March 15, 2016 - Michael Salinger

A Poetry Deconstruct (lesson) that Doesn’t Suck

“But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope   

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose   

to find out what it really means. “

From Billy Collins Introduction to Poetry.

Somewhere along the way we teach young adults to hate poetry.

Not kids, little kids love poetry they love to read it – have it read to them – to write it – but that enthusiasm seems to be boiled off around middle school.

What gives?

Middle school is about the time we begin teaching the deconstruction of poetry. All kids love puppies, but as soon as you cut one open and start laying the bits and pieces on a table – well they get a little squirrelly.

Okay, this is fine and good and I could go on with a missive about the evils of teaching deconstruction void of construction, and I will at another time, but instead I’m going to relate a lesson strategy I came up with while visiting an 11th grade International Baccalaureate lit class where the poet being taught was Carol Ann Duffy. More specifically we were to deconstruct the piece Anne Hathaway from her collection The Worlds Wife.

So the first thing I did is what most secondary students do, Google the poet and poem for analysis. I know students do this because they are more than happy to admit it to a visiting author, and frankly who can blame them?

Here is one site:

Here is another:

and another:

There are literally dozens of these websites and they all pretty much say the same thing. Armed with the consensus interpretation (the one that is most likely to show up on a standardized test) I put together my lesson.

The general gist of the poem, a sonnet playing loose with the sonnet rules, alludes to Shakespeare’s last will and testament in which he leaves to his wife the second best bed. The speaker, Anne Hathaway, lets the reader know that that second best bed is where all the action happened, so don’t cry for me Argentina!

So here’s what we did in 11th grade IB, the lesson took about 50 minutes:

First I read the poem out loud. It helps to have the piece projected while doing this – students certainly should have individual copies, but I like to see their eyes up while I am reading the piece for them the first time. After I read the piece once I then chose “volunteers” to read the piece again a couple lines each. I then read the piece again.

The final time I read the piece aloud I stopped after each line and solicited the students’ interpretation asking leading questions assuring that the narrative of the piece was understood. After this third reading and accompanying discussion I asked who among them was able to make a connection to this poem. In two classes I had one hand go up.

I then asked the students to read their individual copies of the poem to themselves and to circle their favorite part. Even though the piece may not have spoken to them in a resounding voice, they still should be able to identify a portion that they appreciated most.

Then I polled the students, asking which line or portion they highlighted. I then asked them to identify the literary device used and we discussed as a class why the author might have chosen that particular piece of figurative language.

Once we had completed this – there were around 15 students in each class – I instructed the students to remember a time when being second best, or not winning was actually the better outcome for them personally and to tell someone near them about this. This took a minute or two after which I asked everyone to get out a clean sheet of paper and to fold it in half. I said I was going to ask questions about the event they were just talking about and instructed them to write the answers on their still folded piece of paper.

I asked them to note where the event happened, the time of day, the light source, any background noises, odors or aromas, what were they doing with their hands, eyes, feet – how did they feel inside, what would they compare this feeling to, what didn’t happen that could have and a couple other details. I informed them that these were to be bullet points not sentences. I wrote the questions on the board as I asked them.

Once I finished I told the students they had two minutes and their task was to be sure the person next them had answered all the questions and to collaborate with each other to be sure this was true.

Next the students were to unfold their paper and on the blank side, next to their bullet points, quick write a poem about their experience with the caveat that they must use the poetic element identified in their favorite part of the Duffy poem.

We then read our pieces aloud.

So here’s what we accomplished:

  • We read the assigned poem.
  • We identified poetic elements.
  • We discussed the poet’s intent.
  • We related the poem to a personal connection.
  • We created a pre-write.
  • We collaboratively discussed our pre-write.
  • We wrote our own piece inspired by the poem being studied incorporating at least one poetic element.
  • We presented our piece aloud.

So, I did manage to work a little construction in there to help cement a lesson that deconstruction might not have fostered.

We ended class with the question, what did you learn today? I asked the students to first discuss this with the folks around them; I solicited answers until the bell to end class rang.

Given another chance to run this lesson I might have switched my closing question to: Who can make a connection to the poem we are studying now? I’m betting I’d get more than a single hand in two classes and with a little luck a few less poetry haters.

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