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Note from Miriam: During Fall 2018, I am sharing the “Real Teaching” blog with colleagues from around the country who will be sharing what works in their writing classrooms.
Guest blogger Melissa Adamo is currently the College Liaison for the Dodge Poetry Festival and an Adjunct Instructor at Montclair State University and Rutgers University-Newark. She primarily teaches composition courses at both institutions but has also taught creative writing and literature courses at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Readers can connect with her on Twitter Melissa Adamo (@mel_adamo) | Twitter .
Students often come into second-level composition or literature courses describing poetry as hard to understand or too abstract. In high school, many students feel forced to “overanalyze” poems, leading to fears of finding “the right answer”; this seems only natural for those accustomed to standardized tests. My desire to reframe poetry as a topic of discussion rather than a place of correct answers led me to Twitter.
In creating this lesson plan, I took inspiration from the book 101 Exercises for the College Classroom in which Jacquelyn Ardam has students pare down a text to six words. My version of this assignment used Twitter, a platform with a 140-character limit. I asked students to Tweet a creative response to a poem and then present their Tweet to the class, supporting their choices by directly connecting the Tweet to lines in the poem.
I wanted to fulfill similar objectives from Ardam whose assignment built “close-reading skills” through examining the author’s style or diction “as deliberate” choices. I wanted to help further these skills as well as analytical thinking through writing, collaboration, and presentation. Another aim for the activity was to decenter my authority on the poem in order to promote more confidence in students.
First, I broke the class into small groups to select a poem from that day’s assigned reading. Next, I instructed them to re-read their poem together, breaking up its parts: What is it about? How is it structured? What effect is produced? What was your reaction to the poem?
I then asked students to create a Tweet based on their group’s understanding of the poem. Students could write as the speaker of the poem to highlight its message, as the author to directly comment on literary choices, or as readers to show their experience of the poem. They could also choose to compose as they actually would on such a platform, modernizing language from the poem or, if writing from the reader perspective, revealing their interpretation through slang. Here, students became the experts in the room, for example, defining what “af” or “savage” meant, thus giving them more agency over vocabulary in an academic setting.
Like most social media platforms, Twitter also uses multimodality through memes, GIFs, and emojis. I encouraged students to play with these modes to practice analytical reading skills, not only on traditional texts but also on visual texts. I also pushed them to see how much they can include in such a small space; because of Twitter’s character limit (currently at 280), students must pare down the text to avoid unnecessary summary and convey more information with less words. Although most Tweets look rather simplistic, the more layers added (e.g. hashtags, pictures, text), the more conversation a group can generate.
After each group created their Tweet, students would present it to the class. Presentation requirements included students explaining their text and images from the Tweet as well as how it directly connects to a line of the poem or the poet’s writing strategy. This presentation component required students to support claims and thus assessed their ability to communicate their reasoning.
After each group presented, the rest of the class was invited to ask the group questions about the Tweet. This larger discussion promoted an even more in-depth analysis of each poem. For example, in one group, students debated characteristics of a GIF’s subject and compared it to the poem’s speaker, drawing parallels between popular culture present in the image and the literary text assigned. Not all students saw connections between the image and poem at first, but in our collective conversation we all built toward it.
Such discussions allowed an opportunity for me to read and learn alongside my students. Because I don’t always know the reference nor do I know how the students will create their tweet, we are all on equal footing. It offered the chance to model that “good” readers do not simply know all the answers, but rather they are comfortable asking questions or reviewing a text together.
Bringing Twitter and its memes, GIFs, and hashtags into the classroom resulted in a class atmosphere that was inviting and playful, rather than inaccessible, meeting my original objective. Seeing the confidence this lesson helped build in students was key in the process of not only reframing their view on poetry but also furthering their critical reading skills. It even prompted students to analyze popular culture and visual media, which they often do not look at with a critical eye.
Changing such perspectives about reading and analysis could apply to more than just poetry, of course. I would be eager to try this with other texts in the composition classroom, hoping to find the same level of student engagement and analytical thinking.
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