Callum MacAulay photo, unsplash. com
At Play in the Fields of Deep Reading:
March Poetry Madness
by Dr. Carol Mikoda
“Did this guy write any other poems?”
“I sure wish the Frost poem had made it to the finals.”
“Did you count the votes yet? Who won? Was it ‘Flanders Fields’ or ‘Cellar Stairs?'”
These and similar questions result when my eighth graders and I worked our way through March Poetry Madness. To call it a poetry unit makes it sound so dull, so traditional. The results of this series of mini-lessons were never dull and developed students’ reading skills immeasurably.
Students often remarked on how quickly time had gone for the class. These reactions came, not after completing worksheets, decorating posters, or cutting out letters for a word wall, but after students had spent time discussing poems. They had used sentence frames, respectful ways of stating agreement or disagreement, to support their statements with text evidence. They had continued their discussions after the mini-lesson was over, after the heads-down voting, right into workshop time.
“Those kids were learning and didn’t even know it,” remarked my inclusion co-teacher, after a very lively class.
They learned without even knowing they were learning. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Don’t we enjoy those experiences where we lose ourselves in a topic or a hobby or an interest? I think of the hours I spend on the Jersey shore late each June, umbrella up, sunglasses and sunblock in place, book in hand, lost in a story. All that time, I add to my working vocabulary, to my knowledge of syntax, to my repertoire of voice and cadence … and following the plot, getting emotionally lifted and suspended and dropped, again and again … and when I look up it is time to leave the beach, shower, and find some seafood for supper.
That flow of learning as playing is not readily present in our classrooms. We need to make school more of a lively pursuit of our curiosities, varied and personal. I had read, as a grad student, the essay by the poet Robert Francis, “Poetry as Disciplined Play” (1966), comparing the reading of a poem with skilled performances in sports (37). And Vygotsky’s work advises that “a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play” (quoted in Holzman, 2009, 50). How can that playfulness be brought back? How can our public schools be suffused with the intellectual freedom and curiosity and passion that at various points in history led to inventions, revolutions, innovations? Some might say that free minds, curiosity, and passion led to the establishment of the United States of America.
Okay … well … maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But a lively tournament tends to get folks excited. Let me tell you about the playing with text, language, and discussion that my students engaged in each March.
I wish I could say that the March Poetry Madness was my idea. It was not; I got it from someone in a discussion group that I met online late in the nineties, a group of English teachers that found each other through a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) middle level discussion group. Someone described a unit that paralleled the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament; instead of two teams competing, students considered two poems a day. Winners of each discussion met up with other winners until a grand champion poem is proclaimed. I learned of it, but didn’t act on it for several years, afraid that it was a bit too gimmicky and not too sure how tournaments were set up. I paid attention, though, to my students who discussed, or even wrote about, their favorite teams, their expectations for the NCAA tournament, and the reasons for their teams’ victories or losses.
Poetry on the Court
Then, in 2002, facing once again the all too long month of March with no vacations or three-day weekends, I plunged ahead with the project. When I set up a schedule for the month of March, I hadn’t noticed that much of March Madness, in the basketball world, takes place during April, and I almost didn’t remember that April was National Poetry Month. Serendipity, though, can be a wonderful thing, 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 found the 32 poems to type or cut and paste into an eight-paged packet, had the packets copied, and we started. The packets, placed on the tables of my classroom for the duration of the tournament, were our texts for March and for a good period of time after the tournament as well, by popular demand. Reading days found many students reading and re-reading the poems that constituted tournament “players,” even if particular poems had left the bracket.
In choosing the poems for the packets, I worked fast, but I made sure that I followed Stephen Dunning’s Principle two for teaching poetry: “The teacher of poetry must teach only those poems for which he can engender real enthusiasm” (Dunning, 1966, 13). Other sources from earlier in my career were useful. I had used Kenneth Koch’s lessons on poetry, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams (Koch, 1970) and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? (Koch, 1973). His ideas about using great poems to spur students to imitate and compose their own had informed my mini-lessons over the years and engendered some great work by my students. I dipped into his selections for some of the tournament poems. “Tyger,” by William Blake, often traveled to the Final Four, while “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” by William Butler Yeats, didn’t get past the initial round. “Foul Shot,” by Edwin Hoey, which I found in Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle (Dunning, Lueders, & Smith, 1972), usually went to the Sweet Sixteen (the next level of tournament competition), if not the Elite Eight. Other poems came from Garrison Keillor’s morning radio series, The Writer’s Almanac, or from www.poetry.com (now Lulu Poetry), or from A Poem a Day (McCosker & Albery, 1996). Some years, I included a poem of my own, using a pen name, but my poems have never gone farther than the Sweet Sixteen, more often losing in the second round. Table 1 lists titles and authors of poems I used in various tournaments; be sure to choose poems you love, as you will be spending serious amounts of time with them in classes for a month.
Poems I have used in tournaments:
|Some In Pieces||Darnel Arnoult|
|Dream Deferred||Langston Hughes|
|Ozymandias||Percy Bysshe Shelley|
|The Fruit Cocktail Rebellion||Gillian Jones|
|Divorced Husband Demolishes House||John Ciardi|
|Chinyere Vann||Unknown, Nike advertisement copy|
|In Flanders Fields||John McCrae|
|Mother to Son||Langston Hughes|
|Praise Song||Barbara Crooker|
|The Note||Ralph Fletcher|
|Deer Season||Barbara Tanner Angell|
|Wild Geese||Mary Oliver|
|The Base Stealer||Robert Francis|
|He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven||William Butler Yeats|
|The Fisher||Lyle Glazier|
|The Dream||Harry Behn|
|To Look at Any Thing||John Moffitt|
|A Scientist’s Acrostic||Jennifer Gresham|
|House Fear||Robert Frost|
|Cellar Stairs||Thomas Lux|
|A Loaf of Poetry||Naoshi Koriyama|
|The Lady’s Reward||Dorothy Parker|
|Foul Shot||Edwin Hoey|
|A Prayer for the 21st Century||John Marsden|
|Or Did He Simply Want to Plant Some Trees||C. Baker|
|The Tyger||William Blake|
|Choose Your Words||C. Baker|
|Snowstorm||Daniel Whitehead Hicky|
|A Story That Could Be True||William Stafford|
|High Flight||John Gillespie Magee, Jr.|
|The Argument of His Book||Robert Herrick|
Many of my students had been writing poetry before March Madness started, and I had other tools in place to get students digging into poetic texts and published collections of poetry (such as publication of original poems with illustrations in the hallway, and the fall poetry recitation), but it was during March that we developed our in-depth reading skills as a class. My consultant teacher included March Madness as one of the elements she will keep in her own classroom, because, she said, “Students really got it when you taught it that way.”
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 aloud, made almost no comment about it, unless there was an urgent need for some context, or if students had particular vocabulary questions.
During these first eight days, students voted for as many of the four poems as they liked, in other words, four votes per set. Then I took the top 16 vote-getters. Consulting with the math teacher on my team, who often set up tournaments for the basketball players he coached, and students who were eager to use their background knowledge as avid basketball fans, I used the total votes from all five classes to “seed,” or rank them. I matched highest votes with middle, next highest with next one down, and so forth. Two poems were scheduled each day, taking up the next eight class days.
On these days, I read each poem twice and asked 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.
After starting with their comments, I would introduce some devices (never more than one or two at a time) that were less familiar, or more difficult for them. Students know rhythm when they hear it, but find it hard to explain. I modeled by making a statement about a rhythmic poem and then backing it up with a detailed count of beats per line. If some were unsure, then we would all beat the rhythm of our names. They found this an easy way to connect to that idea. We could move on to other concepts, like imagery of the five senses, emotional content, the importance of natural scenes to the origin of poetry. We also discussed ways of ending poems, most often finding full circle or twists in the poems I put before them. At student insistence, we could discuss format as well: short lines, long lines, sonnets, couplets.
Over the course of eight days I supported and developed their knowledge of the craft of poetry as we discussed every device I wanted them to be able to recognize. We never tried to discuss, however, every device that every poet used in every poem, which would have been overkill. Stephen Dunning (Dunning, 1966) had long ago taught me that important principle: “Principle Five: Teachers must stop over-explaining poems” (23). At the end of these discussions, students voted 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, because of the routine and repetition of each succeeding class, students could find many devices. Students were also committed and motivated, especially since their votes each day determined the content of future classes. I now faced my carefully orchestrated scaffolded teachable moment: I wanted to them to back up their statements. They first stated 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 provided 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 frames were not used, or they would catch themselves. We always took time to do a short free write and pair/share before our forum began so that students had a chance to try out their statements and support on just one other classmate.
After they were comfortable with using sentence frames, I had them, occasionally, write out in sentences their vote for that day’s contest and provide brief reasons and support. By this time, the remaining poems were very familiar to everyone. In addition, students felt capable of responding independently to the essential question, and began to identify techniques that hadn’t been mentioned before, instead of just repeating ones we had previously discussed.
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 begun to read very deeply. Some grew attached to this poem; others to that poem. Heated arguments took place during workshop time supporting one or another finalist. The two days of discussion of each pair of the last four poems were timed contests: students chose a side of the room supporting either poem, and the two sides, facing each other, took turns making statements (worth a point), or backing them up (also worth a point). It was a roughly scored contest, where I simply tallied comments that had been framed correctly or defended successfully until no one could think of any more. My score-keeping was hardly precise, but students enjoyed the spirit of game show anyway and read the poems SO CLOSELY to prepare. Again we voted by a show of hands.
With only two poems left to consider in the Grand Championship, we made the vote a written one: each student had a couple of days of workshop time to write a poem reflection (in my classroom, that was code for an essay) supporting one or the other, giving reasons by making statements and supporting them. The sentence frames stayed posted on the whiteboard. An intense quiet took over each class as drafts were generated and revised. Loyalty to poems crossed many clique lines, and students could be heard at lunch tables discussing merits of the war poem, for example, versus the humorous/scary poem.
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, so we could see how skilled they were at analyzing the literary content of a text that was new to them.
The tournament essays, and the common assessments as well, were a joy to read. Students really did get it: the repetition, each day in March, in meaningful context, stuck with them. They did not do too badly with the Frost poem on the common assessment, though most played it safe, discussing their favorite devices, such as rhyme and repetition. I was proud of their confidence and motivation as they dug in to the assigned essay.
Providing sentence frames helped students improve both their discussion skills, and their written argument. It also helped 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. They were doing what every English teacher loves to see: they were getting lost deep in those short texts.
Students as Poets
The fruits of this month of deep reading did not end with students’ developing abilities to make and defend statements about craft with text evidence. Students also produced poems that showed the effects of prolonged exposure to well-written poetry on classic themes. It’s true that students voted with their hearts when they advanced a poem in the tournament, but even if a poem didn’t advance, it might still spur a poet to produce something very special because of the imagery, form, or device that spoke to their particular passions.
Many student athletes were inspired by a poem, “Chinyere Vann” (author unknown), featured in advertising copy from Nike’s ads in glossy magazines, and brought to me by the math teacher on my team, who knew that I was collecting poems for the tournament. Other athletes loved “Foul Shot,” by Edwin Hoey, and imitated the building of suspense, the list-making, the exciting ending, the alliteration, in poems about the sport of their choice. The sports poems generated after our classroom consideration of those poems were an improvement over poems I had received earlier in the year. Figure 1 shows several of the sports poems turned in during or after the tournament.
Others reacted strongly, both positively and negatively, to a poem about hunting, “Deer Season,” by Barbara Tanner Angell. One student was able to struggle with his specific writing disability to produce a work that represented a giant leap for his understanding of poetry in general and the act of crafting a singular poem. Figure 2 shows John’s poem, the product of much effort.
Basketball by Amy G.
She held the basketball in her hands
She had so much passion for this sport,
Spent hours perfecting her technique.
The simple ball meant more to her
Than gold or silver.
Many people inspired her to get better.
She never lets the chants plaster her brain.
The crowd sounds lulled from the court.
The other teams were soft and easy to beat.
She always found a way to handle the heat.
Finish Line by Tyler S.
You set your blocks
You see 100 meters ahead of you the finish line.
You look to your left,
You look to your right,
And there are your competitors.
Everyone gets into their stand,
The gun is fired.
Your legs move quick but not quick enough.
You push to your best to take the lead.
The ribbon rips across your chest.
You know you’ve done your best.
The Light Shone Through the Glass by John B.
The light shown
Through the glass
As I aimed in
Over the target
As I gently squeezed
As I fired off one shot
And when I set the gun down
I look only to find
A big ten-point buck
Laying there in the leaves.
The Truck by Bob S.
The roar of the engine bullies the quiet day.
The ancient truck lulls my eyes with its silver paint
The rickety doors make me crazy.
Mud oozes from the giant tires.
The sunless truck is extreme.
And yet another adolescent staple, the love poem, much improved after March Poetry Madness:
So I Loved in Silence by Ashley C.
You came into my life quietly, simply,
and words stood still.
I could not express my feelings in words
or even in simple gestures.
My heart raced so fast,
at light speed.
The secret I kept in my heart.
So I loved in silence,
admired you from a distance,
dreamt of you from afar!
I wished my nerves would fly away,
and my words come back.
“Kingdom,” by Micayla Nelson, generated many poems about childhood memories, neighborhood friendships, or summer activities. Students were able to imitate the model of a poem about childhood that was unsentimental but descriptive and evocative of whatever mood they chose. This poem earned many votes during the tournament, often advancing far beyond what I expected, and inspiring many poems and memoirs.
I chose poems very quickly the first year, and substituted other poems whenever I encountered one that I thought would speak particularly well to my students. I have toyed with the idea of creating other collections to place in tournament play, with the emphasis on play.
Could a classroom teacher, for example, create a text set with immediate direct relevance for teaching elements of a persuasive essay? A tournament could be the vehicle for developing a number of understandings; juxtaposition of two works for a succession of days could elicit the same repetition, the same development of habits of mind, the authentic context for discussion, a similar investment in texts. Perhaps, if I were working closely with a social studies teacher, I might pull together some primary source documents to examine. The vote at the end could be in answer to some question about the era.
Our national mania for competition, in this way, could serve our classrooms rather than distract our students from other topics. We could draw students in to more natural discussions of ideas they do not generally think of as timely or current. That is certainly how it worked for my students in our discussions of two poems each day, for the month of March.
When I announced, at the end of the month, that we would have our second poetry recitation of the year in mid-April (the first was in November), many students turned first to our poetry packets to search out a poem to memorize and perform. Some of them, in fact, already had one memorized because, in addition to hearing the finalists many times, students returned to the packet to read them many more times. While looking for a poem in one of the many collections I kept in my classroom, others would exclaim whenever they noticed a poem they had encountered before, or a poet they had met in the tournament.
Everyone Gets to Play
Poetry became a language that they spoke, a club in which they claimed membership…a game which they, too, could play. By creating Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, where each student could act “beyond his average age, above his daily behavior,” (quoted in Holzman, 2009) I invited them to participate in the literary discussions they would not ordinarily be comfortable with. I gave them rules they were acquainted with in other fields, like basketball, volleyball, or dodgeball tournaments. This could happen with a number of other academic “clubs” or “games” if we are alert to the possibilities of engaging in learning that is more like child’s play and situating learning within contexts familiar to our students from their daily life and interests, including, among other things, paying attention to who makes the finals in televised NCAA basketball.
Dunning, S., Lueders, E., & Smith, H. (1966). Reflections on a gift of watermelon pickle…and other modern verse. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Dunning, S. (1966). Teaching literature to adolescents: poetry. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Francis, R. (1966). “Poetry as Disciplined Play,” in Teaching Literature to Adolescents: Poetry. Dunning, S. (1966). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 35-49.
Holzman, Lois. (2008). Vygotsky at work and play. Hove, East Sussex: Taylor & Francis.
Koch, K. (1974). Rose, where did you get that red?. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Koch, K. (1970). Wishes, lies, and dreams. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
McCosker, K., & Albery, N. (1996). A poem a day. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth
About the author:
Dr. Carol Mikoda teaches writing at SUNY Broome Community College, but has, in the past, taught grades 7 through 12 as well as teachers in training for English and all content areas. She writes poetry, drama, and fiction, plays several instruments, and loves to photograph nature at her home in upstate New York.