Monday, October 18, 2010

The Arc of Teaching a Poem

by Baron Wormser and Dawn Potter
The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

Begin by reading the poem aloud, slowly and distinctly so your students can hear the words. Poetry is an oral art and always wants to be heard.
As part of the oral reading, have your students write down the words of the poem as you read them. In other words, turn the reading into a dictation. Allow as much time as your students need to write down the words. Answer questions about punctuation and spelling as necessary. Begin with small amounts of poetry and gradually build. Two or three lines are fine to begin with.
Once the students have the words down on paper, the discussion of the poem can begin. Start by asking students what word in the poem they find most interesting and why. You can ask them all manner of questions about words, such as “what word surprises you? confuses you? stimulates you?” As the students respond, write down the words they mention on the blackboard—both specific words from the poem and key words in their responses. As this group response unfolds, start to create webs on the blackboard that connect one word with another.
A poem is a series of careful word choices. Any discussion of the words is bound to generate connections among the poem’s words that show how the poem coheres and generates meaning. Our analogy for discussing a poem is that the poem is a pebble dropped into the pond of consciousness. Like a pebble, the poem makes concentric circles that radiate outward. Those circles reach toward infinity. So the model for discussing is expansive. We want to show students how art reaches toward the infinite and how the words of the poem can demonstrate the poem’s richness. What we seek to avoid is the reductive approach—that is, narrowing the poem down to a kernel of meaning. People go to art to expand their feelings. Thus, in our discussion of a poem we seek to show the poem’s natural expansiveness and how the connections among the words are simultaneously infinite and genuine.
You can lead the word-choice discussion for as long as you deem it to be relevant; but the longer the discussion, the more likely the students will come to appreciate the care that went into making the poem. In addition, a lengthy discussion gives a greater number of students time to feel confident enough to share their thoughts and to realize that there is no single right answer. After mentioning word choice, you can ask questions about other aspects of the poem: line, metaphor, rhythm, sound, form, diction, etc. In other words, you can enrich students’ understanding of the poem by using word choice as a platform and then going further into the art of the poem.
After these sorts of discussions—word choice plus other artistic matters—students should be able to talk about the theme of the poem. We like to challenge our students to state the theme in a word or two, such as “fear,” “death,” “anxiety,” “love”—whatever large subjective or abstract words apply. Then we ask them to justify the theme by speaking or writing about the actualities of the poem: the word choices and the rest of the art used in making it.
The final stage is writing a poem based on the poem that has been discussed. The teacher can set up loose parameters for the writing assignment while still using the poem as a guide. Thus, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” might trigger students to write about being in a specific place and pausing to look at what is there. Every poem is a potential prompt. The cycle of writing down the original poem, discussing its actualities, and then writing a new poem helps students internalize the artistic process that went into making the original poem. They get to use their insights creatively.
In terms of dealing with the revision of student poems, we emphasize two stars and a wish. That means that we star two things in the poem that we like (word choices, for instance) and then make a wish for something that could be changed. Revision hinges on the phrase “what if?” “What if you added a metaphor in line 2?” is a typical question. The “what if” approach downplays a student’s emotional investment in the new poem, an attachment that often stifles his or her willingness to change anything. The question simply asks the student to try a specific change and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, the student can always change the poem back to the original or try out a different idea.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teaching and Learning and How Some of Us Get There

This article first appeared under the title "Roads Taken and Not Taken" in the Haverford College alumni magazine's fall 2009 issue. Think of it as an introduction to my thoughts about writing and the teaching of writing. Then scroll down to my posts on mentoring and manuscript critique to read more about how you and I might work together as teachers or writers.

I was not a star student at Haverford, and neither were my closest friends. We were a distracted, volatile bunch, up all night with our Clash and Tammy Wynette records. But if we were a mess academically, we were also fully aware of a parallel education in loss and love, though it seemed likely to get us nowhere as adults. In an academically prestigious school, it can be hard to cope with one's inability to conform to the studious model that most other students display so competently. For me, the fact that I had embodied that model in high school made the situation even more distressing. Yet even as I fretted, I was reading, reading, reading. During my years at Haverford, I read every novel by Dickens, every novel by Austen, Tolstoy’s War and Peace at least twice. Simply, I needed to read, even if the books had no relevance to the courses I was taking. This is not to imply that my classes were valueless, for several were vital. I think particularly of freshman English with Joanne Hutchinson, where we memorized the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, lines that will stay with me till I die. I think also of Bob Butman, who pressed us to envision literature not as scholarship but as an extension of our humanity.

Bob was, in Virginia Woolf’s terms, a common reader, “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever scraps he [could] come by, some kind of whole.” I’ve taken his lesson to heart; for since graduating from Haverford, I’ve never gone back to school. I have no advanced degree, no academic affiliation. Instead, I’ve slowly learned, with much self-doubt, to follow a private, idiosyncratic route into books and the imagination. After graduation, I worked for a year as a reading instructor in Massachusetts, another year as the herd manager on a Vermont dairy farm. I spent a few years in the editorial offices of a Rhode Island textbook publisher. Eventually I migrated to Maine, where, for the past sixteen years, I've lived in the small, rural, poverty-ridden town of Harmony. Here in the woods I’ve raised two sons with my husband, photographer Thomas Birtwistle (a member of the class of 1987), meanwhile working as a freelance editor, a substitute music teacher, and a visiting poet in the schools. Along the way, I've written and published two collections of poetry and a memoir.

At every turn of the road, I’ve met another person struggling to link eye with ear with hand with mind with heart—for instance, the Harmony eleven-year-old who can’t write his name but whose words, dictated to me as his amanuensis, nonetheless strive to delineate his world. “Big heifers in the corn again,” he tells me. “And them horses is hungry.” I write down his words and read them back to him. He smiles: yes, that’s right; that's what he meant. He thought hard about what he knew best, he searched for the precise words to describe that knowledge, and now the vision within that language belongs to him. This is the essence of learning, and of longing to learn. The fire burns: we stoke its flame.