“That is NOT a poem!”
“How are we supposed to get anything out of that?”
“That doesn’t mean anything! It’s just a picture.”
The first poem I often put in front of my students is William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow” and their responses range from baffled to outraged.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
When the word “poetry” first comes up in my high school English classes, the groan that echoes through the room is not one of delight. There are a brave few souls that profess undying love for poetry, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Many teachers are not comfortable with teaching poetry analysis because of the way they’ve been taught – often with the presentation of a poem, followed by some frustrated silence, and a subsequent explanation by the teacher of what the “true” meaning of the poem is. Students are rarely given the opportunity to make meaning in poems for themselves – a process that takes time, practice, discussion, and much reassurance that they indeed have what it takes to interpret poetry themselves.
Although poetry analysis is a multi-faceted endeavor, I’ve developed a 3-steps to introduce students to the process of looking into poetry. I’ve found that once they’ve gotten their feet wet and started the conversation of making meaning, moving into deeper, more extensive analysis becomes possible.
Step 1: What do you notice?
First, I put the poem in front of students – on a SmartBoard, whiteboard, handout, etc. – and let them see and hear it. I read “The Red Wheelbarrow” as a single sentence, with very brief pauses at the end of each stanza. Then I call on the talents of more theatrical students in class to read aloud and we discuss the various spins that can be put on tone and emphasis. There are many great videos of poetry being read on YouTube and other sites by various readers, including the poets themselves, and students quickly discover the possibilities for meaning in the different versions .
While students are reading and listening to the poem, their sole task is to jot down what they notice and to discuss it. Although there are many discussion formats that I use – pair and share, group discussion, Socratic seminar – I usually begin with a whole class discussion. This enables them to build an understanding collectively.
It’s important to show students early on that no observation is too simple. With “The Red Wheelbarrow” students will often comment on the fact that it doesn’t seem like a “real” poem, which leads to a teachable moment to grab – a discussion of what makes a poem a poem. We talk about the lack of rhyme, the weird line breaks, and just the general way the poem makes us feel, which for many of them is not much at all, at first. Acknowledge and validate all observations, even the ones offered in jest. Students need to see that they are the makers of meaning, and in this unfamiliar territory there are familiar landmarks: words and ideas.
Step 2: What else do you notice?
This is when I have students start to mark the text and begin to take it apart. I tell them to write down things they notice on the poem itself. Be ready for some hesitancy here, as well, for students struggle with what to say say about poems. They think that if they can’t unearth a brilliant symbol or metaphor, then they don’t have anything important to say. Quickly they learn that anything they say can contribute to meaning.
I will usually model the annotation process for students on my document camera or SmartBoard, thinking aloud to the class as I circle words and phrases and write questions, connections, and observations on the poem. With “The Red Wheelbarrow,” I wonder aloud why Williams chose the colors red and white, and what could possibly “depend” on a red wheelbarrow? Eventually, students get comfortable enough to come up to the board themselves and write comments on the poem, discussing the significance of the line breaks, the vivid picture the poem creates in their mind, the briefness of the poem . . .
The crucial part of this equation is that all thoughtful observations are valid and that we discuss, discuss, discuss. I ask questions to elicit further thinking about the details of the poem, such as: “That’s interesting; why do you think he did that?” and “Explain what you mean by . . .” and “Tell me more about . . .” Occasionally, with classes that are less experienced with communication, I need to scaffold these skills more with techniques like fishbowl, but, with patience and practice, students pick up on the discussion process, asking questions themselves and building on each other’s ideas.
Seeing the thought processes of others allows students to see the possibilities for their own thoughts.
Step 3: Bring it all together.
Patterns of meaning emerge and I have students take a few minutes to write down the overall meaning or theme of the poem. The process of doing this by themselves is important, because it helps them gain confidence in their ability to independently create meaning in the poem.
With “The Red Wheelbarrow,” students have gone in interesting directions. One year, one of my AP Lit students was convinced that it was a treatise on communism, the wheelbarrow being a symbol for the underappreciated proletariat –and, after all, it WAS red . . . Other students argued that the theme was more universal – a love note to all the simple things in life we tend to take for granted. No matter what level class I use this poem in, though, students begin to see the how the details they noticed in the various pieces of the poems can come together into a coherent idea that can apply to the world outside the poem. The relevance of the poem gradually becomes clear and they are the ones that created that clarity, by working together. Student-developed themes may start out as relatively simplistic and general, but you will be surprised at the depth they develop as they gain confidence in their analysis skills through this process.
As a teacher of both Advanced Placement and “regular” English classes, I’ve learned that students come into my classroom with a wide range of ability and experience, and it’s my job to meet them where they are and empower them to take their abilities to new levels. The 3-Step approach to poetry analysis has enabled me to give students a way into the conversation about meaning, and is an effective method of introducing close reading in any context, whether it’s a primary document in American History or an article on genetic engineering. Once students believe they have the power to make meaning themselves, we can begin the journey of making sense of the world.