I have often struggled with how to best introduce poetry to students. Since I have primarily taught Literature and Composition courses at community colleges, poetry is often completely unfamiliar, and usually a bit intimidating, to my students. After turning to The Pocket Instructor for inspiration, I quickly found Kerry Hasler-Brooks’ classroom exercise “Read, Reread, Close Read” to be the perfect foundation for a new in-class activity that I can use to begin my poetry unit. Hasler-Brooks argues that “A commitment to oral reading…trains students to use their ears, rather than just their eyes, to become more accomplished close readers.” By introducing students to the process of oral reading that Hasler-Brooks outlines, this lesson teaches several strategies that will help students feel more confident when critically thinking about a poem for the first time.
I plan on pairing my adaptation of Hasler-Brooks’ exercise with contemporary poet Aracelis Girmay’s “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card.” While any poem can be used with this lesson, I selected Girmay’s work, which appears in her collection Teeth, because it is a narrative poem that contains clear imagery, plays with sound, and questions language. While this exercise is designed specifically for students who may be studying poetry for the first time, it could be further altered to suit the needs of students taking a higher-level English course.
Before class, I will highlight part of the poem on each handout; these assigned lines will then be what each student will read out loud. It is important, as Hasler-Brooks states, for everyone, including me as the instructor, to read at least one line during this activity. At the beginning of class, we will take turns reading the poem out loud. This reading will be the first time that students see and hear this poem.
Next, I will use guided free-writing so that students can write down their initial reactions to the piece. They will respond to the following questions:
- What lines stood out to you while hearing the poem?
- How did reading out loud affect the way that you understood the poem?
- What are your general reactions to the poem?
- What do you think the poem is about?
After completing this guided free-write, I will ask students to prepare for a second reading of the poem. Before this reading, I will, as Hasler-Brooks recommends, “ask each student to return to the [part of the poem] that he or she read aloud…and annotate a new, planned oral reading…consider[ing] these questions: How will you read a line, and where will your emphasis fall?” Then, the class will read the poem out loud again.
While Hasler-Brooks uses these multiple readings to show that rereading the same text out loud can lead to discovering new interpretations of its content, I want to use this repetition as a way to guide students through understanding different aspects of the poem. While students reflect upon their initial reactions after the first reading, the writing exercise that follows the second reading will focus on helping students to understand the poem’s literal meaning. I will ask each student to write a brief (two or three sentence) summary that describes the poem’s narrative plot. As a class, we will then create one summary together, so that everyone has a clear understanding of the poem’s literal content before they hear it read out loud one final time.
Instead of having students craft a third oral reading, as Hasler-Brooks does, I plan on playing a clip of Girmay reading her poem at Quinnipiac University’s “Yawp! An Open Dialogue on Creativity and the Arts” from Youtube. Her reading of “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card” begins about twenty-four minutes into the video. While listening to Girmay read, I will ask students to take notes on the sounds that she emphasizes and how, if at all, her reading changes their impressions of the poem.
After hearing Girmay’s reading, we will end this activity with a class discussion, in which we begin interpreting the poem’s content. I plan on asking the following questions:
- Why does Girmay include these different combinations of the words “love is for everybody” at the end of the poem?
- How does hearing these words in a different order affect their meaning?
- What are the larger themes that Girmay wants readers to consider?
- What does this poem say about language, interpretation, and understanding?
- Why end with the message “love is for everybody”?
- How did reading the poem out loud and hearing the poem multiple times affect your understanding of the poem?
During this final part of the lesson, I want to discuss not only how to develop an interpretation of the poem’s content, but also how to use the different strategies from this exercise in the future. By emphasizing the importance of oral reading and rereading, I hope that my students will leave the classroom with a blueprint for how to think critically about poetry, so that they will feel more confident when analyzing other poems on their own.