Reading, Writing, and Responding to Poetry
Students in Ben Berman’s creative writing class expanded their study of figurative language by reading and considering two poems about names. They then participated in emulation exercises to try their hand at the subject.
Teacher: Ben Berman
School: Brookline High School, Brookline, MA
Discipline: English Language Arts (Creative Writing)
Lesson Topic: Poetry and the relationship between objects/ideas/things and the ideas behind them
Lesson Month: May
Number of Students: 12
Other: This classroom is part of SWS—School Within a School—an alternative program that students self-select to participate in and are admitted by lottery. Admitted students help choose the course of study.
Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:
- Content objectives – Discover the relationship between objects/ideas/things and the ideas behind them in poetry
- Literacy/language objectives – Identify the entry point for writing a poem (using a scrap of language, rhythm, or image); understand how to emulate poetry (i.e., to imitate another poem in substance or style)
- Engagement/interaction objectives – Analyze poems from an emotional perspective rather than a technical perspective
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)
Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
This two-day stand-alone lesson followed and connected to a unit on imagery. The lesson was taught three-quarters into the semester. Following this lesson, students spent time studying the relationship between form and content in poetry.
Before the Video
Students looked at the challenges of giving or receiving advice, using two poems as models (one of which was Dorianne Laux’s “Homecoming”). Poems focused on advice about high school: what can and can’t be taught and learned, and how those things differ. Students then wrote a poem based on one of these two ideas.
During the Video
Mr. Berman began by having students think about nicknames—well-suited nicknames, nicknames they do not like, or nicknames they would like to have. Students read a few poems about names and thought about how the poets approached names differently. They read “A Name” by Linda Pastan and discussed excerpts that they found compelling or interesting. Mr. Berman encouraged students not to move too quickly through the reading, but rather sit with it and dissect it in depth. As a group, they read “alternate names for black boys” by spoken-word poet Danez Smith. Students then did emulation exercises to explore names, with prompts from the two poems discussed and a third prompt from the book The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley.
After the Video
Students continued to explore poetry by figuring out how to take a paragraph and turn it into a poem. They shared their work with the class in a poetry reading and received peer feedback. They also focused on identity—who we are and where we are going—for which the sophomores and juniors wrote poems for the graduating seniors. The students shared their work with the class and received peer feedback. In a final poetry reading, students shared completed poems. All poems that students wrote became part of a final portfolio.
Mr. Berman had mixed grade levels in his creative writing class. He differentiated instruction by grade—the older the student, the longer the writing requirement (e.g., for a research paper, sophomores wrote 4 to 6 pages, juniors 6 to 8 pages, and seniors 8 to 10 pages). Mr. Berman also allowed students to choose their weekly reading based on skill and interests.
This lesson included group readings and discussion, peer review and revision, and classroom poetry readings. To manage group interaction, Mr. Berman modeled how to give critical feedback. He probed students to engage in organic conversation and exploration rather than offer “questions with right answers.” The desks were arranged in a circular or “U” formation to encourage interaction and a “writer’s workshop” feeling. Every paper written was read aloud.
Resources and Tools
- “A Name” by Linda Pastan
- “alternate names for black boys” by Danez Smith
- The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley
- The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett
- “How a Poem Happens” blog by Brian Brodeur
During the lesson, Mr. Berman sat with students one-on-one to assess their understanding.
Mr. Berman’s students participated in self-reflection and peer feedback.
Mr. Berman evaluated students' thinking about their poetry and about their reading and writing. He graded students’ understanding of their poems and the process, but not the poems themselves. Mr. Berman gave full credit for writing and understanding, and all feedback was conversational. His goal was to talk about students' growth and progress as writers.
Impact of Assessment
Mr. Berman followed what his students were able to do, determined where there were gaps, and modified the lesson to address them.
Students regularly wrote two-page reflective essays on what they had been reading and discussing in class, and how they were growing as writers. This enabled students to talk about what they were learning or thinking about and how well they understood the concepts. This was the primary grade for this class.