Discussing poetry can be difficult with students, especially as teachers often begin with “What does this poem mean?” and similar questions. Unfortunately, as they are seeking that one correct answer few students want to respond with most immediately looking down at their desktop. Even worse, if a student ventures a reply and told it’s incorrect, few will want to follow. Educators finally state their translation, something students know they’ll hear if waiting long enough, so poetry discussion isn’t always productive. Of course, many poems have obvious meanings, but others do not or could be referring to several things and open to interpretation.
For poetry discussion to occur at all, students must feel comfortable expressing themselves and feel that their contributions are valid and important. Teachers must also be careful to include all students, not just the same ones always eager to speak, with this exercise allowing everyone to share. Once completed, the poem will have been discussed and analyzed by the students and teacher.
- Place the poem on class computer screen (or otherwise distribute) and ask, “Which WORD is MOST important and why?” with the teacher beginning by stating his/her selection and the reason for it.
- Students then share their word and reason, with many words the same but the reasons for their selection different, an ideal opportunity for comparison/contrast discussion. Likewise, those words that are lesser selected provide an even richer view of the piece.
- As words are being shared and discussed, the teacher can contribute other information about the poem, such as noting hyperbole, rhyme scheme, alliteration, and so on.
- By the time students have shared and discussed, the poem should be thoroughly understood and remembered. Poetry is meant to be heard, with this activity allowing for a thoughtful and thorough interpretation of a poem.
- This works with any reading; novels, plays, or short stories, as students can determine which scene, chapter, event, etc. is deemed most important, and why.
- One should begin with less complicated poetry before introducing more sophisticated pieces. For these, and much longer poems, one may want to break into separate parts for discussion and then connecting all commentary to the whole.
Examples (and some student responses)
Below are some less-complicated (yet strikingly evocative) poems for introducing this activity.
All are from Harrison, D. (1999). Wild country. Boyds Mills Press.
Poems selected are below, with the educator’s response shared first in red. It should be noted that each time completing this activity, a different word may be seen as most important. This should be conveyed to students, showing that understanding/appreciation deepens and varies with familiarity. Poems aren’t meant to be read only once or twice.
Mewling like cats
they fly all day
this way and that
crying (because it shows sadness and living each day constantly searching)
for lost balls of yarn.
in a field
in full light--
in full view
like a big dog,
it’s a wolf,
about being a wolf,
moving one foot at a time
through tall grass,
hunting. (This is a frightening word and reminds us that a wolf is a predator/killer, not just a large dog.)
Eyes of the Forest
Boats throb by
the endless shore
as people gasp at whales
and point to porpoises.
They do not see
the proud heads,
on green boughs.
The silent forest
its eagle eyes. (This reminds us the forest is always watching, very closely and carefully. It sees everything.)
River of blue-cold ice
frozen in slow motion
flowing an inch a day
You polish mountains
scoop out basins
An inch a day (Such a small amount—but it shows how slowly, yet persistently, landscapes are formed.)
and inch a day
and you’re not done.
Vapor trails crisscross the blue
chalkboard sky in
Gradually lose their taut fitness
their laser focus
Dwindle to wandering wisps
that fade away
on a pond
Vapor trails set out importantly
but soon (The vapor trails act importantly, but they disappear quickly. Attention doesn’t last!)
Lisa A. Hazlett is professor of secondary education at the University of South Dakota, where she teaches middle/secondary English language arts education courses and specializes in young adult literature regarding presentations and publications; special interests include gender issues and rural education. Her 2023 text, Teaching Diversity in Rural Schools: Attaining Understanding, Tolerance, and Respect Through Young Adult Literature, was published by Rowman & Littlefield, among numerous other publications centered on young adult literature.
She also serves and provides leadership for numerous NCTE assemblies, special interest groups, and committees, especially ELATE, and as an avid reviewer she regularly evaluates young adult literature novels and manuscripts for various journals and publishing houses.