Poetry Unit Begins with a ‘Listening’ Field Trip

A MiddleWeb Blog

Working_Draft-final-logoI like to begin our poetry unit with a “listening field trip” across the United States, powered by our imaginations. In order for young writers to compose poetry, they have to listen to poetry. They have to feel the rhythms, sense the surroundings, and make the shift away from prose. For me, the best resource for this transition into poetry is a wonderful collection called My America.

Subtitled “A Poetry Atlas of the United States,” this collection of poems curated by editor Lee Bennett Hopkins is designed to capture the essence and character of the United States through place-based poetry.

my america coverThere are more gems in this book than I can name, with poetic tours of the Everglades, the mesas of the Southwest, a slow trip down the Mississippi River, the breathtaking mountains of the West, and the beaches, bays and islands of the East Coast.

Poem after poem is an excursion forward into the character of the country, without ever leaving our classroom, and as such, My America is a prime example of a mentor text.

A Metaphorical Mystery Tour

In my sixth grade class space, I make the understanding of the poems a game of sorts. A mystery game. We begin with a map of the United States, where I have highlighted various regions of our country. The Northeast. The Southwest. The Mountain States. And so on.

cornfield  160There, there is no mountain within miles. 
The land, slowly rising towards a distant glory, 
Is devoid of ornaments or sudden splendor. 
It is a land no tourist travels far to see …

— from “Nebraska” by Jon Swan

We then discuss what we know about these parts of our country, relying on some students’ own experiences with travel or, if we are lucky, someone who has lived there before moving to Western Massachusetts. I am careful to give purposeful hints about the characteristics of the regions in our discussions, dropping in a reference to lighthouses in New England, the windy streets of Chicago, the flatness of the prairies, the hidden worlds of the Arizona deserts, or the dormant volcanoes of Hawaii.

redwoods 180Redwood trees rise up like skyscrapers
Fingering the clouds in search of moisture
Pulling down the fog and passing it
From limb to limb …

–from “Behind the Redwood Curtain” by Natasha Wing

Listening for Location

Students make a chart to track their listening, with a column for what region they think a poem represents, the evidence from the poem that they heard to support that assumption, and any figurative language/literary devices they recognized in the verses. With that chart set, they listen as I read aloud my own selection of poems and then make their guesses of the region represented by the poem in writing, supported by evidence.

I read each poem at least twice, slowly and with emphasis. They do not have the poem in front of them, so they have to be careful listeners for this activity. They must attend to my voice, and I play it up with the best poetry performance voice I can muster.

alaska 160Ice built, ice bound and ice bounded, 
Such cold seas of silence! such room! 
Such snow-light, such sea-light, confounded 
With thunders that smite like a doom! 

— from “Alaska” by Joaquin Miller

After reading 10 poems, we go back, and I re-read each poem one more time. Students then make their guesses as to the region being represented by the poems, and support their guess with evidence. It is at this time that I finally give them titles (which I earlier withheld). Surprisingly, the reveal of titles often is a very exciting element, and I have frequently given them an opportunity to suggest their own titles when we hear the poems the first time around.

Original Place-based Poems

Of course, the lesson is not over. Now that they have listened to the poems of our country, it is time to write their own place-based poems. We continue the game element. Their task is to use imagery to capture the essence of a place they know and love (a vacation spot, or a neighborhood hideout, etc.) but not name the place. The next day, volunteers share their poems and we all try to guess the location.

lighthouse 200It’s a tower 
of stone, 
a refuge of white 
with a code 
all of its own, 
flashing constant 
and bright …

— from “New England Lighthouse” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

There are many things I love about this lesson. The poetry, of course, is fantastic. The discussions of our country, and the features that make up the richly varied regions, always spark interesting observations. And then turning the tables by asking them to compose poetry of their own … that’s the icing on the cake.

Untouched Sandy Beach With Palms Trees And Azure Ocean In Background PanoramaWhile Pacific Ocean’s
White surf gleams
Rolling seas
Shifting dreams …

— from “Mauna Loa” by Tom Robert Shields

Kevin Hodgson

Kevin Hodgson is a sixth grade teacher in Southampton MA and outreach coordinator for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. An aspiring writer and former newspaper journalist, Kevin believes that all students are writers and that writing is one of the most fundamental means of understanding the world. His views around literacy include interaction within the digital world, meeting students on common ground, and helping them make the shift from passive consumers to active creators and collaborators. He is a co-editor of Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change and Assessment in the 21st Century and blogs regularly at Kevin’s Meandering Mind. He can also be found on Twitter as @dogtrax.

5 Responses

  1. MiddleWeb says:

    April is National Poetry Month (of course) and the Poetry Foundation (Children) has more resources: https://www.facebook.com/poetryfoundationchildren

  2. davidlharrison says:

    Kevin, great idea well done. Congratulations to you and your lucky students.

  3. margaretsmn says:

    Great ideas here. Thanks for sharing!

  4. ritasorrentino says:

    Love the listening field trip. Poetry delights our ears. I’m getting a sense of recurring inward and outward movement. Hope to try it out, too.

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