Walking through a Poetry Gallery

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April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.

This week's guest blogger is Krysten Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Roane State Community College

In an effort to use more collaborative learning activities in my classroom, I have redesigned much of my Composition II course.  The poetry unit has benefited the most from these new classroom activities because so many students are baffled by poetry, even if they find certain lines beautiful.  It’s weird!  How do you even read it?  Why does it look like that?  I’m so confused!  If you’ve ever heard those cries of frustration, then you, too, know that most students wouldn’t pick poetry as their favorite part of English class.  Now that my classes are working on their poetry paper, I’m hearing less of “I have no idea what to do!” and more of “This was easier than I thought,” which suggests that the in-class activities have made an impact.  Most recently, my students spent a day “walking through” six different poems in our Poetry Gallery: 

  •   "Oxygen" by Mary Oliver
  • "The Lungs" by Alice Jones
  • "Home-Baked Bread" by Sally Croft
  • "The Joy of Cooking" by Elaine Magarrell
  • "The Author to Her Book" by Anne Bradstreet
  • "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur.

The concept of a “gallery” in a writing classroom isn’t new: almost any assignment can be modified to accommodate different “viewers,” who walk around the classroom, stopping to look at a paragraph, a paper, an image, or a poem, in this case, and leave comments on or next to it.  It’s a good way to get students out of their seats, which helps shake-up the regular classroom routine, but it also gets them to think about (and write about) lots of new ideas, all in the span of one class period.

For this activity, I recommend using four to six poems.  (I used six, but having fewer would have allowed more time at the end of class to discuss them.)  Print them out, and tape them around your classroom.  Tape two or three sheets of paper next to each poem, so students have a place to leave their comments. 

To organize students, I used a random number generator app and then put them in six groups, enough to match the number of poems we used.  Each group had two to three people, so it would be easier to have discussions about each poem.  The groups came up with team names that they used to distinguish their answers on each piece of paper.  They also took turns writing down their responses.

To begin, each group was assigned a poem as a starting point.  After five minutes or so, or once everyone was finished, they rotated clockwise.  I put questions on the overhead projector, and groups used these to form their responses to each poem:

The poem’s meaning:

  1. What is the poem about when you read it for pleasure?
  2. What is it about when you read it for meaning?

The poem’s language:

  1. What’s an unfamiliar word that your group would have to look up? If you know every word in the poem, what’s one word that seems important to the poem’s tone, theme, or meaning?
  2. What’s your group’s favorite phrase? What makes it beautiful, strange, or interesting?

Once everyone had read and responded to each poem, the rotation brought them back to their starting point.  The groups looked over all the notes everyone had left and then circled their favorite responses to each question.  Each group had a chance to discuss their poem, but everyone was welcome to offer up their own interpretation.

I selected the six poems based on a shared theme (breathing, food, and writing) with another poem on the list, so students could begin making comparisons and thinking about how each poet treated a similar subject.  Interestingly enough, one student observed that each of the six poems, to her at least, seemed to be about our souls: What do we need?  What hurts us?  What fulfills us?  Her comment sparked a class-wide discussion, in which other students began pointing out subtle references and examples they hadn’t otherwise thought of, such as Alice Jones’s nod to the spiritual nature inherent in breathing, thanks to the word “transubstantiation.

All in all, this interactive, discussion-based activity worked well to conclude our readings for the poetry unit.  As my students have begun working on their close-reading of a poem, I have noticed that many of them have selected the poems we spent time discussing and analyzing in class, even if they initially thought one of them didn’t make sense, like “The Joy of Cooking.”  Contrary to previous semesters, this group of students seems to enjoy the puzzle-solving nature of poetry, which gives me encouragement to keep finding new ways for them to interact with this baffling, beautiful literary form.