I asked my students to turn to a new page in their writers’ notebooks. I told them that I would read aloud a poem. Slowly. I would repeat each line twice. I would spell words that I thought were difficult. I’d tell them where the punctuation went. I’d tell them where the line breaks were. I’d give them time to write.
All they had to do was listen.
You would not believe the moaning.
I explained that to truly understand language they would need to listen to how language works. They needs to hear the words, the rhythm of the sentences, the length of the sentences. They needed to quiet their minds long enough to block everything out but the sounds of each and every word.
“The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound–pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse.” ~Robert Frost
I didn’t expect students to understand so much Frost’s meaning, but I did realize the value of getting students to find a center and make the words their own as they write them down.
I’d experienced this first hand at the Conference on Poetry and Teaching at The Frost Place last summer. Every morning, we’d sit on metal chairs in the small barn behind Robert Frost’s house and listen and write what we heard.
The practice is called DICTATION. “It’s a slowing down and feeling the language in your bones,” says David Cappella, co-author with Baron Wormster of A Surge of Language — Teaching Poetry Day by Day. (Here is a sampling from Heinemann.) Wormster explains, “[Dictation] is a kind of reading aloud to think aloud so you can live out loud. Poetry is life in the slow lane. Poetry tells us to slow down and to pay attention. Poetry directs our attention.”
I have used dictation three times with my students so far this year, and three times we have experienced a calming of the mind that moved us to specific and powerful learning.
1. We focused on word choice, paying particular attention to words we found interesting and unique. This lead to better word choice in our Go World video stories.
2. We focused on sentence length and variety, paying particular attention to the rhythm in the poem. This lead to more purposeful syntax patterns in our next blog post. (All of my students manage their own blogs. See this post here to know more about our blogs.)
3. We focused on figurative language, paying particular attention to the sensory words that created the images. This lead to more colorful, intentional and moving language in our notebook play leading up to narratives.
My second semester starts today. Today I will dictate a poem to get us started, I think it will be this one by Anais Nin: