Delving into Deeper Meaning with Poetry & Dr. Seuss

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SWBAT objectively summarize and analyze poems and "Horton Hears a Who," supporting all interpretations with textual evidence through small group and individual practice.

Big Idea

Whitman launches a multi-generational "rap battle" of sorts, and Yertle the Turtle is unveiled as an allegorical Hitler…it’s a big day.

Lesson Overview

Last class period, students worked together to analyze some poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.  Today, they should be arriving with the independent practice portion of this assignment, which was to analyze another poem of their choice (from a list) and articulate imagery that helped them better understand the poem.  Today's lesson will build on several elements of yesterday's lesson, including reading a text multiple times for different meanings, employing different reading strategies, and using text-based examples to defend their interpretations of the deeper meaning of text.  The second half of today's lesson will also become a precursor to our two-lesson study of allegory.


20 minutes

Students were able to choose their own poem for independent analysis homework, so I will make sure that I know which students tackled the following poems by asking them to sit in designated areas of the classroom.  It is VERY possible that not all poems will be chosen by students (though it is also a pretty good assumption that the shortest poem will be analyzed the MOST), but that is absolutely fine.  This poem can be analyzed as a group warm-up or as more practice for students who demonstrate uncertainty with these skills.  The poems being explored are:


In order to separate students into groups quickly, I will ask students who forgot to complete the homework to raise their hands.  These students will be in their own group, and you may have to reassure them that for this activity, there is not a punishment for raising their hands at this time.  See the reflection in this section for more of my thoughts on the matter, but in short, this homework assignment (and subsequent discussion) is being used formatively to assess my students' skills and reteach them concepts with which they struggled.  If I do not separate out the ones who simply did not attempt the homework, it would be much more difficult to evaluate the class progress toward mastering these skills, since I would be unsure of why students couldn't demonstrate their understanding.  After these students are separated, each corner of the room will be designated as a meeting spot for students who analyzed that specific poem.  While they get together to share their understanding of the text, I will briefly touch base with my unprepared students to learn more about why they did not complete their homework and inform them that they will be my "all-stars" to redeem themselves through our upcoming reading and analysis of the Whitman, Hughes, and de Hoyos poetry set.  They can still earn credit for their homework by completing this alternate assignment orally for the class (and writing up their process in the same way that other students did for the other poems by the end of the period).  

Next, groups will take turns presenting their poem.  In cases of very small groups of 1-2, I will help them where needed or "volunteer" one of my "all-stars" to take on some of the group's jobs (like reading the poem out loud, etc.).  For each poem, groups will have to complete the following process for their classmates:

  1. Read the poem aloud, ensuring that they read straight through the ends of lines without punctuation and appropriately pausing at punctuation marks like commas, dashes, and periods.
  2. Provide an objective summary of the piece, stanza-by-stanza.
  3. Describe what they envisioned for a "poetry video," which is the idea I use to encourage students to tune into their mental imagery of written work, much like music videos do for song lyrics.  
  4. Connect the specific words or phrases the author used with the images described in the "poetry video" explanation.  (For example, when I read "The Soul Selects Her Own Society," I always see a woman locked away in a Cindarella-esque tower somewhere with a white flowing dress and her nose up in the air as gleaming Ben-Hur chariots ride by her stone wall and gate.  This crazy "poetry video" image comes from several factors, but primarily the phrases "shuts the door" (which reminds me of Cinderella's stepmother slamming and locking her in the tower), "unmoved" (which almost always looks like a nose up in the air, but I think the dress came from Dickinson's biography), and "chariots" (which simply must conjure Ben-Hur in my mind, though I logically know there are many kinds).  Students do not have to proactively explain every little detail, but if they are not forthcoming about the evidence that led them to the "poetry video" (or if they say something REALLY intriguing and fresh!), I will ask them to better explain their evidence.  Students should also be able to give age-appropriate tone and mood words to describe the poem and their associated "poetry video."  I outlaw pretty much all tone or mood words fewer than six letters, which gets rid of most of the truly horrific overused emotion words!  
  5. Explain and give evidence for any "deeper meaning" of the poem from symbols, imagery, etc., and articulate and support a theme.  When students present their information, I will also ask them how the poem in question connects to their poet's other poems, themes, and styles.  This is a great time to look at how different authors treat similar themes in their works, which is a component of the Common Core.
  6. Connect the poem to other literature in its genre of Romanticism, paying special attention to providing evidence from the poems and notes on the time period to argue and support a clear connection.


While students give group presentations, my main focus is to make sure that they have addressed all questions, all group members have participated, and textual evidence is provided to support all statements.  Areas of weakness may present themselves that need to be retaught, and the next activity will be focused around any of those areas that need more work.  Also, my "all-star" group will need to participate in the next section of the skill review to demonstrate their mastery of the material.   


Building Knowledge

50 minutes

Reteach & Extended Practice with Whitman, Hughes, & de Hoyos Poetry Trio (35 minutes)

Our second activity for the day will serve as a practice for skills illuminated as areas of weakness in the first section.  In order to make the activity more valuable for all students and better aligned to the Common Core, the selection of poems also feature a common theme exploring what it means to be "American."  We will be exploring the Walt Whitman poem, "I Hear America Singing," first.  Then, we will explore and connect two response poems, Langston Hughes's "I, Too" and Angela de Hoyos's "To Walt Whitman."  

"I Hear America Singing" Reading & Discussion

  1. Students will read the poem aloud in a collaborative, unique way (that also happens to mirror the theme that many individuals make up America) by going around the room with each student reading the poem up until the next punctuation mark before allowing the next student to pick up where they left off.  For example, the first student in a row would read "I hear America singing," and then next would read, "the varied carols I hear," and the next, "Those of mechanics," and the next, "each one singing as it should be blithe and strong," and so on.  There will be 23 readers in this manner, which is awesome for getting students to participate.  Additionally, each student gets rather vested in their line, so it makes it easier for them to notice what professions or people get more or less attention from Whitman.  It also emphasizes the benefit of reading through lines (and pausing only at punctuation) with regards to poetry comprehension.
  2. Once the poem has been read, I will ask students to draw connections between the types of professions Whitman lists.  They will point out that they are all labor-intensive jobs of the middle class.  I also usually tend to point out that they are all professions that I could totally see having a "whistle while you work" attitude on the job, as I have known many of these types of workers, who often have a propensity for whistling with a nubby pencil tucked behind their ears while at work.
  3. I will also inquire if any professions were left out or shorted.  Students will explain that women only had two lines of "contributions" to America, both domestic, and that other white collar jobs aren't really listed.  We will discuss why students feel Whitman would do this and what it says about American ideals at the time, and we will compare and contrast that view with how modern America might define itself.
  4. For a final piece of our discussion, I will ask students what kind of images were going through their heads while they read the poem.  They will use textual evidence to support their reasoning and include an overall tone and mood of the mental "video" as well.  Here, students will have to account for all sections of the poem, including the last three lines, which will likely move the discussion to a "work hard, play hard" theme. 

After we finish our discussion, I will ask students to consider why two future poets may have written response poems to Whitman's ideas of America.  Students will usually explain ideas that we have already somewhat addressed in discussion, like that women were largely excluded and non-blue collar professions were dismissed, but they do not always recognize that African Americans and Native Americans were also entirely dismissed from Whitman's views.  To help them discover this, I will refer them to their historical context notes (which discuss that a primary focus of literature during this time was on the "social ills" of inequality) and allow them to preview "I, Too" and "To Walt Whitman."  Upon examination of these poems, they will be able to identify possible motivations for these authors.  

At this point, I like to take a pause in poetry analysis to solicit ideas from students about the purpose of writing a response poem to an original poem that was written 50 or 100 years earlier.  This lends a great opportunity to discuss the power of literature and the common themes in literature throughout time.  Some students may also recognize Whitman as a titan of poetry or recall that he is widely known as the "Bard of Democracy," making him an ideal target for later poets wishing to comment on the state of democracy.  In order to help them flesh out some of these ideas better with evidence in a different media, I will show them the following short video clip and ask that they note specific details to enhance this claim.  

After the video, students will share the evidence they collected to strengthen their claims to explain why Hughes and de Hoyos would choose to target Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" with their own poetry.  Students usually have no troubles pointing out these reasons, and they are entertainingly familiar with the concept of responding to the ideas of "the greats" from rap battles.  I love to run with this analogy when it is student-generated!

Once students have fully supported their arguments, they will read "I, Too" and "To Walt Whitman" aloud as a whole class.  Since they are short, students have likely already read and processed the information, so discussion will be much quicker than you might expect!  During discussion of these works, I will ask students the following questions for each work:

  1. Provide an objective summary for each stanza.
  2. What does your "poetry video" look like for this poem?  Why?  Use evidence to support your interpretation.
  3. How would you characterize the author's tone?  What specific words give you that impression?  How does it compare/contrast with the other response poem?
  4. If you didn't know that this was a response to Walt Whitman's poem from the title or discussion, is there any way you could have connected it as a reader?  Any allusions to that text?  
  5. What was the theme of the poem?
  6. Was the author's theme supported by the decision to make the poem a response to Walt Whitman's poem?  Explain.
  7. Do you feel that either author was more successful in their purpose?  Why or why not?


To transition to the next section of the lesson, I will congratulate students on successfully applying their critical reading skills with this poetry.  Students don't always LOVE poetry, but they really do exceptionally well with understanding and getting involved in this activity.  Especially when you relate Whitman to Dickinson, they tend to be happy to move on!  I will frame the next section of the lesson around the promise that continued participation would lead to their ultimate reward--Dr. Seuss.  I love the fact that this will instantly gain student attention while ultimately helping MY goal, which is to scaffold their skills with allegory up to the high-level text that the Common Core requires.  I had such success with this technique during my Shel Silverstein lesson that I decided to try it again with my difficult lesson on allegory.  

Reviewing & Recognizing Allegory in Text (15 minutes)

In order to get to the promised Dr. Seuss level, students need to review a basic understanding of the following terms, which they will add to their Unit 2 Notes.  The text below is student-generated from class discussion.  I simply wrote the three terms on the board and had students guide me to a collaborative definition. 

  1. Allegory: whole story that uses symbols for EVERYTHING to teach a moral lesson
  2. Parable: fable; a story that teaches a moral lesson
  3. Symbolism: uses symbols (things that represent other things) to add meaning to text 

After clearly defining the words, it is important that students get an idea of how these elements are related, yet very distinct from one another.  To do this, I will ask students the following questions:

  1. So let's start with some examples.  The flag is a symbol, right?  What does the flag symbolize?  (Students will respond something akin to "America" or "freedom," typically.)
  2. Okay, so the flag overall functions as a symbol for America or freedom.  Are there any symbols within the flag that get you to that overall larger symbol?  (Students will *horrifyingly* likely only have a vague understanding of what the colors and numbers of the elements of the flag represent.  With outside support from Google searches, students come to the understanding that the stripes stand for the 13 original colonies, the stars for the 50 states, the red for "hardiness and valor," the white for "purity and innocence," and the blue "vigilance, perseverance, and justice.")
  3. If we saw these colors or numbers in another medium or format, would the symbolic meaning remain the same?  (Students will explain that they may or may not, but typically the white color would remain the most consistent.)
  4. Let's move on to something tougher.  Can someone give me an example of a parable?  (Students may draw on parables like "The Tortoise and the Hare," or they may need guidance.  Many students might know the term more on a religious level, which could also work for examples.)
  5. Okay, so how is a parable different than an allegory?  They both teach moral lessons, so I don't get it.  Explain.  (Students may be stumped on this question, but don't worry!  Let them try to make their own connections or analogies for a few moments.)
  6. Well, let's say we wanted "The Tortoise and the Hare" to be an allegory.  If it WERE, in fact, an allegory, what would that mean?  (Students will explain that it would mean that everything was a symbol in the story.  For example, the tortoise would stand for something, the race would represent something else, etc., in such a way that they were all related to a larger symbolic lesson.)
  7. Great.  Can you think of any examples of allegories then?  Like where you might have a wonderful story with lessons in it, but if you looked deeper, you might find some larger symbol?  (Explore student examples.  If they have none, try hosting a discussion using any of the Chronicles of Narnia series, which is highly allegorical.  Students tend to quickly get the idea once tangible examples are given to them for their brains to start processing!)
  8. Can you think of any other examples?  (Allow time to discuss more, if needed.)
  9. Would it surprise you if I told you Dr. Seuss was almost like the king of allegorical stories?  Or that Yertle the Turtle was based on Hitler?  (Silently chuckle to yourself that the students are staring at you in disbelief.)

To prepare for the next portion of the lesson, I will then skim through "15 Things You Didn't Know About Dr. Seuss", sharing my favorite facts about him that might astonish students.  My goal here is to get them questioning everything they read as a critical reader, so I think starting with such a familiar face is perfect for this task!  During this sharing moment, I will also ready the brief video students will be watching to practice their allegorical analysis skills. 


15 minutes

Students will download a copy of the "Allegorical Process Sheet" from my website.  This document will help students use the text and a clear methodology to explore possible allegorical meaning.  In the past, I have just asked students to take informed guesses at allegorical meaning, but I have found that students often get frustrated and give up on themselves before they settle on a meaning.  This might result in incomplete homework, but more often it results in a Googled answer for my classes since they all have Chromebooks!  To deter this kind of short-sighted "solution," I developed this document to break down a complex task into specific, small steps that would aid in determining a deeper meaning.  It also helps students to collect the text-based information they will ultimately need to support their analysis of the material.  

After students download their copy, we will discuss the process of determining an allegory and the requirements of the handout.  Then, I will start screening "Horton Hears a Who" while students use the Allegorical Process Sheet to track the information presented in the film.  Students are fairly familiar with this text, so they are able to focus more on pulling out details and considering meaning than they may be with a story that is less familiar to them.  We will not complete watching the entire 15-minute reading of the story, though this is actually helpful since it will allow time for students to ask questions before completing their work.

I will point out that the video linked for Horton does contain a few errors with words like their/there/they're.  This drives me personally insane, however, I like the way it is narrated.  Additionally, if students see the errors and comment on them, it makes a really great point that people really DO notice poor ELA skills!  


5 minutes

In the final few minutes of class, I will stop the video and allow students to ask questions about requirements for the "Allegorical Process Sheet."  I will also clarify any directions that students seemed to be missing based on my observation of students during the video.  Finally, I will encourage students to truly invest in the process and take a risk with interpretation, provided it is well-supported by character traits, plot, and other textual evidence.  This assignment can be scary for students, who LOVE to have the "right" answer all the time, but I want to stress that a well-supported answer that accounts for all of the evidence is the "right" answer.  We watched a video clip earlier in the year from John Green discussing the importance of the reader in the analysis process, and I will reinforce that here.  I also articulate that students may NOT Google the story to find out what it is allegorically about.  I stress that their evidence and progression through the process on the process sheet is what will earn them credit--not what Google says.  

Next Steps

For homework, students need to complete watching "Horton Hears a Who" while filling out the "Allegorical Process Sheet."  As discussed in class, the genuine engagement in thought (and documentation of that thought) is what is most important with this assignment.  Next time we will be scaffolding up to an age-appropriate text, "The Minister's Black Veil," which has proven challenging in the past.  A genuine experience with a set process and a lower-level text will help students develop the confidence and fortitude necessary to excel next time!