Mentor Text Wednesday: What Were Giraffes?

Mentor Text: What Were Giraffes? by Amaan Hyder


  • Descriptive writing
  • Social commentary
  • Tone
  • Poetic form

Background: As I said last week, my Twitter feed has become a pretty important source of poetry for me. I follow poets, teachers and poetry journals, and they all dump lots of great poems onto my screen. (Sometimes it feels like too many, which is a pretty good problem to have.) I’m regularly dropping poems into my analog notebooks, and filling up the poetry folder on my drive.

This has given me a resource that has been indispensable as a poetry teacher, one I can tap whenever I need to. Things are organized in various schemes, but I’m generally able to find something to use for the purposes I have in mind.

As I also said last week, I try to make it so that poetry is a frequent part of regular business in my classroom. What’s really cool about this is that it enables me to build a culture around our different approaches to poetry. We’re writing for various purposes and we’re analyzing consistently. That’s awesome, because it allows us a chance to grow as poets and readers of poetry.

WWGIt’s also cool, because it allows me an opportunity to use poems for different purposes, like I did with the poem I’m sharing this week. Kaveh Akbar, a fine poet himself, is a great follow for poetry teachers, because of the poems he shares. (He is on a bit of a hiatus from Twitter right now.) He popped this one into my feed in March, and I took it straight to my classroom. 

The first week, I used it as a “classic” poem in a Get Lit inspired lesson. We did some analysis, and then we wrote poems inspired by it, or in response to it. We discussed how we could use it as a mentor text for exploring an idea, especially one that sort of doesn’t make sense.

The next week of classes, I brought it in as a mentor text for my Grade 10 class to use as we added a poem to our Original Unique Poetry Anthologies, which we call OUPAs. There is a collection of randomly themed anthologies they’ve created, and we regularly add new poems based upon forms, or mentor texts I bring to them. So, a writer might grab an anthology called Poetry for Vegans and write a poem called “What Were Vegans?” in that book.

I also know that I can pull this poem out when we’re doing multigenre projects, or are writing for themed zines in the future. In fact, I enjoy pulling out a poem we’ve already played with, because there is a level of familiarity that makes it seem easier for them. They’ve done it once, they can do it again, maybe even better.

How we might use this text:

Descriptive writing – Part of the core conceit of this poem is that it describes something as if the reader doesn’t know what it is. It’s a basic exercise, but it’s a valuable one. It gives us an excuse to talk about considering audience, and it pushes our writers to frame what they have to say in a certain way.

I love that the first move is to identify something with a basic similarity to what’s being described. From there, Hyder explains the significant differences, in this case, between giraffes and horses. The next thing highlighted is a significant, interesting feature of the subject of the poem, specifically the way that giraffes had to move to reach the ground.

I like how the last piece of the description is to mention how these creatures featured in popular culture, highlighting their comic nature without actually being funny, nor making fun of giraffes, rather simply pointing out that they’re creatures often played for laughs. I know when we discussed this poem, students nodded in agreement when we discussed the comic nature of the giraffe in cartoons and other stories.

Social Commentary – That last piece is pretty important in a classroom like mine. I try to encourage, whenever I can, discussion around how things are perceived. An important part of the work we do in classrooms should involve looking at how society looks at things. This poem allows us to do this in a couple of ways. Obviously, looking at how giraffes were played for laughs in pop culture allows us to explore, perhaps only briefly, why that might be. They’re also kind of majestic too, aren’t they?

My first class that dealt with this poem discussed why Hyder chose giraffes, and we had a great discussion around the titular question. It implies that giraffes are no longer with us, and that we need to explain what they were to a world that has never seen them. They read this with an environmental lens, and assumed that the poem was intended to call attention to the plight of the giraffe. As a result of that discussion, some of them focused their own poems on species they knew were endangered. (And now I’m mentally bookmarking this idea for application around Earth Day.)

Tone – Though this poem could potentially be taken for laughs at first glance, it does not have a humorous tone. In fact, it is quite serious. I love this, especially the fact that it talks about humour without being humourous. I think that this was partially informed in our discussions by the idea that this could be about the loss of that particular animal, but the delivery of the description is so matter of fact that it impacts the tone.

Poetic Form – It feels so important to me to expose students to a variety of forms of poetry. I feel a need to subvert the preconceived notion that so many of them come into high school with that poetry is ONLY about rigidity and rhyme. I love showing them poems where it becomes abundantly clear that the intent of the writer is what makes the piece a poem instead of a paragraph. A poem like this is important to share with a struggling poet because it looks like something that they can do. It’s like explaining, but in a creative fashion, which makes it accessible.

I think what I love most about using poetry as a mentor text is the flexibility that it has. It can be used to model very specific devices and elements. It can be used to model style, or delivery of a message. Many poems are short, and allow for a focused discussion on what moves we might borrow for own writing. And those moves, in a smaller piece, such as a poem, often seem more obvious, their impact often blatant. This makes poetry a rich mentor text source to mine.

What are other ways that you use poems as mentor texts? How else could we use this great poem? Are there poems you love to use that you want to share?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!


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