Poetry--that art form that all of us connect to in music or greeting cards or love letters-but somehow find it so hard to get our students to analyze. Here’s the thing-poetry is meant to first and foremost be read with the heart. What makes poetry great is that it can be interpreted so many different ways. A songwriter may write a song about their child, but it relates to one listener as a love song to their boyfriend and another as a song about faith. For example, Lady Antebellum’s song Run to You has always been a song about faith for me. That may not be at all what they were thinking about when they wrote it, but that’s how the words connect to me. So, how can we teach students to analyze something that is so subjective and open to interpretation? We don’t…we teach them to question it, feel it, and find a connection to it. Through that, they will come to a deeper understanding.
Typically, a poet is writing poetry to express something. Half the time, the conclusions we draw from our analysis may be a surprise to the poet, too! (see Sara Holbrook’s article about not being able to answer STAAR questions about her own poem: https://tinyurl.com/ydbegkl4) That’s not to say we shouldn’t dig into poetry...we just have to keep the digging grounded in the fact that the poet likely didn’t expect us to dissect it.
For the past decade, the primary tool that I have seen being used to teach poetry analysis is TPCASTT--an mnemonic device designed to help students remember things to look for or do when analyzing poetry-title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude/tone, shifts, title (revisited), theme. I understand the rationale, but I started wondering if there was another way to approach poetry analysis since I consistently hear how students struggle with this even though they have been taught TPCASTT.
So-back to the 8th-grade class.
I was modeling a lesson using the 3 Big Questions which Kylene Beers & Robert Probst introduce and discuss in their books Reading Nonfiction (2016) and Disrupting Thinking (2017). These 3 questions help readers take a questioning stance to any type of text. So, I wanted to see how it would work with poetry.
The 3 Big Questions are below along with what I add when introducing them to students in parentheses:
- What surprises me? (or causes a reaction...When you read, what makes you say “Cool!”, “Gross!”, “Oh no!”, “Wow!”, “Awww…”, etc.? When you hear yourself thinking these things-take note of it.--mark these things with a ! or heart.)
- What did the author think I already knew? (When you read, what makes you say “Huh?” or “Wait...what?”...mark these things with a ?)
- What changed, challenged, or confirmed my thinking? (When you read, what makes you say “I knew it!” or “Hmmmm…” or “At first I thought___, but now I’m thinking…”...mark these things with a *)
For this lesson, we used the poem Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson. First, \I read the poem and had the students briefly discuss or write one sentence describing their first impression. Then, I introduced the 3 Big Questions, and the students read the poem while marking their thinking as it related to the Big 3. Next, we talked about what they marked and what it made them wonder. This part was the key. Here were some of their questions:
- Why does she keep falling in the hole?
- Why does she take so long to go down another street?
- Why doesn’t she see the hole?
- Why isn’t it his/her fault?
- Why is he hopeless?
After we had a list of questions sparked by their thinking, we divided into groups to investigate them further. Some of the conversations the kids were having were incredible! They were figuring out symbolism and hypothesizing about what the hole could be...while constantly referring back to the text. There were lots of "maybe..." and "he probably..." and "what if..." statements being used.
After the group discussions, we came back together to compare conclusions. I was truly surprised at the depth of their thinking. To end the lesson, I asked them to write a reflection. I gave them the following frame to use if they needed. I wanted them to talk about their interpretation and how they could apply the poem to their own lives:
After reading the poem, I think ___________. Something that stuck with me was _____ because ______. I can remember this when I ________.
Here was one student’s response (in true middle school fashion…)
After reading this poem, I think it’s not talking about an actual hole in the sidewalk. It’s more about love in my eyes. Something that really stuck with me is falling into the hole repeating. I can remember everytime I was heartbroken when I thought I fell in “love”.
After reading the poem, I think the hole is not a real hole, and it is just a mistake. The author uses the hole as something to symbolize his mistakes. Something that really stuck with me was when he decided to finally walk down another street. I think he pretended not to see the hole because he didn’t want to fall in again, but in reality your mistakes won’t go away unless you fix them.
After I read this poem something that stuck with me was that you can do over the same mistake but at the end find a solution for your mistakes. I can apply this to my life by knowing there is another path.
After reading the poem, I can’t get the thought out of my head that it really isn’t a real hole its mistakes or his love life. I can remember this poem when I have mistakes to really think about what I did and probably to stop repeating that same mistake.
Now, to me, for the first reading of a poem, that’s pretty insightful stuff. I could go back with them on another day and look more closely at some of the elements of TPCASTT, but having them do something like this first might make that more meaningful. They can then look at the title, shifts, and other elements in relation to the effect it had on them as readers...and as feeling human beings!
After trying this in other grades and with other poems, I keep seeing similar results--kids are talking and thinking more deeply than I expected about a genre that they typically struggle to interpret. And...they actually seemed to be enjoying it! So, for me, I’m going to give TPCASTT some time off and see how deep the students’ questions can take us instead.
Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash