Monday, July 06, 2009

March Madness

I wish I could say that the March Madness poetry study was my idea. It was not; I got it from someone in a discussion group that I met with online during the nineties, a group of English teachers that found each other through AOL. Someone described a unit that paralleled the NCAA basketball tournament, where students considered two poems a day; winners of each discussion meet up with other winners until a grand champion poem is proclaimed. I chose 32 poems somewhat randomly, and set up a schedule for the month of March. Silly me, I hadn't noticed that much of March Madness, in the sports world, takes place during April. And didn't I realize that April was National Poetry Month? I love serendipity, though, and it turned out that by April my students were so ready to talk poetry, recite poetry, argue poetry, judge poetry, and WRITE poetry! Perfect timing. I put the 32 poems in a physical packet, had the packets copied, and we were off and running.

Some of my students had been writing poetry before March Madness started, and I had other tools in place to get students digging into collections of poetry, but it was during March that we developed our poetry reading skills in depth as a class. My most recent experience, March of '09, was once again quite successful, and has some significance since this was my last year in my 8th grade classroom before I take a leave of absence to study full-time for my doctorate. My consultant teacher included March Madness as one of the elements she will insist on keeping when my replacement plans her 8th grade curriculum. "Students really got it when you taught it that way," she wrote to me in her farewell card.

The first eight class days in March, we skimmed through four poems each day, in addition to the workshop time (individual writing or silent reading) for each day. I read each poem, made almost no comment about it, unless there was a need for some context, or if students had particular vocabulary questions. I did not include any T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, but included poets like Frost, William Carlos Williams, in addition to some poets I had found on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac and even among's daily featured poems. I snuck in a poem of my own, using my stage name for a nom de plume (my poems have never gone farther than the sweet sixteen, though, most often losing in the second round).

During these first eight days, I allowed students to vote for as many of the four poems as they liked. Then I took the top 16 vote-getters. I scheduled them the way any good tournament planner would, using total (all five classes) votes as a way to seed them, until the next eight class days were scheduled. On these days, I would read each poem twice and ask the essential question, "What did this poet do that good poets often do?" Students mentioned techniques they understood well, such as rhyme, alliteration, comparisons such as simile, metaphor, or personification.

I would lead off discussions, though, with some devices that were less familiar, or more difficult to explain. Students know rhythm when they hear it, but find it hard to explain. I would make a statement about a rhythmic poem and then back it up with a detailed count of beats per line. Often I had to teach them about beats by having them beat the rhythm of their name. They found it easy to catch on, though, so we could move on to other concepts, like imagery of the five senses, imagery of emotion, imagery of nature. We also discussed ways of ending poems (we found full circle and twist in the poems I put before them). This year, at student insistence, we discussed format as well (short lines, long lines, sonnet).

Over the course of eight days I discussed every device I wanted them to be able to see, although not every device that every poet used in every poem (which would have been overkill). At the end of these discussions, students were only allowed to vote for one of the two daily poems. To avoid peer pressure, we put our heads down while voting. We ended up with our Elite Eight.

At this point, students were capable of finding many devices. Now I wanted to train them to back up their statements. They had to first state what device they saw in the poem being discussed. We posted a sentence frame to remind them of ways to make such statement ("The poet used ___________."). In addition, they or a friend had to come up with examples or illustrations that proved that statement, and again had to use a sentence frame that we posted: "For example, the poem says___________________."
Students began to correct each other if the frame were not used, or they would catch themselves. We always took time to do a short writing burst or a short pair/share before our forum began; in this time they might plot to work together on their statements and support.

After they had the sentence frames down, I had them, occasionally, write their vote with reasons and support provided.

Before we knew it the long month of March was almost over. The Final Four were very familiar to us, each poem having been up for a vote three times before. Without their knowledge, students had gotten to a point of very deep reading. Some grew attached to this poem; others to that poem. Heated arguments might take place during workshop time supporting one or another finalist. This year I set up the two discussions of the four poems as rough contests: students could chose a side of the room for either poem, and the two sides took turns making statements (worth a point), or backing them up (also worth a point). It was a rough contest, where I simply tallied successful comments until no one could think of any more that could be supported. It didn't matter that I didn't keep score; they enjoyed the spirit of game show and read the poems SO CLOSELY to prepare. Again we voted.

With only two poems to consider, we made the vote a written one: each student had a couple of days to write a poem reflection supporting one or the other, giving reasons by making statements and supporting them. The sentence frames stayed posted on the whiteboard. Much paper was used for drafts, loyalty to poems crossed many clique lines, and students could be heard at lunch tables discussing merits of the war poem versus the humorous/scary one.

These reflections served to elect one poem as our champion. They also served as a practice essay for the common assessment with the other 8th grade ELA students taught by my colleague. We had them write about Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," a poem that neither of us had studied with our students.

The tournament essays were a joy to read. They really did get it: the repetition, each day in March, in meaningful context, stuck with them. They did not too badly with the Frost poem on the common assessment, though most played it safe with rhyme and repetition. I was so proud of them.

I saw the value of providing sentence frames to help them with discussion, and then with composition of their written argument. It was also helpful to them to see the repetition of these statements in a context that made sense: looking at pairs of poems again and again we had to say some similar things, but it wasn't boring. It was needed practice in a realistic situation. And they were doing what every English teacher loves to see: they were getting lost in those texts.

Where else could I set up such repetition, such context for sentence frames, such investment in texts? What other texts could evoke such responses? How can I model this for pre-service teachers? For freshman writers?

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