“Knots on a Counting Rope” is a narrative poem by Bill Martin, Jr. (Perfection Learning, Reprint edition, 1997). It is a wonderful example of a poem for two voices and is available for listening on Storyline Online. My primary reason for choosing this selection for sixth graders is the imagery. The author paints a vivid picture in words in this metaphor of the passage of time and also presents a young boy’s acceptance of his blindness, which is not revealed to the reader until the end of the story. Accompanying the story is the artwork of Ted Rand. The watercolors capture the beauty of the Southwest region and the poignant relationship of the young Indian boy and his grandfather. You may choose whether or not to have students view the book as they listen to the story. While listening, students jot down words and phrases the author uses that appeal to the senses. After the reading, we discuss their notes and the mood that they set. The students determine that the loving bond between the boy and his grandfather comes across in their distinctive voices and the natural flow of the storytelling as it changes from one to the other.
This activity serves as a demonstration of the power of word choice to draw a reader into the world the poet creates. Next, we move on to a poem that challenges students to discover its meaning.
In this section, students work with a partner. Having someone to talk to gives students a chance work their way through a challenging topic or activity without the high stakes risk taking that is often needed to participate in a large group discussion.
As long as you carefully partner the students, it keeps everyone on task and engaged. With this as my goal, I pass out the worksheet with the poem “Words” by Pauli Murray. We review the directions and read the poem together. Then I let students work their way through the five bullet points in the Work with a Partner section and only offer a few pointers here and there. (Yes, it is okay to use a dictionary. No, it is not okay to look up the poem on the web in search of someone else’s interpretation of the poem).
No matter what we read, students know they are to leave a trail by marking it up with their thinking, so that is what we do:
After all is said and done, we come to the conclusion that this poem is a warning. The words we hold inside are as important as, or maybe even more important than, those we do say. Sometimes we hold in what is most important.