Monday, March 5, 2012

My first poetry lesson - Grade 9 girls

Last Thursday I taught my first poetry lesson. And yes, I cried like a big girl's blouse afterwards, but in hindsight maybe it didn't go as badly as it felt. I used Hennie’s “poetry formula” as well as the CAPS Home Language guidelines for teaching literature to plan my lesson. 

Hennie's Poetry Formula

1. get connected - do an introductory activity to get them into the "zone" of the poem. Create a space for the poem in their minds.
2.   Read the poem. Make the first reading good. If it's crap, they will think the poem is crap. 
3. Ask them for their initial response to the poem - what is it about? How does it make them feel?
4. Explore the mechanics of the poem but DO NOT GO LINE BY LINE. How do the devices work together to create that effect? This can work as groupwork but then make sure they have time to present their findings.
5.  Closure, summing up activities - possibly a worksheet with some questions.

The poem I taught was "Vergissmeinnicht" by Keith Douglas:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

 To get them connected and to emphasise the theme of perspective evident in the poem, I showed them an optical illusion and asked them if they were able to see both images. 

Old woman or young lady?

The class was quite evenly split with about half of them seeing one image and half seeing the other. I then asked them if they could see the other image, or both, and talked about perspective and how something can be seen in more than one way. The first reading was not a good one, as my decision to ask the class to read it failed miserably. I read through the poem and several girls went “Oh...” when I did. I asked the class in general for their initial response, and there was some response to rephrased “what” questions. I also introduced the poet and his historical context, as I had found out that they had just covered that period in their History class. There was some misunderstanding of the plot of the poem, and so I briefly went over some of the more difficult stanzas in detail.

To get into the mechanics of the poem without going line by line, I decided to get the girls to create a Poetry Toolbox by suggesting poetic devices, which I wrote on the board. I had brainstormed this on my own beforehand and so had categorised the devices according to form, imagery and sound, which I then represented on the board. Here it is as a sort of mindmap/tree thing.

 I asked the girls to find examples of the devices in the poem, which they did quite well. However, when I asked what effect those devices had on the meaning or the effect of the poem, the girls were not very responsive. I gave examples of the alliteration sounding like steam lifting off a kettle, giving the feeling that it was very hot. I asked what effect the rhythm and repetition combined to give in the first line, rephrasing it several times as the girls seemed confused, but they worked out that it sounded like drums. In this sense I feel that this main part of the lesson was more “learning” oriented than a line by line “teaching” approach might have been. My time management seemed to be quite good too, as their interest started to wane just at the point where I was going to introduce the closing activity. The change from reading and answering questions to a creative writing exercise boosted the momentum and energy of the lesson, and the girls seemed to enjoy the exercise. They were asked to write three sentences about peanut butter; one neutrally descriptive, one positive response and one negative  response. One girl said she was struggling to find anything good about peanut butter, because it “smells like batteries”. It reminded me of this:

I encouraged those with strong feelings about peanut butter (good or bad) to try to pretend to be someone who felt the opposite way, and write what they would feel; this was to help them understand the poet’s use of empathy to gain a different perspective in the poem.  When I explained how the introduction and conclusion were illustrating the use of different perspectives, there was another “ohhh...” moment, but by then the bell was ringing and they were heading out of the class. The only real difference between the plan and how the lesson actually ran was that I thought their understanding of the plot of the poem was inadequate and so spent a little time talking them through each stanza, and what function that stanza was performing.

Some questions Hennie asked us to answer about the lesson: 

What worked really well in the lesson?
My introduction and conclusion worked well, as they addressed themes and concepts in the poem without being drudgy “poetry” things. My idea for the “poetry toolbox” on the other hand did not go as well as I had hoped – while the learners were able to name and find examples of all the poetic devices, they did not understand how they work together to create meaning in the poem, and their interest waned toward the end of the lesson.
What did not work well? What could have been better?
The girls did not seem to understand the plot of the poem (evidenced by the incorrect answers when I asked them what the poem was about, and questions they asked me about how I knew the speaker was remembering, and so on), so I think I should have spent a little more time working through the stanzas to explain the meaning. If I had known what resources were available in the class, I would have projected the poem onto the board and written notes all over it to help the girls understand. I would also read the poem myself first, rather than ask the learners to read it out, particularly when the poem has an irregular rhythm, as did this one.
Did the girls enjoy the lesson?
For the most part I think the girls enjoyed the more interactive, creative aspects of the lesson, but they did not enjoy working through the poem. I think that for many students poetry can be dull, and so in future I would make a worksheet and ask them to work through the questions in pairs, to further their interactivity.
What did you learn from your observer’s feedback?
I think the main thing I learned from my observer’s feedback is that you are your own worst critic. When you are standing in front of a class and the students’ heads start dropping down onto their arms, you feel like you have failed. On the contrary, my observer’s comments were very supportive, and he said that the class seemed interested. I need to work on affirmation of student responses, particularly in how to affirm (but correct) wrong answers. Compared to my micro-teaching exercise, I made much better use of the classroom space, using the board and walking around. I did apologise too much; I must admit that I was quite scared of the students. This may have undermined my “power”. My time management was good, but I should work more on creating interactive or engaging activities such as a worksheet with questions about the content of the poem.
Did your planning succeed in focusing on learning rather than teaching?
Before walking into the class, I had no idea of the students’ level. I therefore planned the lesson to work on terminology that they knew, and introduced only a few new devices that appeared in the poem and seemed unfamiliar to them – this was the intention behind my “poetry toolbox” idea. The students contributed the devices, found examples of them and tried to work out their effect on meaning or the effectiveness of the poem. They were not very successful at this, however, so I think perhaps the “toolbox” would work better in a worksheet with some set leading questions.
What was it like to be instructed to follow a particular approach to teaching poetry?
I found it very helpful, but I did try to be creative within the guiding framework of the formula. I also thought it would be interesting to use some ideas I had thought of while reading the CAPS document – for example, the writing exercise at the end was intended to use creativity to help them learn how empathy feels, and how it can be expressed in writing and how the poet had done this in the poem.

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