.

  2. Mary Turck

    Thank you – wonderful instruction in teaching, and your description of falling in love with writing/writer resonates perfectly. Maybe students can understand love of reading better by analogizing that love of writer experience to their own experience with music and loving a particular group.

  3. Sabotage Turtle

    As a high school student on track to be either an English teacher or a librarian, I find it awesome how lessons can come from anywhere and anything. I absolutly love creative teaching and hope to have the mad skills it takes to construct a beautiful lesson plan while driving, singing and spending quality time with family.

  4. Pingback: Multimodal Literacy and Poetry with English Language Learners – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 3 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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