Early in the school year, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to gather diagnostic data on my students, without uttering the words diagnostic, data, quiz, baseline, or any other term that reduces my students to plot points on a spreadsheet or numbers in the gradebook.
We know the power of conferring in learning about our students in countless ways, but what to do when, say as an AP teacher, we need to know students’ understanding of analysis terms or their ability to apply those terms in order to really dig into authentic analysis through study of mentor texts?
The idea of a vocabulary quiz makes me shutter. Conferring long enough with each student to get a good understanding of his/her knowledge of syntax, imagery, figurative language, etc. would take weeks. Submitting annotations on our first go-around seems cruel to both students and to me.
So this year, my colleague Sarah and I decided to try something different. We wanted an understanding of how students would go about identifying the purpose of a piece and provide appropriate text evidence of the basic terminology of analysis: syntax, imagery, diction, figurative language, and detail. We wanted students to use their left and their right brains. We wanted to students to work together to solve a problem.
Enter, the blackout poem.
Traditionally, black out poetry makes meaning out of the words provided by a single page of text. Whether it be from a book, article, essay, etc., a poem is created from the words that live on the page by blacking out all other words and leaving just the ones that create meaning for your given purpose. Additional images are sometimes included.
We decided to turn this upside down a bit. Students would create their page of text from the text evidence they pulled from their reading (In this case, their choice of Mary Roach books from our summer homework assignment) and a poem to illustrate their claim of purpose from that reading.
And this, is some of what we got:
Below, are the steps we took in guiding students through this unique assignment. It could work for jut about any reading, and I would love to try it when students have read a variety of perspectives on a given topic.
- Students read their choice of Mary Roach books over the summer and kept track of instances where they felt she purposefully utilized DIDLS (Detail, Imagery, etc.).
- We then partnered up or formed groups of three to discuss what we found and what we thought it meant. We were working toward specific purpose claims for each text.
- Students shared examples of the various instances of craft from Roach’s texts and as they did so, they typed those quotes onto a shared Google document. Their final task with that original quote document was to decide on a claim of purpose for the text(s) they read.
- Once finished, students printed that document of quotes so I could take a look. I’ll use it as a jumping off point for review that’s needed with specific elements of analysis.
- The kids then eliminated all of the formatting for their quote document, so they were left with a page full of quotes from their texts. Essentially, they created the page of text for their blackout poem, instead of using an existing one from the book.
- We then talked about how to communicate their claims of purpose poetically. Simply finding the words from their purpose was not going to be poetic, it was going to sound like a thesis. We brainstormed ways to convey the purpose through related ideas and involve more imagery, figurative language, etc. in our own work.
- Finally, we put the poems under the document camera and each group explained their claim for Roach’s purpose in the text, how it influenced their poem, and read their work to us. We snapped at the end of each reading.
I love that this work got students talking about a text, using text evidence, attacking an assignment with both sides of their brains, and enthusiastically supporting one another’s work by sharing with the class. Their creations went well beyond finding and explaining examples, to creation. Poetry from nonfiction for the win.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite insight from Mary Roach (courtesy of the book Gulp) is that our mouths fill up with saliva before we vomit in order to protect our teeth. We have so much acid in our stomachs that our teeth would be irreparably damaged when we puke, if our saliva didn’t protect them. Science. Incredible. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum