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Mini-Lesson Monday: Introducing Thematic Units through Poetry

d284bf40a1804c66d4fff674f59b350eSince the Freshman English curriculum is set up thematically, I like to introduce quarter themes through poetry.  While I love the quarter’s discussion of larger themes, students oftentimes lose the goal, purpose, or relevance of these themes as the quarter progresses.

In turn, I make it a point to introduce the quarter’s themes independently as a pre-reading exercise.  Instead of asking questions specifically about lit circle or whole class novels, I lead in with poetry that will help students begin teasing out the bigger ideas from the beginning.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will identify the central theme of the poem “Trolls” by Shane Koyczan, stating its message, and quoting from the text.  They will interpret the meaning through individual quick writes and group discussions, and they will apply the concepts learned from their discussions to the books they are currently reading in literature circles.

Lesson: The Freshman Team’s Quarter two theme is “darkness of man’s heart,” which I introduced this year through Shane Koyczan’s poem “Trolls.”  The purpose of this quick write is threefold: it introduces students to denotation and connotation; it allows us to discuss second person point of view, and it provides a smooth transition into our quarter theme.

First I hand out the printed copy of “Trolls” and I play the video for students.  Students then perform a five-minute quick write to the poem by either pulling an idea or a quote from the poem and using it as a sentence starter or by responding to the poem as a whole.  Regardless of their method, their goal is to connect pencil to paper for a full five minutes until I tell them to finish up their line.  During this time I model my own writing on my document projector.  Our quick write time is followed by two minutes of Kelly Gallagher’s “RADaR marks” in which students return to their writing, colored pencils in hand, to quickly review and revise their work.

I love the immediate reaction and rawness of their writing in these moments, which makes it the perfect time to turn and talk within our groups.  I first model my writing then ask students to share theirs, urging them to read at least one line from their responses.  These quick writes provide the necessary steps to build a writer’s community.  The more students share these tidbits, the more willingly the engage in the writing process with each other at every step.

It is these individual discussions that lead to greater questions about Koyczan’s use of denotation and connotation to describe both mythical trolls and Internet trolls.  We talk about his intentions in starting the poem with the fairytale line of “Once upon a time” as well as his reliance on second person to not only garner solidarity with his audience but to attack cyberbullies.

Once we’re done discussing the intricacies of the language, I send them back to their groups to contemplate what Koyczan has to say about the darkness of man’s heart.  Starting with poetry allows them to grapple with major themes in a small burst.  Spoken word poetry plants these ideas before they even begin to delve into more complex novels.

Follow Up: This quarter is the first time I have done literature circles.  My students chose from Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, or a combination between Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm.  I used Koyczan’s poem to practice our literature circle roles and then to use our roles as a basis for discussion in the literature circle groups.

Because “Trolls” was short, accessible piece, students were able to discuss the theme before we even began our reading of our exploration of our lit circle books.  That being said, this process of discussion, while simple, allows students to explore themes, thus building the necessary foundation for them to further examine these themes within their novels.

Here are some additional poems to pair with literature themes:

Theme: Loss of Innocence—Poem: “Jellyfish” by Sarah Kay

Theme: Individual and Society—Poem: “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan

Theme: Identity—Poem: “Names” by Rachel Rostad or “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar paired with “Masks”  by Shel Silverstein,

Theme: Love—Poem: “How Falling Love is Like Owning a Dog” by Taylor Mali

Theme: Coming of Age—Poem: “On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins

Theme: Invasion of Technology—Poem: “Look Up” by Gary Turk

What theme-poem pairings do you use in your classroom?  What suggestions would you add to this list?

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2 thoughts on “Mini-Lesson Monday: Introducing Thematic Units through Poetry

  1. […] Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then […]

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  2. Karoline November 17, 2015 at 10:58 am Reply

    Jackie,
    Thanks for a great post! I’m interested to hear more about how your school chooses the themes by grade level. Do you think about what might be engaging developmentally? Plan for vertical alignment? I’d love to do do more thematic units rather than units around one specific text or writing task, and am looking for ways others do it. Thanks 🙂

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