Last week I stumbled upon a way to engage students in reading complex poetry. It was a wonderful, magical moment--made even more enchanting by the fact that students were completely immersed in a poem twenty minutes before dismissal a week before the holiday break!
Behind the Scenes
I love to start our study of poetry with accessible, easy poems that students can read and decode without much effort. After some success with these poems, students are much more willing to read more complex poems that require more thought.
I have loved John Masefield's "Sea Fever" ever since I first read it in my seventh grade literature anthology. (Oh, I adored that book--a huge volume of different stories and poems!) It is a perfect poem to read and revisit during a poetry unit, as it can be discussed in many different ways, looking at speaker, speaker's attitude, figurative language, and more.
But how could I introduce it in a way that would engage students? I decided to try out Keynote for this. I quickly put the poem into Keynote, using a different slide for each line and a different background for each stanza. On a snow day, I recorded myself reading the poem in Keynote, and then took it over to iMovie, where I added some ocean sound effects. The entire process took about an hour.
I wanted students to have experience with this poem over multiple readings. For our first reading, I had pretty low expectations--I just wanted to see if students could connect their printed version with the video version. Could they find the way that I had marked the different stanzas?
It turned out somewhat differently. Students noticed the marking of the different stanzas on our second viewing, with lots of comments along the way. ("Is that you?" "Wow!" "Why don't you talk like that during class?") With ten minutes left in class, I decided to show it one more time as a choral reading, inviting students to read along.
But students had different ideas. They couldn't help but call out their questions. I paused on the line with a star to steer her by when one student asked, "Why would you steer with a star?" Another answered, "Oh! They must have looked at the constellations!" We hadn't progressed much more when we got to the wheel's kick and the question, "How can a boat have wheels?" This didn't need much discussion--I just pantomimed steering a boat with the wheel and said, "You know, the big wheel they use to steer with."
By this point I realized that the choral reading wasn't happening. In fact, it had evolved into more of a close reading--students were really focusing on each line, carefully considering the meaning. I have taught this poem many times, but I have never had students try to get so much out of it. Feeling brave by the end, I asked, "Who is the speaker?"
Of course, some answered, "You are," because I was the one reading the poem. But another student protested. "No, she's reading it, but she's not the speaker. The speaker is inside the poem." Tentative answers were offered--"The speaker is someone who likes the ocean" "A person who works on a boat".
Several things came together to make this lesson work well. First of all, I chose a high-quality poem to share. Something about this poem resonates with students--we are about 4 hours from the beach, close enough to visit every summer or two, but far enough away that students really do feel that longing to get back to the beach.
The visual format of the poem also changed the experience for students. Many of the readers in this group have trouble accessing the right background knowledge to help them visualize effectively. The simple photographs in the video gave them a cue to access their "beach scenery" schema. Also, showing the poem one line at a time helped to give students a clear focus.
Finally, I have to remember to keep an open, encouraging attitude, especially when we look at text for the first time. I went into this with a very low-level expectation for a first read. The students totally overwhelmed me by going beyond my expectations. I knew where I eventually wanted to go, and so I could steer the conversation onward when students showed that they were ready. But it was so wonderful to have students move beyond what I expected, instead of feeling like I was in the position of "pulling teeth" to get students to an expected level of understanding. This is something worth remembering for the rest of the poetry unit and beyond.