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Mini-lesson Monday: Poetic Literary Movements

This year was a balancing act. Bridging the old and the new. The curriculum I’m used to and the possibilities of workshop. Along with that came plenty of challenges, but also plenty of opportunities to improve on what I know by learning more about what my students can create with choice.

This lesson is from my American Literature class (sophomores) and occurred this past April when we were studying Realism. Students had conducted some research on what thematic and stylistic elements characterized the Realist movement in America and I turned to poetry to make the 19th Century ideas come to life.

Objective/s: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will analyze their Realism research and examples of Realist poetry in order to synthesize characteristics of the time period with original ideas in the form of Realist inspired poetry.

Lesson: Students came to class with notes they took on American Realism. I had asked them to research the major authors of the time period, famous works, common themes and stylistic elements of writing from that time, and the historical events that led to a shift away from Romanticism.

We started by taking a look at Stephen Crane’s “I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon.”

I saw a man

I modeled for students my own analysis, suggesting the elements of Realism I saw in the poem. The clash of Romantic thought and Realist. The futility Realists saw in trying to escape reality. The simple construction of sentences and relatively plain diction.

We then talked about connections to these realist ideas today. “Many of us are Romantics,” I said, “I think I’m one. But I bet many of you are Realists too. What does that look like in your life?”

I asked students to jot down some ideas in their writer’s notebooks of everyday events that speak to these same themes…what some would call the ordinary struggles of life. As I walked around and took a look at the ideas my students were generating, several jumped out at me:

  • Watching someone get bullied and not knowing how to help
  • Dealing with the hand you’re dealt
  • Unavoidable accidents
  • The ‘you’ no one would suspect

Holy poetry material! I shared aloud several examples of ideas I saw from their notebooks and then shifted to have them look at one more example to solidify the simplicity (and power) of realist diction and images.

“Now, I am of the opinion that some of the best poetry is exceedingly simple. The raw, honest truth of life, just like some of the ideas I saw when I walked around and peeked into your notebooks. Let’s take a look at one more example of realist poetry – a modern example.” I showed students  “The End,” a poem (no author found) I discovered when searching for examples of Realism:


The End

It didn’t come with a bang

or a big explosion.

It didn’t come with an inevitable apocalypse

or an armageddon.

It didn’t come with collision

or a war.

It didn’t end with a dying sun

or a waking moon.

It didn’t end in breached dimensions

or shattered realities.

It didn’t end with entropy.

It came when Existence stopped dreaming

And fell into a deep sleep.


Students read the poem silently a few times and I asked them to write down the lines that they felt were especially impactful, powerful, and/or moving. I then read the poem out loud and we discussed our thoughts on the lines they wrote in their notebooks.

Next up was time to explore. Students took their knowledge of Realism, their explorations of realist topics, and our discussion on the power of simple construction with simple ideas and set to work on their own realist poems in their notebooks.

Follow up: After students had time to work on their poems, I had them share at their tables. Each table elected one student whose poem they thought was particularly pointed and either that student stood to read it or asked someone else at the table to read his/her work. We always talk about taking pride and ownership in our writing to build community. Sometimes this means letting someone’s enthusiasm over the work of his/her peers fuel an energetic reading of the work as well. Kids love to read the work of their peers and I can see in the faces of the authors a pride often unmatched when they read their own work.

A few class periods later, I asked them to find additional poems with Realist characteristics. We used these as mentor texts for small group discussion and to compare with our own work.
Do you sometimes have to bridge the gap between old school and workshop? How do you make the old seem new again? Please share in the comments below.

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