Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Personification and Poetry

   One of the mixed blessings of teaching elementary school is that I teach so many different things in a day. Take Monday. The day began with two reading classes, in which I tried to wrap up personification. Then it was lunch, and then spelling. Luckily spelling was easy with the introduction of Multiple Meaning Words. After spelling I moved on to science, with a lesson on living and nonliving things. It turned out really well, thanks to the handy acronym MRS GREN. Then it was time for writing, in which I introduced formal and informal writing. Finally I shepherded the students off to art, at which time I sat down for some co-planning with the special education teacher. Whew!

   I really enjoyed the reading lesson, in which I taught personification. Sometimes I get frustrated when people try to reduce personification to talking animals. Personification is so much more! On Monday, we worked with the poem "The Wind" by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Our first step was to number the lines of the poem. Now, some people would think that this is a very low-level task. But it's essential for talking about poetry. As soon as we started I saw that this was a problem for some students. "Doesn't this mean that there is a choice?" one student asked. I looked to where she was pointing. In this day of bubble tests, she thought that the word "O" at the start of lines 5 and 6 was a choice like on a bubble test! Numbering lines helped me to quickly see this misconception and put it to rest.

After reading the poem together, students went to work in different places around the room to answer some questions on their own. I do love reading and sharing poetry, but I also need to see what students can do on their own. I was able to circulate and help students individually, something that I love doing.

Finally, students had to find an example of personification and use it to complete a scaffolded open-ended response question. The three parts to the question helped me to see where students were having trouble. Some students didn't pick a very strong example of personification. Others had trouble connecting the personification to what the author was trying to show. This is the heart of figurative language!

   Consider this exchange. One student chose "I felt you push, I heard you call" as personification. "What is the author trying to show us with this?" I asked.
   "That the wind is blowing?" she guessed.
   Across the table, another student said, "Can I tell her?" I shook my head but he persisted, making wind sounds. "What do you think the author is trying to show?" I said.
   Eventually she figured it out. "That the wind makes noise," she said.
   Exactly! On the other side of the room, a student wrote, "The author says that the wind sings because he is showing that the wind is whistling like a song."When we got back together to share our responses, he came to share his at the document camera.
   As we were wrapping things up, I asked a question. "When do you think this poem was written?" The one detail in the poem that would point to the time period is the line "like ladies' skirts across the grass".  Students found the line in the poem and talked about how it meant that this poem was probably written in a time when women wore long skirts. (It was published in A Child's Garden of Verses in 1885.)
   This activity wasn't cute or glamorous, but it was meaningful. Looking deeply at examples of personification and asking the question, "What is the author showing us with this?" helps students to move into understanding longer and more complex poems.

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