April is National Poetry Month, so it was a perfect time for my colleague (a middle school English Language Arts teacher) and I to plan and present a lesson on how to read a poem. I’d been talking about one of my favorite methods for unraveling meaning in poetry, and she invited me to demonstrate for her 6th graders.
Offer me a chance to teach? It’s like giving me candy.
I selected three poems, two from the textbook, and a charming one I remembered from a long time ago, Eve Merriam’s lovely invitation to enjoy poetry, “How to Eat a Poem”:
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
I have always loved this sweet, delicious comparison between a poem and a piece of fruit—especially juicy fruits, like peaches and pears and watermelon, where the deliciousness runs like a river, all down your front. The poem seemed like a great hook.
The second poem I chose was from the text: Gary Soto’s “Ode to Family Photographs.” Soto’s poem is a list of images—descriptions of bad family photos—images gone awry because the photographer was no good with a camera.
This is the pond, and these are my feet.
This is the rooster, and this is more of my feet.
Mama was never good at pictures.
This is a statue of a famous general who lost an arm,
And this is me with my head cut off.
This is a trash can chained to a gate,
This is my father with his eyes half-closed.
This is a photograph of my sister
And a giraffe looking over her shoulder.
This is our car’s front bumper.
This is a bird with a pretzel in its beak.
This is my brother Pedro standing on one leg on a rock,
With a smear of chocolate on his face.
Mama sneezed when she looked
Behind the camera: the snapshots are blurry,
The angles dizzy as a spin on a merry-go-round.
But we had fun when Mama picked up the camera.
How can I tell?
Each of us is laughing hard.
Can you see? I have candy in my mouth.
I expected opportunities to talk about the individual pictures; to notice the two switches to italics (not italics, here) whenever the narrator stops to explain about Mama; to look at the possible meanings of that last line, candy in my mouth; to examine the writer’s tone—nostalgic about those family moments, kind—even amused—in his assessment of Mama.
The third poem was Emily Dickinson’s 4-line nugget, “Fame is a Bee,” all about the allure of fame, its glamour, its backlash, its transitory nature. Perfect for kids in thrall to performers on American Idol.
Fame is a bee.
It has a song–
It has a sting–
Ah, too, it has a wing.
As I planned it, we’d do the Merriam poem first, then the Dickinson one, and end with Soto. I’d lead the students to learn and use the words ode, stanza, image, voice, metaphor, and tone. The objective—beyond making the terms a part of their working vocabulary—was to show them a method they could use on their own to figure out the meaning of a poem. What I wanted above all was to excite the students about poetry. I planned to leave them at the end with a little present—a personal poetry reader for each child—a bright yellow card decorated with a fruit sticker and the words, “Bite in!” A reminder of Merriam’s poem; a reminder of our class period together.
My sequencing of the lesson would have been good—it would have worked—but when I met with my colleague to fine tune the lesson, “good” turned into “outstanding.” That’s the beauty of instructional coaching—two heads are better than one. I knew the strategy and I picked the poems, but she had the genius to put it all together in a way that would capture the kids.
When we started talking about the lesson, we knew we’d need a hook. My colleague had just the idea. She loves games. In fact, her classroom is decorated with boxes of games, game boards, game pieces. And she had a wonderful one she had grabbed at a garage sale: Awkward Family Photographs, a collection of perfectly awful family pictures. Her idea was to have a handful of cards on each table when the kids came in. We’d let them look at the photos for a few minutes, talk about why they were funny or scary or stupid, and then launch into the Soto poem.
So that’s what we did on the appointed day. She set up the hook and after a few minutes of laughing together at the pictures, I read the Soto poem aloud. The kids followed along.
“I don’t get it,” Daniel said flat out at the end. We loved that. It was the perfect entrée to the slow reveal.
I moved to the interactive whiteboard, the centerpiece of the strategy. The “screen block” tool would cover the poem and I would expose one line at a time, asking questions of the students to show them how the poet constructed meaning, line by line by line.
And the technology failed. It had worked in the morning before class. What had happened? No time to twist our hands, throw them up in despair. Gamely, we went on, directing the students to look at each line of the poem in turn until we reached the end.
Of course, because of the Awkward Family Photographs, the kids caught on to the images immediately. That meant a lot of fun conversation about what was happening when Mama snapped the picture—what she intended to capture with her camera and what she actually got. Favorite line? This is me with my head cut off.
“How could he take a picture of himself with his head cut off?”
“But remember the line, Mama was never good at pictures?
“What new piece of information did you get there?”
“Oh! Mama’s taking the pictures!
We lingered on the stanzas about Mama. “How does he feel about his mama?” I asked at the end of the second one. “What’s his tone when he talks about her?”
“He isn’t mad at her!”
“He thinks she’s funny. He says, Each of us is laughing hard.”
One girl said, “It’s kind of like when people say, ‘You gotta love her!’ when they mean a person drives them crazy but they love her anyway.”
And what’s this last line: I have candy in my mouth?
Think metaphor, kids. Poets and words…children and candy. All sweet.
“The experiences were sweet and he’s writing about them.”
“Uh-huh. We call that ‘nostalgia,’ when you look back on something and remember it so fondly.”
“He enjoyed those times.”
“Maybe it’s just candy in my mouth.”
We looked at “Fame is a Bee” next. The poem seems so obvious that I was surprised the kids were puzzled when I read it through. But they remembered the word metaphor, could tell me it was a comparison, so I called on them to brainstorm the pros and cons of fame.
“Stuff on the Internet.”
“And what if you don’t make it on American Idol?”
“People forget you.”
And then we started brainstorming the attributes of a bee: the buzz, the sting, the pollination—good for the flowers—honey…and…
“I got it!” Clayton shouted out before we even finished. And line by line, he explained the connection. He was popping up and down in his seat he was so excited.
Alyssa, the thinker: “But you know, wings can carry you anywhere. The wing doesn’t have to mean ‘forgotten.’ It could mean carrying you to another place…”
I love an independent thinker.
Finally, “How to Eat a Poem.”
An implied metaphor, we said, when they saw there was no “one thing is another” as a metaphor lays it out.
One boy was sure the juice was from a cheeseburger, but the unraveling strategy worked like it should when someone else pointed out ripe. “Cheeseburgers aren’t ripe.”
“And ready when you are! It’s always there, just waiting for you.”
“It’s definitely not a cheeseburger. Cheeseburgers don’t have pits or seeds or stems!”
“But the poem isn’t like a fruit because there’s nothing to throw away.”
Not a word or a punctuation mark or a break in the page to spare. Yep, they got it.
My colleague and I had a ball. I did the lesson myself the first time through, but with the next class, she was asking the kids questions, too. The third time around, even more so. The technology never did work. No matter. She did the next two presentations solo (I was somewhere else in the building), but for the last period (she has six classes and 170 kids!), by which time I had returned, we decided to function as a tag team. By then we had expanded the lesson so much that we only got through two of the poems! That was okay. She would do the third the next day. The students would be reading more poetry, using their texts and the poetry readers I’d made for them.
“I wish we could always be two heads on a lesson,” she said. “What’s our district thinking, not hiring two teachers per room?”
What are they thinking, indeed? That’s what coaching is all about.
It was sweet all day.