15 April 2008

Teaching Poetry Spring 2008: Part 1 of Taboo Shape Poems

It's official: I can now say I've taught poetry to grades 3-6. Yesterday, I engaged in part 1 of this week's poetry workshop: Taboo Shape Poems!

Andy Burt's (Ashland Middle School) sixth-graders trickled in later than I expected, well amped from track and field and ready to refuel with a quick snack.

The Usual Introductions
Every time I teach poetry, I like to ask the same core questions:
  • Who likes poetry?
  • How many like to read poetry vs. writing it, and vice versa?
  • Why do you (not) like poetry?
  • Who can name some poets?
  • What is poetry? What makes a poem a poem?
I got about the same types of responses. Most kids who do like poetry prefer reading it over writing it. Why? They cite not being able to write anything good as the main reason. Although Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss were named, I was excited to hear one girl cite Robert Frost as a favorite poet.

I was also delighted to hear another girl note that poems don't have to rhyme or have a particular form to be considered a poem. She said, "Sometimes, it's just the way the words are put together that can create a poem." I pointed out that this is absolutely correct and is the norm for most modern poetry. It's poetry that works on the principle of "association." Of course, I launched into a quick spiel about how as humans we can't resist the drive to find meaning in everything.

I then proceeded to present the students with some common poetry techniques/devices that they can use in writing a poem, and read examples of poems that use each of the devices.
  • End rhyme
  • Meter/Rhythm
  • Alliteration
  • Repetition
The Taboo Poem Exercise
After exploring the basics of poetry, I handed out the following worksheet:

(feel free to copy and use)

At the time I created this worksheet, my laptop was down so I was unable to make it more spiffy with the incredible Adobe InDesign. I used MS Publisher instead, and despite its limited capability, I think it turned out alright.

At any rate, I merely had the students follow the steps listed in each field of the worksheet.
  1. Brainstorm 5 concrete things - like people, places, events, things.
  2. Circle the one item that calls out to you most.
  3. Brainstorm 15 words that best describe the item circled.
  4. Read over the list of weak helper verbs and vague/unnecessary modifiers.
  5. Write a poem of 15-30 lines in length without using any of the words from steps 3 and 4.
I created this poetry exercise based on the concept of the game Taboo and the defamiliarization poems of the New Poetry movement of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.

This is part 1 of a 3-day poetry workshop. Wednesday, we will focus on revision. On Friday, I will switch the focus of the project to art. I have chosen to withhold the art aspect from the students until Friday, so they focus on the process of writing instead of the physical artistic element.

One Final Note:
The girl who cited Robert Frost wrote a surprisingly biting political poem that adeptly uses end rhyme, meter and repetition to create a scary discourse on how screwy politics are squeezing the life from kids. In the past three years, I have never come across a student with such a strong handle on poetic devices, and she wrote it within one hour!

If you use this exercise in your classroom or on your own, I'd love to hear how it went.

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