Paul B. Janeczko’s newest eBook Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades: CCSS Exemplar Poems and Lessons is available now. An electronic companion to 2011’s Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades, this new eBook contains more lessons for five exemplar poems listed in the CCSS for grades 5–9—Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”; Emily Dickinson’s “The Railway Train”; William Butler Yeats’ “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”; Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America”; and William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73.”
Today’s blog post is from the introduction to Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades: CCSS Exemplar Poems and Lessons.
Introduction by Paul B. Janeczko
When I read a poem for the first time—be it exemplar or not—I let myself think of it as a person I am meeting for the first time. The poetry meeting might be awkward or even difficult. On the other hand, it could be that the poem and I will hit it off, and our relationship will grow and satisfy. It’s that same open-mindedness that I always encourage in my students, be they fourth graders or grad students. I ask the same of all of them: meet the poem honestly, and give it a chance to touch you. Perhaps the poem will cause you to chuckle. Or, it could take your breath away with its sadness or its joy. On occasion, the poem may leave you cold. You don’t connect with it. That happens, but it should cause you to turn away from poetry no more than an encounter with an unpleasant or bland person should cause you to avoid people.
If you do engage with the poem, a rich and deep relationship can form. A poem is all about the relationship between its language and the reader. As you examine a poem, as you consider its language and structure and meaning, you may enjoy the riches that lie below the surface. Let there be no misunderstanding: I am not talking about examining a poem the way a marine biologist examines a dead fish. A good poem is alive, and we can keep it alive by making it a part of our lives. As readers (and teachers), we must ensure that poetry stays alive for us and for our students.
The point of reading a poem is to experience it.
At the same time, I am not a believer of the Oh-it’s-a-poem-so-anything-we-say-about-it-is-OK school of thought. Nor do I encourage students to speculate about what the poet “meant” in the poem. Unless we have a written account of the poet’s comments on a poem, we will never know what the poet “meant” in his or her work. That sort of speculation is not the point of reading a poem. The point of reading a poem is to experience it. And that doesn’t mean a once-and-done reading, although we will encounter poems that we feel deserve no further exploration. More often than not, further exploration of a poem can deepen our experience.
In fact, I wrote Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades to offer a map for teachers who wanted a path to help them and their students further explore a poem. For each lesson I chose a poem that I thought offered a rich opportunity for the middle school language arts class. Some of the poems rhyme; others do not. Some follow a pattern; others are free verse. I included a few “classic” poems, but most were written by contemporary poets. Taken together, the poems offer a comprehensive study of the basic elements of poetry, including image, word choice, line breaks, figures of speech, and theme.♦
Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades: CCSS Exemplar Poems and Lessons is available as an eBook here: http://www.heinemann.com/products/EBK05756.aspx. There you can read the poems featured in the book and download its companion resources.