National Poetry Month (12) – Finding a Theme

When students are asked to write poetry, they often feel like they have nothing to say. They know poetry is all about the words. They understand the idea of poetry as “heightened language.” They understand words and space are at a premium with poetry. And so, when asked to write about anything…they usually write about nothing. They see no hope for finding a theme or a topic of interest. Or, they write on the most general topics–like love, baseball, war.

Getting students to see what it means to pick a theme-one they know something about or one they have something to say about-takes time. 90% of my job as a classroom teacher is as a persuader. I must persuade them that learning is vital, relevant, and will pay off. I persuade them to look at all their actions as choices and those choices have consequences. And, I must persuade them to look beyond what they think they know and acknowledge they might know more than they think. Getting kids to admit they know more than they think they do is one of the hardest parts of my job. They have been allowed to develop identities which paint them as less smart than they actually are.

To remedy this, in regards to poetic composition, I begin by showering students in poetry. Classical poetry, modern poetry, slam poetry, unconventional poetry, and more. I show them the poets–classical poets such as Frost, modern poets such as Collins, and slam/spoken word poets such as Sarah Kay. Then I begin to show them poetry by students, by average people (all you bloggers who keep visiting!), and, of course, myself. I also tell them, when I share my poetry, the reasons why I write poetry and how I want honest feedback and criticism-NOT left handed compliments to make me feel good. I allow them to insert their own thoughts and ideas into some of my works and it becomes a collaborative process.

I also hold off on showing them poetry written by average people, students, and myself until they have an appreciation for what good poetry is. This does not mean I present all classic or modern poetry as great poetry. Instead, we read, experience, interpret, and play with many poems, and I have students create their own criteria list of what makes a poem good. We cover the different formats and the rules of conventions for those formats and students see what makes a great haiku or sonnet, versus the not so great ones. When they have an appreciation of poetry, then I can show them my work, their peers work, and others work. We have discussions of how, even though they are not published for the masses, ordinary folks write poetry for many different reasons.

Once they see ordinary folks, even myself, writing poetry, it opens a door for many of them. They begin to think, “If she can, why can’t I?” And it begins.

But there are still some who struggle. Struggle to find the words. Struggle to find the themes they can write well about. This is where I share resources like the ones below. I share Sarah Kay’s spoken word poem “B” with my students. I show the version she gives at TED. I tell them we are watching a poet speak and to think about the meaning of the poem and find their favorite line. We watch. They are entranced! Her words, her voice, her movements bring her poetry alive. They love it! And they dig at the meaning, they discuss what would be different if… They want to hear more. So, I show the rest of the video, where she discusses how and why she become a spoken word poet and how she teaches poetry to students around the world.

Sarah Kay TED Talk : If I Should Have a Daughter

We do the activity “Ten Truths.” This activity causes some students to become paralyzed in thought. And I tell them, “Begin with what you know.” They don’t have to reach for universal truths. Start simple. My name is… I am in room 203… They don’t see yet how they could become poems, but they soon will. 🙂 And I tell them themes for poems are everywhere. You read a news story and have strong feelings stirring inside–that might be a poem itching to come out. Sarah mentions in the video how she write poetry to make sense of things. My students get this. They even ask if that’s why I write poetry. “Sometimes,” I say, “that’s why.”

Another resource I recently stumbled upon and will be introducing to my students today is the blog “Daily Mobster.” This blog is a themed blog about, what else? Mobsters! Since I teach 1920s and 30s Lit, I love this idea and will be using it if I get to teach the class again. But, for this year, I will use it to show how a theme can lead to a series of poems, not just an individual one. I like, too, how it is a set of character sketches. Oh, so many ways I could use this one! Here are links to a few of my favorite mobsters created by Sketchbook Jack:

“Snappy” Walker (reminds me of the character from the movie Oscar)

Little Margie Mason (I so wanted to be her when I was in school!)

“Ink” McGillicutty (Could I be her now? 😉 )


2 responses

  1. Thanks for the honor, glad my work can actually help and not just entertain! 🙂

    1. Are you kidding?! I love it! And I think my kids will too! I will let you know.

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