Day 1: Being Present with a Poem

To know what’s present in poems, one must be present with the language of poems. This is what they’re learning how to do.

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This is one of my favorite months of the year, the month when my three other colleagues and I introduce a modified version of the Academy of American Poets unit plan, “Noticing Poetry” with all 108 of our students, the month when students begin to understand what it means to notice poems for what they are — the art of language itself.

This post was written about Day 1, January 10, 2019, the first day of the Noticing Poetry unit, during which students explored Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

I start off class asking students to read the first slide of the PowerPoint in their cheesiest infomercial voice imaginable. One student, two students, three students, each take turns at one sentence after another. “I really need to make this into a real infomercial video,” I say. A number of students love this idea — a cheesy infomercial for a method to read poetry. They know me, and it very well may happen before the academic year is over, with their help, of course. So stay tuned! 🙂

After this levity and one particularly talented student reading, I explain the concept of looking at levels, only four things in any poem they come across: ideas, images, sounds, visuals (typography).

I pass out the iNotice cards, and ask them play “nose goes” to determine who the speaker for their level groups will be — one group, the Ideational one, is down to two boys who don’t quite understand the game.

“Okay, hands on the table, you two,” I say. “Ready? Don’t injure yourself… first one to touch their nose is exempt. Get set…. go!”

It’s clear who the loser is, the boy who was the most prepared, the one who thought he had his pal beat. After a good laugh and some redirection, I raise my hand for their attention.

“Look for as many instances of these things as you can,” I say. “It’s about volume. Quantity right now over quality. How much do you notice?” Then they go off into their group work.

Ideational Level Card


I walk over to the Ideational group. “Remember, start with the title; what is it that you know?” I ask. “Write this down next to the title. Then go through each phrase or clause, asking, ‘What do I know now?’ Your job is only to look at what is there, to notice what it literally states.”

I leave them, checking in on each of the other groups.

Visual/Typographical Level Card

The Visual/Typography group has two students in it. “You’re small, but mighty,” I say. “How does the poem look on the page? Leave no visual aspect unturned! Everything on the card and that you notice in the poem counts! It’s about the amount you notice!” The poem is a small one, and as two quieter students, they are quite happy to work diligently together.

Sonic Level Card

Noticing some silence from a usually spirited trio of boys, I head to the back of the room. Making a techno-club sound in the back of my throat to get their attention, I shift over to where the three boys slouch in their chairs staring ahead at the words in front of them. “You’re the Sonic level; remember your job is to find as many sounds as you can! How many so far?”

“Two,” says one boy.

“Two?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.”

“Hmm. Look again, please. Read it out loud. Go ahead. Any repetition of sound.” He begins reading aloud. Another boy from his group mouths “black bough. Alliteration.”

Score! I think.

“Keep going! Notice more!” I say.

As I walk away, the third boy adds, “What about wet and petals?”

I smile.

Sensory Level Card

Lastly, I go to my Sensory level group, the images/”word pictures” group. I’m expecting them to have many, many images. They’re doing well, noticing at least five images. Still, some of the images are lumped together.

“Remember, each picture counts,” I say. “Each and every image, even if it conveys a slightly different sense should be counted separately.”

I give them all a few more minutes, and it becomes clear from the chattering about events unrelated to the poem that they’re winding down. I pass out the “iNotice Poem Level Meters.”

“Okay, now we’re going to see just how much have you noticed,” I say. “Let’s start with the Ideational Level. What did you find?” Each speaker (a.k.a. loser of the “nose goes” game) tells me, and I write their responses on the board, on an “iNotice Poem Level Meter” I’ve projected. Other groups can add or question as we go, and we collaboratively fill in one master chart from the bottom up with their “noticings”:

What results is a kind of boombox spectrum analyzer of the poem’s levels of language (see below). They then accurately identify that the Sensory level, images dominate this little poem by Ezra Pound.

“Now, what connections do you see across levels?” I ask them. “Describe what’s connected and how different details connect to the ideas.”

I draw the connections they describe, and as they start talking about what they notice, I listen. Anytime someone says, “It could be,” or “maybe”, or “perhaps”, or approaches “being deep,” I redirect.

“Remember, just focus on what’s there. What relates to one another?” After making several connections, then it’s time to ask a new kind of question.

I ask, “Well, who cares about what’s there? What do you have to say about what we just did?”

Whatever meaning-making occurs from here on out, occurs organically and is rooted in the language of the page. One student says that the colon acts a as connecting device between the two ideas present in the poem. Another student comments on how the poem is not just pretty but a little sad in places, moving from an image that isn’t very pleasing to one that is more so.

While I want to do more with this poem, to lead them through it, I know that if I do, I’ll kill whatever has occurred organically. Some students will feel less competent if we reduce this experience to “look to the teacher.” I want them to feel competent in their abilities, that they (or anyone) can notice what is present in poems. To know what’s present in poems, one must be present with the language of poems. This is what they’re learning how to do.

They are beginning their journey as readers of poetry; they are noticing language and are beginning to make connections that are interesting and surprising. And they are all rooted in the language itself to do so.

The majority leave happy. I leave happy. A successful day one.

I walk out of my room into the hallway, energized by the learning that’s taken place, by their recent immersion in a small, beautiful poem on their own terms. I know this is setting them up for more of this good stuff of poetry that is to come. I know they’ll advance to larger and more complex poems. I know that we’ll have to get to analysis and all the ways one must learn to write about literature. However, today they slowed down and noticed what was there. Today they felt what it was like to really be present with poetry.

Poetry Blogging

Reflecting back on 2018, I can’t help but also reflect on my writing, its highs and lows, and its associated writerly events/activities. I was fortunate to participate in the Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival for the second time in the past three years, but as far as other events/ activities, my teaching life has kept my writing life at bay. However, no longer! I remain optimistic and committed to a more productive writing life in 2019!

To that end, I’ll be blogging twice a month here as part of the Poetry Blogging Network, set up by Kelli Russell Agodon over at https://ofkells.blogspot.com/. You should check out the list of Poetry Bloggers she already has lined up — a truly amazing list of talented writers!

Onward into 2019, and if you’re already there, I’ll be there soon!

Don’t have “time to write?” Check this out!

Spend a few minutes listening to this podcast about CAConrad’s self-created rituals. While some are bizarre, I completely agree that just “getting up early” will not help you commit to writing. You need to integrate it into your life, and what better way than to “ritualize” the act?

While it’s on my Twitter feed at right, you can also check it out here:

You can check out Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology where both CA and I appear here:

http://www.minorarcanapress.com/catalog/arcana-the-tarot-poetry-anthology

Share a Kindness Calendar

Let’s face it: this time of year can be stressful for many in education and many people in general. While the holidays can be joyous, they are also preceded by assessments, exams, and a general frenzy that drains many. I came across this little calendar shared by a relative, and I want to share it with you, just in case you want to give it a try. It’s a kind of December Kindness Challenge, if you will:

kindness caledar

U.S. Poet Laureate & Noticing Poetry

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How happy I was to recently come across The Library of Congress Magazine‘s back to school issue and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s piece “How Do I Read a Poem?” What struck me was her admission that “Along the way, I take stock of what I notice.”

Smith details many of the same levels as those found in the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan published on The Academy of American Poets website. She wrote that she tries to “listen to the music,” “look at the images,” look to where the “turn” (of ideas) takes place, and wonder at the “visual shape” of the poem. These align with the four levels of language used by the “I Notice” method and “Noticing Poetry” unit plan — sounds (sonic), images (sensory), ideas (ideational), and visual and shape (typographical).

I encourage you to read her post and compare the concepts for yourself. You can check out the full issue of magazine here.

Today’s Poetry Teaching Tip: Contemporary Poetry Pairings Can Enhance Learning Across Subject Areas

One of the most powerful ways to explore poetry is in conjunction with other disciplines.

Case in point: I once gave a reading at Johns Hopkins University to a small audience of academics and other guests. At this event, I read my poem, “Entropy”, a poem about the struggle that parents face with small child rearing and the sense of exhaustion and disorder that can emerge at such times. After the event, a man came up to me and introduced himself as a professor or physics, wanting to know if the poem were published anywhere. At that time, it hadn’t been. He told me that he would have liked to explore it further because he found it interesting what I chose to do with language and the allusions I made in the poem (since he happened to be a teacher of physics). I told him that he should look out for the poem, that it was being considered at online journal. A year later, it appeared in Verse Wisconsin, in their issue on poetic form. Here is the link to it, if you’re interested to hear the audio as well.

The physics  professor’s interest in poetry reminded me that there are lovers of poetry from all walks of life and from all professions. Over the years I’ve counseled teachers from many subject areas on selecting contemporary poems that they could use in their classes to augment their instruction. I’m always more than happy to do some sleuthing, pairing poems with subject areas/lessons like wines with dinner entrees. Why? Well, when teachers in disciplines other than English expound in front of their students about how the language directly makes use of scientific principles, history, art, etc., students can better notice poetry for what it is and teachers can help increase student engagement in whatever it is that they’re learning.  In fact, reading and discussing how one poem’s language relates to a subject area/lesson is not only wonderful introduction to a concept or subject; it can also deepen the understanding about the applicability of that learning across disciplines and help with what we call trans-disciplinary transfer, wherein students can take the knowledge from one area of study and apply it autonomously to another. Basically, poetry’s richness of language nurtures learning across all disciplines.

Poetry as a genre is well-suited to the roles of increasing engagement, deepening understanding, and promoting transfer across all disciplines, since poetry’s concern is the language itself. Where teachers go from using one contemporary poem is up to them. But why not give it a try? I’m happy to play a small part in suggesting contemporary poetry pairings to enhance students’ experiences not only with poetry, but with all subjects areas.

Best,

Scot