Mentor Text: Parents by Julius Lester
- Poetic Form
Background: Last April, my co-worker Ashley and I went to see Penny Kittle speak. As is standard, we walked away inspired, full of ideas to try, and thoughts on how we could improve the program that we offer to our students. Penny is the best kind of presenter, openly sharing a plethora of great ideas.
One idea she shared wasn’t in the package she gave us, and I’ll admit to some minor Twitter badgering to get my hands on it. She shared Parents a found poem that Julius Lester created using a New York Times article. What initially hooked me was the use of the article, rearranging it to form a poem. As she shared, the poetic form changes the emphasis on certain words and phrases, and changes the impact of the words.
My initial use of the poem was as a mentor text while my students were creating zines related to social justice issues. It was with my Grade 12 class, a group used to my giving them something like this to work with, and I didn’t do a lot of direct teaching with this piece. I gave them the sheet featuring the article, pointed out what had been done, and set them to creating a version of their own.
A month or so later, in the second semester, I found myself using this piece again, with much greater effectiveness in my Grade 10 class. We were studying the Olympics as they happened, looking at how they highlighted elements of our course theme, Facing Adversity and Being a Hero. Pretty much whatever captivated a teacher came into the classroom. There was controversy about the women’s slopestyle event, which was held during heavy winds. The thing is, Canada medalled in that event, partly because the winds cancelled the qualifying rounds, giving Laurie Blouin more time to recover after a crash in training. We watched footage of the event, and all the crashes, and read an article about the controversy. The goal we had in mind was to use Parents as a mentor text, and turn that article, or another one, about hockey, because, well, Canada, into a poem. (Obviously, this is insanely adaptable to whatever you might be studying by giving them related articles!) I also made sure that they had copies of Swim Your Own Race, a poem we had already looked at as another example of poetic form.
With better planning, and well, better teaching on my part, it went so much better than the first use of this piece.
How We Might Use This Piece:
Poetic Form – We spent a fair amount of time looking at the piece. I projected it, and students had a copy of their own. We talked about poetic conventions, focusing on the impact of the choices the poet made while arranging the poem.
We looked at the short lines. We had a discussion about the impact of this choice. This was obviously amplified by having the article alongside the poem. While the article is shocking, the students reacted much more overtly to the poem. You know there’s an impact when you hear grunts, gasps and muttered curses when you read a piece aloud. I’ve taught poems featuring short lines before, and we’ve had the same conversation, but knowing that they were about to arrange an article into a poem seemed to give this device a bit more resonance for them.
We talked about line breaks as well. Again, having the original text to contrast with made the question of impact easier for students to discuss. Think about it, generally when we show them a poem, it only exists as a poem – the question of the impact of a line break relies solely on what it does in that poem. Being able to see the line before them, in a different form, highlighted that impact.
When we got to arranging our own poems, I talked about the importance of looking for lines in the article that resonated with them. The article I chose intentionally had a couple of anchor ideas they could pull out and build their poem around. We’ve built a culture of finding “lines that pop,” which helped.
As they worked, we had conversations about some of the choices poets make. We spoke about creating stanzas as well. Although Parents doesn’t have stanzas, they’ve looked at poems that do. We had a couple of good conversations about the decisions poets make when deciding what their stanzas look like. We talked about the power of a stanza that is a single line, and why we might choose to do that.
As students finished their arrangements, we talked about titling. We talked about the impact of Lester’s choice to call his poem Parents and how it focused the blame on the parents. We discussed how some poets do that, use the title to focus the reader’s attention on an idea or a theme.
“Does it have to have a title?” one student asked. Though I know there are legions of poems without, I wanted them to play with titling, and told them so. I did qualify that, by saying that there are poets who might call a poem like the ones they made Untitled Winter Olympics Poem. I also told them that there are many fine poets who get around our world’s need for titles by simply bolding the first line of the poem, and having it serve as the title. Though they thought that sounded like either laziness or cheating, a handful of them used that strategy.
An interesting thing happened, without my suggesting it – a lot of conferencing. “What works better, this, or this?” was a common question, and the responses focused on the impact of the choices upon the reader. It’s funny, because it feels like the conferencing step is one that needs encouraging, but here, it was happening without my input.
As I reflected on this activity, I realized that one of the things that I tell my writers was playing out in front of me without my realization. I make a point of telling them that writing is a process of two things: what we say and how we say it. This is something I say when I’m encouraging them to plan, draft and edit, to get them to focus on one of those things at a time.
The beauty of this activity was that it was so wonderfully purely about the how we say things. The risk of crafting a poem was reduced, because they only had to focus on the act of making their article a poem, not actually having to write the words. As a result, as we talked about the poetic choices being made, we weren’t carving up our own words. Seeing them labour over their arrangements, and holding some of the finished pieces showed that they could make bold and impactful choices. I’ve already seen that this low risk play with poetic form and convention has a positive impact in their own poetry.
And that has solidified this activity as one that will happen before we begin writing poetry in any of my classes. (Thanks Penny!)
What’s one of your go-to poetry intro lessons? How do you get your writers to take risks in writing poetry? How do you model the many choices a poet can make?
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