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Learning about Poetry: Making It Active and Visible

The classroom is charged with the energy of learning – students collaboratively working with text to build meaning. These are the teacher moments that give me joy. This week it happened with 6th and 7th graders and poetry.

We’d prepared. I’d given students a toolbox consisting of poetry reading strategies (see this blog) and literary terms for talking about poetry. I’d modeled using the toolbox to read “Fog” by Carl Sandburg (the “I Do” phase), I’d coached the whole class through using it on “Foul Shot” by Edwin A. Hoey (the first step of the “We Do” phase), it was time for a little more independence.

Group poster annotations are a great way to involve all students in collaborative meaning making with text. I made enlarged prints of a new poem (“To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan), assigned groups of 4 to each print, and gave each group 4 different colored pens. Each group was to read the poem together, however, they decided to do it. Then each student was to choose a pen, sign their name on the poster with that pen to identify their contributions, and then work to make meaning of the poem, putting on paper what their brains were doing. This could include anything from circling important words to asking questions to sketching images the text made them envision. I wanted to see all the colors—evidence of everyone’s brains at work.

This can be done as a silent discussion – only writing. I allowed the students to talk this time. Most of the groups were having productive discussions as they annotated, and it allowed me another window into their processes and another opportunity to uncover and correct misunderstandings as I listened in.

I learned a lot from observing their annotations:

Every group got the basic idea. An adult is teaching a child to ride a bike, an imagined disaster, a farewell, and the juxtaposition of excitement and sadness. I actually was really encouraged by this.

There were several misunderstandings. One sketch showed a figure on the back of a bike – I realized they didn’t know the word lope and so glossed over the line “loping along beside you.” One student read “When I taught you at eight to ride a bicycle” and asked, “Is it eight a.m. or p.m.?” It hadn’t occurred to me that that could be read as time as well as age. I addressed these misunderstandings while students worked so they could correct the misunderstanding, and I told them what a good thing it was that they had expressed their question or interpretation.

Students noticed different things. One sketched “the curved path of the park” and one sketched the simile at the end: “the hair flapping / behind you like a / handkerchief waving / goodbye.” One noted, “It’s all one sentence,” and another drew dividing lines for all the punctuated pauses. One perceptive student asked, “Why does it say ‘leaving home’ and not ‘learning to ride a bike’?”

Students’ own stories influenced their understanding. At least 2 groups assumed it was a father doing the teaching, and more were careful to say “parent.” Though they were quick to identify the poet as the speaker in previous poems, here no one said, “Hey, the poet’s name is Linda, so she’s probably the speaker, so it’s probably the mother.” One student imagined the crash was into a wall. When I asked him if he’d run into a wall when he was learning to ride a bike, he said, “Yes.” I do want students to make connections between a text and their own experience as an extension of the text, but I don’t want their experience to unintentionally distort how they read the text.

The next day I took the exercise one step further. I hung the posters on the whiteboard with magnets, well spaced, and had the students study them – one minute on each poster – noting how each of the other posters was similar to or different from theirs. Then, they returned to their seats and I asked the class for their observations.

I pointed out how uncovering misunderstandings is really important to developing a correct understanding. The sketch of the rider in the seat on the back of the bike showed me the need to teach a vocabulary word. The question about eight a.m. or p.m. reminded me that the phrase “at eight” could be time or age, though in context age is more relevant. So ask the question, sketch the image, boldly make mistakes so you can learn.

As they discussed the student’s question “Why does it say ‘leaving home’ and not ‘learning to ride a bike’?” these 6th and 7th graders formulated the idea that the poem is a memory, written maybe when the daughter turns 18, or gets her first job, or goes to college. Wow – I wasn’t sure they’d get it – empathy for their parents as they gain independence. But there you go!

What is so effective about using group poster annotations?

  1. All students are involved – they each have a pen, and their color needs to be on their poster – not just the handful that participate in whole group discussion.

  2. Students are active – better than passive.

  3. Students have time to process – this helps incorporate new learning into existing schemas and makes learning durable.

  4. Students show their thinking – which develops as it is expressed and invites response.

  5. Students collaborate – we are smarter together than alone, building on each other’s ideas.

Next week we’ll write our response poems, students writing about a time they took a step of independence. For an extra challenge, they can write it from the perspective of an adult in their lives. They’ll use a lot of vivid images and active verbs, and end with a simile. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. (For more on writing beside mentor poems, see “Learning by Doing: Poetry.”)

How do you make learning active and visible?


P.S. For anyone who carefully read all the photos and was wondering: I never did get to the bottom of the involvement of a granny, let alone an 8-year-old one, but I suspect it was playing with the observation of the words “a daughter” rather than “my daughter.” Not truly on point, but some sort of language arts respect is due to a third-language middle schooler for noticing and playing with articles.

P.P.S. For more on annotation, see my post “Using Annotation as Assessment, Formative and Summative.”


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