Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Will Your Verse Be?

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
~ John Keating in Dead Poets Society

As the school year approached its end, I knew I wanted to do a brief poetry unit with my English 11 Junior class. Since September they had read Geraldine Brooks' novel Year of Wonders as a means to learn about the Black Plague in the Middle Ages and had studied British Literature covering classics such as Beowulf, Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales' Prologue, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and had also taken third quarter to read dystopian novels such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and George Orwells' books, Animal Farm and 1984. We had heavily practiced close reading tasks, essay writing, and students had done plenty of research, finalizing their thoughts on the dystopian unit by studying essays by Wells and Orwell and weaving together their study as they crafted a literary analysis research paper. And oh yes, we'd done plenty of practicing for their SAT tests.

I anticipated their hesitancy in beginning a unit on poetry and pulled out one of my favorite teacher activities as a warm up activity, Paint Chip Poetry. As many classroom practices are, this tool is an idea borrowed and adapted from another teacher's task. It revolves around a box of paint chips, those little strips of paper one gets at a hardware store when a color choice for painting needs to be made. I give my students a random handful of paint chips and I ask them to "make sense" of the names of the paints printed on each color chip. The students are challenged to use these paint names as inspiration in forming their own poems. Most students love the activity, finding it fun and crazy to design poetry in this way. It's similar to those magnet poetry kits they sell in stores actually. Students move paint chips around their desks and see what they can create. As they work on their poems, I roam around the room and fabulous impromptu conversations about poetry begin. "What is poetry? Does it have to rhyme? Do I have to use exact words? How many lines are needed? Can simple phrases be used? Does it have to make sense?"

The discussions continue the next day as students begin researching a couple of poems they locate on their own, poems by various British poets (in keeping with our study of British literature) that they "like" for whatever reason. As they interact with their researched poem, they are given information on ways to explicate the poets' works and we think of what might have been the poet's own inspiration for writing their masterpieces. "Is there any chance they used a handful of random paint chips?!"

As the final days of the year approach, we took time to watch the movie Dead Poets Society. The movie's discussions of poetry have always been interesting to share with my upperclassmen students and we again fell into rich discussions of not only verse but of life, passion, and beauty following the watching of the film. Just as the movie's teacher character John Keating invites his students to do, my students have been challenged to go home and to "contribute a verse" to this thing we call life. Their verses are due in a few days' time. I am honestly excited to hear their contributions.

Inspiration can come from anywhere...from the classics of British literature to a handful of paint chips to a Hollywood movie. As the school year winds down, it's simply important for us students of life to make time to allow inspiration in, and to be knowledgeable of what we live life for.

...the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Please feel free to share your verse with me. Anytime.

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