But Poetry is Impossible to Understand!

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SWBAT use interactive note-taking to understand the meanings of poems.

Big Idea

Understanding poetry isn't easy, but it is possible and with practice can be extremely exciting!


5 minutes

In today's reading of Love That Dog, we will read several poems that Miss Stretchberry shares with the class and learn what Jack thinks about these poems.  I like combining the instruction of poetry with Love That Dog since the kids connect to it a bit more. Today we'll still focus on the big question of "How do readers interpret the meaning of a poem?" This is a question that can be answered on so many levels and truly takes some practice.  I decided to blend the standard that asks students to determine the meanings of words and phrases with determining the theme of a poem. We won't be explicitly teaching theme here, but figuring out what the author is trying to say is planting the seed for that skill.

I like to read aloud page 2 in the novel and I usually display this page. 

Could this describe how he feels about writing it AND reading it? Did you feel this way when we tried to figure out the meaning of our poems the other day? 

 I just like a brief discussion about his feelings to pull the kids in and help them connect.

Next we'll read page 3 and think about how Jack is feeling about this wheelbarrow poem or about poetry in general. Is Jack right? Can any words be poems?

Here are a few of my students responses.

I then use this as a way to ask them if they want to read the wheelbarrow poem. They all usually say yes because they want to see why Jack is so confused. 


20 minutes

Provide students with The Red Wheelbarrow.  My students really needs to see me modeling, so I will continue reading and thinking aloud today. When I set them free to annotate in the previous lesson, they read to the end of the poem and had nothing written. I really want my students to THINK while reading the poems and show proof of those thoughts whether right or wrong. 

I say:  I notice that there are 4 very short stanzas. Usually I like to stop at each stanza and think, but this seems like I may have to read a bit further. I also think it's cool that the author has three words in the first line of the stanza and one word in the second line. I wonder why he did that? So, I see that he says "so much depends up a red wheelbarrow" I'm going to stop there and just write why? Why does so much depend on a wheelbarrow? Who uses a wheelbarrow? Is this a farmer? a construction worker? Does his livelihood depend on the use of this wheelbarrow? I'll keep reading to see if my questions are answered. The rest of the poem just tells me the wheelbarrow is glazed with rain water beside some chickens. Since I know that poetry has something to do with how the poet was feeling, I have to think like the poet. I have this wheelbarrow, it has rained recently and so much depends on the wheelbarrow. I'm thinking maybe this man is a farmer and needs this wheelbarrow on his farm to get work done quickly. I know that we have machinery to do this today, so I feel like this poem was written a long time ago. I also think the author may have chosen these short simple lines to show me that something so small and simple can be so meaningful, just like the wheelbarrow. 

At this point the students usually ooh and ahh about how it cool it is to find that meaning. I just make sure to think and write along the way to model the way I discover the meaning.

Guided Practice

25 minutes

During guided practice, we'll pull in the poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. This is not a poem I would let my kids work with alone or in groups. I think they could get the literal meaning, but I don't know that they would push themselves to think any deeper. Especially being so close the start of the unit.  I'll let the kids help me do the thinking with this poem. We'll read and annotate together as we work through it. There are many interpretations to this poems, so you can decide how deep you want to go with it. I first want to work through the basic understanding of what is happening in the poem. The stanzas themselves are not hard to understand; the writing is pretty straightforward, so I just want to be sure I read through each stanza, get the kids' views about what might be happening, write that down and discuss. The kids could even read a stanza in groups or independently and then come together as a group to discuss, model, and ask questions to slowly hand off that responsibility. 

Once we've worked our way through the basic top layer of the poem, I'm hoping that students are at the point that they expect there to be a deeper meaning. If they don't come to that conclusion themselves, you could say something like,  Now I know that poetry usually has this top layer of meaning and then a deeper more thoughtful layer underneath. I know Billy Collins doesn't want me to "tie the poem up and torture a confession out of it," but I am eager and curious to know what Robert Frost was trying to get at here. Was he just chilling in the woods, telling us about what he saw? The part that is really bugging me is that he said "Miles to go before I sleep" twice at the end. That makes me feel like there may be some importance to that. Then I started thinking whose woods are these? Why does "he" live in the village, but have these woods? Sometimes in poetry the words "dark and deep" can symbolize death. Is there anyway I can know for sure what Robert Frost was thinking? What inferences can I make?  Think through all of these questions and your own. Discuss students' feelings and ideas. After a good discussion of possibilities, I usually google the analysis for the kids so they can see what others have thought, but this isn't necessary. 

After this discussion, just give students some time to reflect and write about these two questions: What do YOU think this poem means? Can you understand how Jack was feeling when he read the poem?  Give students a few minutes to complete this processing and then have them share their thoughts.