Hold fast to dreams..."I think he's wearing a mask in the this poem. You know, like he's acting one way, but underneath he's really mad." INSERT TEACHER GOOSEBUMPS HERE! Just like a marathon runner craves her once-a-week-long-run endorphins, I crave these teaching moments. I know you know what I'm talking about. This teacher endorphin rush came at a critical point in my teaching week. I was having one of those weeks. You know the ones...when you feel like you're slogging through curriculum quicksand while being attacked by biting horseflies. And then he raised his hand. And I called on him. And it was as if someone had just handed me a flyswatter and a leg up.
For if dreams die | Life is a broken-winged bird | That cannot fly...
So how did we get there? Let's go back to that marathon analogy. It took some training. Some brain training. It began with one poem and a close read. I introduced "Dreams" by Langston Hughes to my students by reading it 4-5 times together. Each time, we looked and listened for something new. Poetry is an oral art, so most of the reading we did together was oral. The last part of the close read was silent. What happens with this approach is that students eventually zero
in on the poet's figurative language and imagery. This time was no different. My students picked out the phrases "Life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly" and "Life is a barren field frozen with snow." This was the
opportunity I had planned for. I asked the question, "Why do you think Langston Hughes chose those particular images? What is he trying to tell us?" Those questions led to discussions about negative and positive imagery and a vocabulary exploration about the word barren. I was also able to reintroduce metaphor to my kids.
Hold fast to dreams...
The next day, we returned to "Dreams." I think that percolation time is crucial when using complex text with students. What do I mean by this? Think about a cup of coffee. If you pour it before it's done brewing, it's not a good cup of coffee. It's weak. It might even have some grounds in it, right? It's the same with thinking. When I read a chapter from a good book and stop for the day, I don't stop interacting with that text. I think about it over the next 24 hours until I can return to it. I continue to make meaning while I'm absent from the text. It's no different for my students.
This time, we explored "Dreams" using the CSI routine. CSI stands for Color-Symbol-Image. This thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart, Morrison & Church) is a powerhouse for metaphorical thinking. We talked about what color we would assign this poem. This led to conversations about mood and what words or phrases contributed to the overall feeling of the poem. Next, we went to image. What images come to mind when we read this? My students illustrated the "movie in the mind" visualizations they had from reading it. Finally, we talked about symbols. Students created a unique symbol that they felt represented Hughes' message to us. This was not the first time we had used this routine, so I did very little modeling with it like I had previously.
For if dreams go | Life is a barren field | Frozen with snow.---Langston Hughes
The above are the steps we followed for four of Langston Hughes' poems: "Dreams," "Dream Deferred," "Dream Boogie," and "Dream Keeper." Each time we explored a new poem, we made comparisons. We began developing a theory about Langston Hughes, using a Theory Tree. We charted words and phrases from his poems and then asked ourselves, "What does this BIG picture of Hughes' writing tell us about him as a person?" and "How did he look at life?" and "Do I agree with his perspective?" This might seem like a triple-decker club sandwich that an 11 year old fifth grader can't get her mouth around. But, it works. I think it works because I use a slow-release workshop model. That is, I model first. Then, we work with the support of peers. And finally, we try it independently and report back. I have found that when students are supported through complex text in this way, we hit a comprehension home run more often than not.
Remember that movie "Field of Dreams?" There's a line in it that keeps pushing me to go deeper in my teaching. It's this, "If you build it, they will come." And, they do.
He always ends his poems with a microphone drop. You know what I mean? Like if we were listening to him recite them, he'd drop the microphone at the end, and we'd be like, 'Wow!'---Fifth grade boy in room 9
If you're interested in trying this unit out for yourself, it would be a perfect fit for 5th-7th graders; it's available now, complete with teacher notes, organizers, poems, posters and student response pages. Click on this picture:
If you're interested in some ideas on getting started with incorporating poetry in your reader's workshop, be sure to check out the link below. It provides some ways to begin. Click the picture!