Weaving Word Webs: Poetic Techniques

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SWBAT analyze and discuss common poetic elements in "A Noiseless, Patient Spider" in preparation for analyzing their self-selected poems.

Big Idea

Guiding students in a discussion of common poetic techniques in a teacher-selected poem assists students in analyzing poems they select.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Context and Time Frame

As part of the unit on Poetry and Informational texts, I present a two-day lesson on poetic techniques. I break the lesson into two days so that students ca process the information and not get bogged down in lecture notes. 

The lesson follows the following procedure:

  • Watch and discuss "Why We Read Literature" from Crash Course,
  • Presentation of poetic techniques and "A Noiseless, Patient Spider" via a Prezi presentation in which students: 1. Take notes on terms, 2. Discuss images illustrating the terms, 3. Discuss the terms in relation to "A Noiseless, Patient Spider."
  • Annotate the poems they have selected based on the poetic devices presented in the prezi. 

On Day 1: 

  • Watch and discuss the Crash Course video,
  • Take notes on half the terms.

On Day 2:

  • Complete note-taking on the terms,
  • Annotate their own poems.

Warm-Up: "How and Why We Read Literature," A Crash Course John Green Video

15 minutes

John Green has a gift for getting students to listen to what English teachers say: Literature helps us be better people by creating empathy for others through the characters and situations we encounter in stories and in poetry. That's why I like to show students this Crash Course video, especially when the lesson challenges them to stretch their cognitive skills. 

After listening to the video, we discussed the ideas that stood out to students. Among those my students mentioned:


"To learn."

"Author not important."

"Makes sense of things."


I also asked what else literature does for our relationships with one another: "Literature gives us a way to do what with one another according to John Green?"

"Communicate" is the answer one student gave and the one I had hoped to hear.


Prezi Presentation: Poetic Techniques

30 minutes

So what does the John Green video have to do with the lesson about poetic techniques? Simply, the poet communicates ideas through the structure and diction of a poem. An allusion, for example, takes us to another time, another place, another work of literature. These techniques, as we've discussed in class, can help us express ideas in an essay, too. The poet and the essayist often have similar themes but different modes of expression.

To help students visualize the content of today's lesson, I created a Prezi based on poetic techniques in Walt Whitman's "A Noiseless, Patient Spider."  

The material in this Prezi is basic poetic techniques students need to know so that they can use the knowledge to assist them in their analysis of the poems they chose earlier. I don't include meter because I'm not concerned with metrical analysis. I'm more concerned with close reading that leads to student understanding of the speaker's ideas and how students respond to these. 

I spent time in two class periods on this lesson because students need time to process information. Long lectures, even those focused on discussion, can become tedious. Building stamina takes time, and devoting two class periods to the lesson reaps better student responses than attempting to include all the information in one lesson. 

To present the information, I used the metaphor of weaving a web of words. I think the Prezi template, the metaphor I chose, and the Walt Whitman poem work together to reinforce the lesson concepts and emphasis on close reading. 

I presented the poetic techniques in the order on the Prezi, but during the discussion, I continually diverted student attention to the Whitman poem, which I read before beginning the review of techniques. 

I gave the students an essential question: How do poetic devices help us understand the poem's big ideas? "This is what I want you to consider as we talk about 'A Noiseless, Patient Spider' and as you annotate your poem."

I told students I wanted them to think about Whitman's use of poetic devices and to take notes on them as we discussed them. I then read the poem very slowly. As I read, I pointed at punctuation and lines. Because the poem is difficult, I asked the students a couple of questions: 

1. "What's the first stanza about?" Students easily named the "spider" as the speaker's topic.

2. "What's the second stanza about?" This was harder for students. One said, "standing." I responded, "Okay, you're close. Think about who or what stands." Another student then said, "soul." I said, "Yes, it's about someone's soul."

Next, I backtracked to the "Imagery" frame of the Prezi. I like to begin w/ imagery because it's the easiest poetic technique for students to understand and because their ability to analyze imagery assists their understanding of other techniques. This scaffolding of least to most difficult techniques is important as it plays to how students learn. 

The image is one I took at the Golden Gate Bridge. I led students in a discussion of what sensory images the picture evokes. At first they hesitated. I asked how many had been to the bridge. Only three had been, which surprised me. I told students that pedestrians can walk across the bridge and asked them what they'd hear while crossing on foot. That simple prompt worked as they mentioned "traffic" and "the wind" and "people walking and talking." We talked about each type of imagery in this way. 

I combined metaphor and simile because their functions are so similar, and since I'm not interested in labeling them for the sake of labeling but for understanding the poem's big ideas. The image of a path is a common metaphor for life. When I discuss metaphors and similes w/ students, I find it helpful to write a formula for the comparison on the board: __________ is compared to ____________. This seems to help students see and analyze the metaphors. Put another way: _________ is ________ for metaphor and for simile: ________ is like _____________ or __________ is as ___________. 

What better way to show personification than with an image that personifies man's best friend? I took the photo of the dog in sunglasses in Napa. Several times students asked if the dog is a real dog! 

Onomatopoeia is represented by "cascading falls" in Yosemite National Park. For this concept as with the others, I intentionally omitted examples from the Prezi. I made this omission intentionally. Rather than focusing on simply copying notes, I wanted students to analyze the images as they relate to the concepts and do the same with the Whitman poem and their self-selected poem.

Allusion is a very difficult concept as understanding it requires prior knowledge and the ability to connect that prior knowledge to another text. Additionally, allusions can be subtle references, either an image or paraphrase or line from a text. The image of the street sign at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco offers an opportunity to discuss these ideas w/ students. I tell students that one way to begin identifying allusions is to pay close attention to proper nouns. 

I love hyperbole. I use it all the time, which is why the image in the Prezi is so appropriate. Frequently, I'll use hyperbole in class (as well as other lit techniques) and then explain it to students in context. Although on the surface hyperbole appears easy, in the context of poetry it can be challenging, which is why I placed it late in the Prezi. 

Alliteration generally is taught in high school as "repetition of initial consonant sounds." However, the definition in the Prezi utilizes the one typically used in the academy. For example, the epic poem Beowulf uses alliterative techniques, both vowel sounds and consonant sounds, as a formulaic device. The title The One and Only Ivan allowed me to discuss this with students.

Repetition, like alliteration seems easy enough to identify, but making the distinction between repetition used to create emphasis and rhythm in a poem requires superior analysis. The questions, "What does the repetition do in terms of the poem's meaning?" or "How does the repetition in the poem work?" or "What's the effect of the repetition?" challenge students. I asked students to read the poem w/out the repetition and compare the effect. 



Discussing and Analyzing "A Noiseless, Patient, Spider" by Walt Whitman

30 minutes

In the previous section, I mentioned that I alternated between the Prezi notes and the Walt Whitman poem, which I include below for the purpose of this narrative. 

"A Noiseless, Patient Spider" by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.


And you O my soul where you stand, Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. - 


First, students identified images: 

Sound: "noiseless" was one student's response. That led to me asking students what sound, if any, Whitman mentions in the second stanza. Their silence allowed me to suggest that their absence of a response is significant. They are not use to looking for omissions in the text, and the speaker's omission of sound in the second stanza evokes silence. This allowed me to ask students what's common in both stanzas. 

Sight: Students noticed the spider and the soul are alone. They mentioned the words isolated, vacant vast, and measureless oceans of space. I asked students if they ever felt alone, even when with others. All nodded. This is something John Green mentions in his discussion of the green light in The Great Gatsby.

Students also mentioned promontory and we talked about the word's meaning. They also mentioned filament, although they had difficulty w/ this concept. I asked them to look at the Prezi background, and I used my hand to show a thrusting motion suggesting throwing out filaments. They also mentioned bridge, which led to a discussion of the Golden Gate Bridge and the way bridges can be literal as well as metaphorical.

Importantly, with a little prompting, students noticed that the speaker in the second stanza stands alone. 

We talked about taste, touch, and smell, too, but they are insignificant compared to sight and sound in the poem.

Metaphor and simile followed nicely from the imagery discussion. I told the class that the first and second stanzas make a comparison using a metaphor. This is where I put the note on the board that I mentioned in the previous section: ___________ is compared to ____________. Teacher Notes Metaphor IMG_1410.jpgOnce a student identified the spider as the first part of the comparison, I asked them what the spider is compared to in the second stanza. They got it on the second try. 

Not all the poetic techniques are relevant to the poem. The point is for students to have an awareness and to notice the details. Naming these techniques empowers students. 

We combined our discussion of alliteration and repetition because they work together in the poem. It's at this point I asked students to read the poem w/out the repetition of filament. On cue, they identified the repetition in both stanzas as being for emphasis, but they struggled w/ the "why" of the repetition. Ultimately, I asked students if they have ever struggled with a task over and over. They nodded and said, "yes" in unison. I explained that this is the way life is. Sometimes we are alone and must repeat our efforts over and over, just as the spider continuously spins a web. 

The class needed much scaffolding before arriving at a cursory understanding of the poem, but I'm confident this work will translate into their understanding of their poems. 



Annotating and Text Coding Student-Selected Poems

30 minutes

As I mentioned earlier, I asked students to annotate and text code their poems as we discussed the poetic devices. I did this so that the concepts were fresh in their minds both from defining and considering the terms based on the Prezi images and discussing the terms based on the Whitman poem. The student examples show the result of two students' annotations using this method. Student annotation of "Summer at North Farm"IMG_1412.jpg