How Do You Teach Poetry to Seventh Graders?
Have you ever sautéed onion, celery, and carrots (with maybe a heavy dash of hot pepper flakes) in butter or olive oil? And you know how what’s sizzling in the pan pops and stings your arms or cheeks or anything else that’s exposed? And how you know you might get hurt, but the potential for what this combination can bring forth is well worth the risk?
So it goes when you read a poem to seventh graders.
They are popping corn kernels. All the time. Even when it doesn’t look like it, they are popping. Something is always rattling, always trying to shake loose, and at times (mostly always) the sparks hurt.
But don’t protect yourself. Share what you love, even if you don’t understand all of what you love. Isn’t that kind of the point of poetry, to return with curiosity and awe — again and again — to what you love? Isn’t this perhaps the best lesson you could show a seventh grader (and all of us, really)?
I’m asking a lot of questions, and that reminds me — bring some questions — but do not, not even upon pain of death, ever ask a seventh grader, “So, what’d ya think?” This is the equivalent to sticking your tongue on a flag pole on a January morning in northern Michigan: SO MUCH CAN GO WRONG.
Okay, so you have a poem you love, and you have some questions. Ready? Wait, what? You don’t have a poem? You don’t have questions? Alright, alright calm down. Everything is going to be fine. They don’t call me, Callie-With-A-Plan-Feyen for nothing. (Nobody actually calls me that, but a girl can dream, can’t she? Maybe the name comes embossed on a diamond tiara. I mean, whatever. I’m not fussy. Or high maintenance.)
Let’s use Hettie Jones’ poem, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Step Right Up, The Drawer Is Open.” It comes from the book Heart to Heart, edited by Jan Greenberg. It is a collection of poetry inspired by twentieth century American Art. I’d say this poem reads like a drawer that opens, perhaps by itself, shooting out colorful shirts and socks and maybe also things like beads or photos or other sparkly scraps that shimmer ideas, memories, and choices. It’s a messy poem and a suspenseful one — like a roller coaster.
And here are some questions you could ask. I suggest starting with three. Anything more and you will feel like you’re in a hornets’ nest except you’re not a hornet. You just have to be careful is all I’m saying. You have to be vulnerable, not stupid. (No, I’m not calling you stupid.) Here are three questions I’ve used:
- What does the poem tell you?
- What are your favorite phrases?
- What does this poem remind you of?
These questions come from Guiding Readers and Writers: Teaching, Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, but there are other great resources as well. Tania Runyan’s How To Read a Poem, is a personal favorite (for you and all the seventh graders in your life).
You’re going to stand in front of your class and hand out the poem — on paper — and every student gets a copy. Tell them they can color, underline, and draw on it. Tell them to leave their mark, because a poem wants to be interacted with. Make sure you have a copy too, and if possible, make sure it’s large enough so students can see it when you mark it up.
Because you must make your mark too. Yes, this dangerous. But it’s necessary. You’re breathing life into the room, into the poem, into your students. You have no control, but this isn’t about control. This is about you giving your impressions, your memories, your questions as they pertain to the poem.
This is about offering.
You are showing your students how to do that, and they, in turn, will show you. Here are some examples I’ve received:
“This poem is very mind tackling. It says that we have so many choices in life and that we need to try to choose the right one even if it’s not always easy.”
“My family is going through a ‘toppled’ time right now. Slowly and slowly the pieces are going back together. This poem is my life right now.”
“I feel really scared because I have no clue as to what I want to do in my life. I am going through the same thing the girl [in the poem] is. I am scared to death what to choose. How would I know?”
“The poem made me feel kind of nervous/scared. The ‘Catch! that memory and desire before they hit the floor’ made me nervous because I didn’t know if the memory and desire were going to hit the floor and shatter.” Then the, ‘Suppose the top begins to topple, and lets loose a torrent of red spots,’ made me scared.”
“The part when, ‘the top begins to topple’ reminded me of when my dog got hit by a car and I thought my life was going to end right there, right then.”
How do you read a poem? Write your own how-to in an essay or poem.
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.