In The Arts in Every Classroom, “Bringing Artists to Your Community,” theatre artist Birgitta De Pree involves a kindergarten class in a storytelling activity that engages the imagination while reinforcing story structure skills. She warms the students up with activities that relax them and build trust. Watch the video until 14:00. While Ms. De Pree served as an artist-in-residence in the school, these engaging activities can be adapted by any language arts teacher willing to take on the role.
There once was a poet named Lear
Whose fondness for nonsense was dear.
His verses were short
And silly, of course.
And that’s why we fete him each year!
As I see it there are at least three good reasons to introduce your students to limericks this month:
1. May 12 was Edward Lear’s birthday and Limerick Day. Children today enjoy Lear’s sly sense of humor and the limerick’s manageable structure as much as the children for whom he wrote his verses in 1846. You can use the illustrated, closed-captioned audio book to introduce your students to the silly fun and rhyming challenges of limericks. Although limericks have a reputation for being bawdy or coarse, you can find many kid-friendly examples by searching limericks for children. Visit the Limerick Factory on Learner.org to give students practice with the form, permission to be goofy, and the urge to write their own poems.
2. Testing season is upon us and it’s likely you and your students could use a little comic relief. Humor is a healthful stress reliever. Sharing a limerick “moment” will take only a few minutes of class time. The resulting giggles (or groans) will be a refreshing break from test-itis. Provide students with a physical break as well by inviting them to stand up and clap their hands to the pronounced rhythm of a limerick.
3. Analyzing patterns in poetry is similar to recognizing patterns in mathematics. Using the Limerick Factory on Learner.org, you might have students devise codes for communicating the rhythmic and rhyming structures of limericks. Students who have not yet picked up on number patterns may benefit from the practice of finding patterns in accessible poems or nursery rhymes.
You can get a lot of brain-building mileage out of a five-line rhyming poem. May I challenge you to finish this one?
There once was a teacher named West
Whose students were scared of the test . . .
Jazz, silver, gold, champagne, opulence, New York City. The decadence of the Roaring Twenties is brought to life in my all-time favorite novel to teach, The Great Gatsby. From the moment I enter the world and thoughts of Nick Carraway, I am swept away to another time and place, which for each future generation is becoming increasingly erased from the collective consciousness. Teaching the novel keeps an important voice and piece of American culture alive.
To give context to the novel, it was helpful to have an exposition on the era of the Roaring Twenties. We looked at the changing lives of women and how the emergence of the “new woman” who smoked, drank alcohol, and dated was a major cultural shift in society. It was amusing to see students wrap their minds around how a woman showing her knees could be considered scandalous. It was also helpful to build an understanding of what was considered the “modern world” in Fitzgerald’s time, especially to a generation of students who can’t imagine a world without the internet, let alone a world where electric light and automobiles are the latest thing. American Passages, unit 11, “Modernist Portraits,” provides historical and literary context for this time period and biographical information on F. Scott Fitzgerald.
My teaching of the novel revolved around introducing the concept of The American Dream. Students were asked to give their own definitions of the concept, which usually included words like money, success, happiness, education, love, property. After they established their own definitions, I began to introduce the earliest mention of the concept with Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and built on the idea with the teachings of Benjamin Franklin. See American Passages, unit 4,“Spirit of Nationalism.” As we moved through the novel, students were given the opportunity to examine how The American Dream was attained, or not attained, through the lives of the characters. They began to peel away at the imagery and magic of Fitzgerald’s words to see the underbelly of the dream, the “valley of ashes” that lurks throughout the novel. They drew personal connections to current social and political issues and argued if indeed we are all “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Another fun way to build connection to the novel was to have the students modernize a scene from the novel. Jazz became hip-hop, “old sport” became “dude,” and Model-T’s became Mercedes.
To end the unit, I showed the 1974 version of the movie, giving the students a chance to see how their visualization of the novel matched the vision of writer Francis Ford Coppola and director Jack Clayton. Students generally liked the movie version, finding some aspects a little over-dramatic or corny at times. Clayton’s affinity for highlighting Fitzgerald’s symbolic use of silver and gold with camera angles to make objects and eyes literally sparkle usually got some chuckles. I often wished someone would do a remake and bring a modern cinematic eye to the beauty of the novel. Well, I don’t have to wish anymore! The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy premiered on May 10th. Check out the trailer for the movie.
I can’t wait to see how the other Gatsby fans react to the new version and if the remake is bringing new life to the teaching of the novel. Are you building your unit with the remake in mind? What creative ways do you bring the novel to life?
A 7th grader recently gave me a wonderful gift. She invited me to read an anthology of poems she wrote in 6th grade. Zoe’s poems were sensitive, wistful, beautiful, and silly. As I read them silently, she was drawn back to them and read each one aloud as a critical reader of her own work. I saw a frisson of pleasure when a poem hit its intended mark. Some, from her more mature 7th grade perspective, she pronounced “childish.”
In Zoe’s poems, I could also see her 6th grade teacher’s approach to teaching the art of writing poetry. The anthology included cinquains, haiku, clerihews, and acrostics. In other words, Zoe’s teacher had given her students accessible models of poetic forms and content, laying a safe foundation on which young writers could express their own emotions and observations.
Whether your students are eager to read and write poetry or are resistant to the craft, they will benefit from this approach. Two learner.org video workshops demonstrate techniques that you can use to cultivate your young poets.
In “Gaining Insight Through Poetry” in Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ high school teacher Chris Mazzino uses “copy change” to help students thoughtfully empathize with the children portrayed in the holocaust memoir they read as part of a citywide reading program. Copy change involves using another writer’s structure as the scaffold for your own work. Here, Mr. Mazzino and his creative writing students are exploring what it feels like to be an outsider. He uses the student-written poem “Will They Ever Learn?” (page three of PDF) to instigate a discussion of “otherness.” Afterwards, students copy change the poem to express their own experiences and emotions. In this instance, the copy change technique provided an accessible model and a safety net for encouraging teens to share emotions they might otherwise keep to themselves.
In Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers, workshop 3, “Teaching Poetry,” two master teachers—Vivian Johnson and Jack Wilde—share how they help their students develop as readers and writers of poetry. Both teachers emphasize the importance of immersing their students in poetry throughout the school year to ready them for formal writing units. Mr. Wilde breaks down resistance by providing his students with accessible poems than can be understood on the first reading. Ms. Johnson makes the writing process non-threatening to her 8th graders by presenting forms such as found poetry and list poems.
These teachers agree that close reading of model poems is essential, but they don’t dwell on interpretation of abstractions. They do hone in on structure, word choice, rhythm, and line breaks. They examine techniques students can transfer to their own writing and use with power and purpose. Mr. Wilde uses Mekeel McBride’s poem “The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes,” a fun five-stanza poem that views the potato from five perspectives, to help students discover how ideas can be handled in poetic form and what poems can do that prose can’t. He asks, “What can you learn from Mekeel about writing a poem?” One student responds, “You don’t have to say a potato is a potato, but what else could it be.” At this point, his students are ready and eager to write their own poems based on McBride’s model.
The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write.” And, as you’ll see in these videos, imitation can put students on the road to profound and beautiful invention. What a gift!
Are you and your students writing poems for National Poetry Month? Watch Maxine Kumin read her poetry and hear how setting echoes the themes in her work in Literary Visions, program 12, “A Sense of Place: Setting and Character in Poetry.” Start at 21:54 in the video. Kumin says, “I’m a poet of the seasons. I’m a poet of the natural world.”
Carol O’Donnell’s students discuss dual identities, being caught between two worlds, in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 1, “Engagement and Dialogue.” Poetry written by Naomi Shihab Nye is used to introduce the concept of exploring one’s own identity.
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in Missouri to an American mother and Palestinian father. She has lived in old Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas and traveled to the Middle East and Asia. Her work incorporates the voices and perspectives of Mexican Americans and Arab Americans. Nye is inspired by small things and everyday events, and she journals “because I wanted to remember everything. The quilt, the cherry tree, the creek. The neat whop of a baseball rammed perfectly with a bat. My father’s funny Palestinian stories.” See more about Nye here and read her poem Half-and-Half here. Use her story and poetry to inspire your students to think about their own identities and what it means to be part of a multicultural community- whether your definition of community is as small as a classroom or as big as the world.
Nye says in an ALAN review: “Anyone who feels poetry is an alien or ominous force should consider the style in which human beings think. “How do you think,” I ask my students. “Do you think in complete, elaborate sentences? In fully developed paragraphs with careful footnotes? Or in flashes and burst of images, snatches of lines leaping one to the next, descriptive fragments, sensory details?” We think in poetry. But some people pretend poetry is far away.
The world lost an important voice with Chinua Achebe’s death. Critics consider the writer, born in Ogidi, Nigeria in 1930, one of the finest Nigerian novelists. Chinua Achebe eschewed trends in English literature and wrote by embracing the African oral tradition. (See the Chinua Achebe biography page from In Search of the Novel, Ten Novelists, for background on the author and his writing style. The Ten Novels page provides a synopsis and reviews of Things Fall Apart.)
Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart asks readers to consider, that while people often resist change, what if their whole way of living was suddenly threatened by a group of outsiders? Okonkwo, the protagonist of this work, faces the imminent influence of British values on his Nigerian community.
Anthony Appiah, Achebe’s friend, explains his view of the novel Things Fall Apart in the program Invitation to World Literature: “One of the things that Achebe has always said, is that part of what he thought the task of the novel was, was to create a usable past. Trying to give people a richly textured picture of what happened, not a sort of monotone bad Europeans, noble Africans, but a complicated picture in which mistakes are made on both sides.”
In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 8, “Social Justice and Action,” author Joseph Bruchac talks about his friendship with Achebe and how Achebe influenced his writing. He says:
“I asked Chinua why he wrote that novel (Things Fall Apart). He said that when he was in college, he was forced to read a book called Mr. Johnson by an English writer named Joyce Cary. In that book, which takes place among the Ibo people, Mr. Johnson is a pathetic figure, an Ibo man who wants to be like an Englishman but can never achieve that level. He dresses like an Englishman, tries to walk and talk and act like an Englishman. And he fails utterly.
And Ibo culture is just a background of this, is seen as savage and dirty and primitive and of little worth. Chinua said, ‘I had to write Things Fall Apart. To represent my people as they really are. As full human beings.’ Not perfect, because his main character has a tragic flaw. But ‘as full human beings in their own right.’”