Understanding poetry can be such a daunting task for so many students — and so many teachers. As AP Literature teachers, we have the ultimate of challenges in equipping students for poetry analysis on a high-stakes examination. One of my most successful classes (like so many) was inspired by an AP conference I attended at Wake Forest University. It’s a simple concept that allows students to exercise the freedom of poetry. I often use this lesson sporadically with several different poems to remove some of the anxiety of poetry and allow students to take ownership of the poems.
The first thing we do is read the poem out loud. I like to use “The Curator” by Miller Williams because while it is structured like a poem, it reads like a story. After we read the poem out loud, each student gets a Post-It™ note (or any sticky pad) and they read the poem again silently. After the second reading, I ask them to write on one sticky note the singular line or sentence when the story became, to them, poetry. Then they post their note on the whiteboard. If someone has already posted the same line or sentence, they post theirs at the bottom of the already posted one. If not, they post it on an open space. When all students have posted their notes, the discussion begins. They talk to each other about why they chose their line or sentence, about what makes it poetry to them. They defend their line or sentence and end up talking passionately about it. This allows them to take ownership of the poem by talking openly about their connection with the poem through one simple line or sentence. While some of them will throw into the discussion a poetic device or two, for the most part, they talk about what effect the line or sentence has on the overall meaning of the poem. It is the epitome of analysis. As the discussion deepens, many of them see how this story really is more poem than they originally thought.
While just about any poem will work with this, I love to use narrative poetry, particularly those without specific meter or rhyme scheme, free verse. Students can be so quick to jump on such obvious things as meter and rhyme; I want them to look beyond what the structure is to see what the structure can create. Looking at poetry this way can help students identify allusions, shifts in tone, and a myriad of other elements that contribute to the conversation and the analysis.