Increase Student Engagement with Poetry

I love poetry. The fact that you can layer words together to create new meaning, that you can play with language or order your thoughts and connect with your reader makes it one of my favorite genres to write. But how do you get students who think in blank and white to see the shades of mauve and deepest indigo that poetry traces in your mind?

My first year, I tried the poetry in our textbook. I liked the images included with the poems, but I noticed that my sophomores were turned off. They were disengaged and unhappy with the poems I chose. So the next year, I tried something new.

I introduced music as poetry. I found the lyrics of some of my favorite songs, like Tom Waits’s “Black Wings”, and the lyrics of some of their favorite songs, like Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” I copied them on paper and wrote questions at the bottom. This worked okay as an introduction to poetry, but the wide variety of prior knowledge that students bring to the lowest level of 10th grade English became a problem.

One student, who had dropped down from Advanced 9th, could find and create figurative language, like metaphors, as well as sound devices, like alliteration. When we read and answered questions as a class, this student tuned me out. But I couldn’t skip the explanations of literary devices, because other students had no tool box of literary devices from previous years to open and unpack poetry.

This year, I applied technology to the disengagement and differentiation problems. Curriculet not only had a wealth of poetry with questions aligned to the Common Core already created, it also allowed me to import my own poems. Because Curriculet allows a teacher to embed their own questions and annotations, I knew I could create the ultimate poetry unit.

I started again with music, because I knew it was a way to open the doors of poetry for students. First, we looked at Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” One improvement that jumped out right away was that students could work at their own pace. Those students who knew Romeo and Juliet from last year could bypass the video that showed the balcony scene from Romeo’s point of view. Those that had no clue about the play got the support they needed.

The next thing I noticed was that students did not know how to interact with the annotations. Although we had worked earlier in the year on how to take notes from video clips, I had to reteach taking notes from the annotations. It was worth it, though, because I was able to build on prior knowledge that I knew all students had.

We moved on to two more songs, Tom Waits’s “Black Wings” and Bruce Cockburn’s “Celestial Horses.” Now students knew how to take notes, but some were rushing through the poems and getting many of the short answers wrong. Because Curriculet’s interface was so easy to work with, I found that I could grade all 85 students’ work in less than a half an hour. This meant that the very next day, I could attempt some reteaching.

Any student who had successfully completed the short answers got some free time in class, to silently read or do other homework, while the struggling students could go through the answers with me. By differentiating using Curriculet, I could meet the needs of my students.

To bridge between pop music and more serious poetry, we looked at “Jazz Fantasia,” by Carl Sandburg, and “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. Again, I retaught any material the majority had missed.

Now that they had a strong foundation of basic knowledge, in an easy to digest music format, I moved on to meatier subjects. Our textbook has many poems about death, but I have really like Jean Toomer’s “Reapers” and John McCrae’s “Flander’s Fields.” Often students struggled with grasping what is happening in both poems, because they have no context for farming without power tools or for World War I. In the past, I had students read an article about World War I, but it never seemed to connect with students.

By importing informational text into Curriculet, I opened a window to World War I for my students. First, they read about John McCrae himself, to get an idea of who the poet was. Next, students read about the battle of Ypres, so they could have historical context for the poem. I could embed videos about trench foot, as well as war footage. For the first time, students began using the define function embedded within Curriculet, to look up words they didn’t know.

With all that background, they easily understood “Flander’s Fields.”  With a little help from some embedded videos, they understood “Reapers,” as well. Because I wanted them to compare themes, I put the poems together in one curriculet.

The last poetry curriculet I created was “Auto Wreck,” by Karl Shapiro. In the past, I tried to get students to focus on specific lines by numbering lines. I would still have students struggle with exactly which lines I meant. This time, I could use the highlight function on my curriculet, so students knew exactly what lines to look at.

Thanks to Curriculet’s free content, I could even include “Chicago,” another poem by Carl Sandburg, as an outside of class assignment. Even with a pre-created curriculet, you can edit the annotations and the questions. I was able to make this poem accessible to my students by modifying the content provided.

In my four classes, I saw an increase in student completion over previous years, thanks to Curriculet. Even my struggling students got the help they needed in a timely fashion, because I could easily see which questions needed reteaching. My more advanced students could progress at their own pace. I could even see the students who barely spent seat time on poems, and let them know they needed to take more time. Curriculet empowered me to reach all my students.

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Swimming in a Sea of #GAFE

Two years ago, I dove into Google’s ocean without the support of a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) lifeboat. I asked all my students to create a Google account, and off we went. We struggled with all kinds of hazards. Did you know that Google will randomly ask for validation with a cell phone number to text, and if you put your phone number in too many times, Google will reject it? Did you know there are what feels like a thousand ways to mess up sharing files? We waded through those hazardous waters. As the school year ended, I breathed a sigh of relief when my school decided to join Google’s fleet and go GAFE.

Using Google’s tools opens up all kinds of doors for students. No longer did I have the problem of students bringing in versions of documents that could not be opened at school. Or students who nervously told me that the paper I had in my hand was not the most recent version of the paper they wanted to turn in. I stopped having “no ink/no paper” excuses. Students could more easily share with one another, and I could comment in real time on student papers.

But all those things were true when students were using their own Google accounts, so why was I so happy we went GAFE? For one thing, student email became uniform. I knew instantly who commented on who’s paper, who “accidentally” deleted all the work of their group (for this alone, I love Google: revision history!), and how to contact students. Before, even though I had asked for a uniform nomenclature for student emails,  some students used the email they’d had since they were eight. It could be quite difficult to tell which student was which. With a district admin of Google accounts, it was much easier to ask for a student password to be reset.

The best part of becoming a GAFE school started this fall, with Google Classroom. Although it’s not a complete Learning Management System, it helped tons with clarifying assignments. Students had a learning curve, as we figured out together how to create assignments, make copies of templates, and turn things in. Google Classroom made it possible for me to help my chronically absent students keep on top of what we were doing. We learned how to screenshot on a variety of devices, how to save images from the web, how to comment on each others work: it was transformative.

It must be said that I have a high tolerance for technology frustration. I can roll with the fact that Android insists on Internet Explorer, which won’t play nice with Curriculet (can’t wait for that browser to die), or that different devices screenshot differently. I can roll with the fact that some students will never click “turn in” and make it easy for me to see their work is done. When the internet inexplicably fails one period, I can find my paper copies and keep moving on.

To help with the tech headaches, I have tried this year to foster a culture of support among the students. The student who figures out how to insert a video into her Google Presentation or add a soundtrack to his WeVideo can teach two more students, who in turn can teach the others. There’s only one of me, so I want to spread the tech support around as much as possible.

To really use our GAFE status, most teachers will need at least a little support. They’ll want to know the power of the Google toolbox, from Google Classroom to Chrome extensions. They’ll want to know to look out for Google chat on documents, which can be helpful or can derail the most diligent of students. Some day, my school will offer GAFE training. Maybe it’ll even be me, teaching teachers what I’ve learned.