April is National Poetry Month and with a bit of scheduling luck, I find myself knee-deep in Harlem Renaissance poetry. Let me be upfront: I love poetry. (I make no claims of ability to write poetry. ) I love that a line break can mean so much more than the return stroke on a keyboard; I love deciphering how one writer selected this adjective, that phrase, these punctuation marks. I love teaching the Harlem Renaissance greats: Langston Hughes, Angela Weld Grimke, Claude McKay- their works answer tradition with a mixing and reinventing so unique to their experience of the 20th century.
I. Love. Poetry.
Many of my students, however, struggle to find the same comfortableness in poetry that they have in novel study. This is not particularly a new truth for teachers; many students report poetry analysis as the most difficult or elusive task. A quick google search will yield thousands of worksheets, methodologies, acronyms, and suggested poems for implementation. For years, I’ve proscribed to the the TPCASTT method (Title, Paraphrase, Connotation, Attitudes, Shift, Title, Theme) and in the last three, I’m not entirely sold on its effectiveness. Understanding connotation means understanding the intentional inferences of a word; attitudes relies on knowing the difference between tone and mood. In this method, all of this happens before a realization of theme. This year, I decided I would do a study of comparison. I used TPCASTT in the early modules of the Modernism class and in these last modules, I am implementing my own poetry toolkit for classroom use.
My early Modernism modules demonstrated exactly what I feared: my students did not identify poetic terms or differentiate their use from novel study and their annotations focused too much on basic understanding of figurative language. Many of my students felt so overwhelmed by the TPCASTT system that their thesis compositions included every device, rather than selecting the best use of that term according to their claim. I knew that in developing my own annotation system, I wanted some kind a scaffolding, a way for my students to feel the move from simple annotation to complicated analysis. I knew that the first scaffold would be an exploration of the poem and its meaning. The second scaffold would narrow a literary analysis to just the essentials. The last step would involve syntax focus and claim development. The difference has meant a much more organized approach to annotating yet still relies on the student to understand and select poetic devices; the chart has greatly improved the evaluation of syntax. As seen in the student artifact below, leveling the scaffold asks the student to evaluate the intent of the poem before a dive into syntax; the syntax progresses into a thesis or claim about the poem.
Implementation is just one part of re-inventing how I teach poetry (more soon on helping students categorize kinds of literary terms). I am hoping the third tier in this technique will push them into a thesis development. Since I am a firm believer in providing examples or demonstrating active practice, we reviewed Langston Hughes’ “Advertisement for Waldorf-Astoria” using this technique and then color coded parts of the chart used for introductory paragraph building.
I’m anxious to see how this system helps move them into analysis and paper construction. Mostly, I’m excited to explore poetry during National Poetry Month!
Stay tuned for Part II: The Poetry Paper Outline.