The following creative proposal is dedicated to Kristen Kullberg a.k.a. Ms. K, the best middle school language arts teacher of all time.
A few months ago, the middle school students from Sacred Heart Catholic School from Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C., had not yet been exposed to poetry. A few months ago, slant rhymes and alliterations and anaphoras were… just the weirdest things, so why would anyone care about them in the first place? Only a few months ago, Maya Angelou was just another annoying adult. Then, poetry was like the most uncool thing to do. Ever.
Now, however, things are different. Now, when walking into Ms. K’s language arts classroom, you are greeted by a poster on which the Middle School Poetry Experts invite you to approach them in order to receive more information about any literary device. Each of them has an area of specialty; both are indicated on the poster so you immediately know whom to turn to. Now, famous and self-written poems decorate the walls. Today, after the introduction of poetry to the Sacred Heart middle school students as a way to foster language love, the special and hugely complex writing genre has become a place of exploration, comfort, and pride.
As an aspiring educator, I supplemented my Georgetown undergraduate experience with a teaching practicum at Sacred Heart Catholic School. Sacred Heart is widely known for its refined dual language and literacy program in English and Spanish—in large part because of the creative and innovative middle school language arts curriculum of which the primary goal is to foster language love. Kristen Kullberg a.k.a. Ms. K, Sacred Heart’s one and only middle school language arts teacher and undoubtedly biggest impetus in this far-reaching endeavor, is acutely aware of the turbulently hormonal state that her bicultural classroom population finds itself in. Rather than emphasizing the annoying side effects of puberty, however, she focuses on the fact that this transformation of body and mind opens up much space for self-exploration and self-expression. On a daily basis, she empowers her bilingual students in their shuttling back and forth between multiple discourses (Kachru 1995; Canagarajah 2006) and encourages creativity in the form of language play (Maybin & Swann 2007), consistently conveying the message to her students that their identities are in the profound process of reconstruction (Ivanic 1998; Hanauer 2010). Frequently, Ms. K’s vehicle in this ambitious endeavor is… poetry.
Puberty, as you might recall from your growing up and/or teaching and/or parenting experiences, is indeed a challenging time—for all people involved, not just the teens themselves. It is never subtle, never soothing, and seemingly never-ending. Usually, its disruptive nature serves as a strong propellant for physical, mental, and emotional development, but all too often, the daily struggles limit everyone’s view to the tunnel rather than the light at the end of it. Fortunately, Ms. K has found a way to match this developmental mess with a literary genre that is perceived quite similarly, actually: the seeming arbitrary but truthfully highly intentional nature of poetry.
Poetry, in the broadest definition, is a text-based as well as spoken language genre that intentionally creates space for human emotions, ideas, desires, fears, dreams; it assigns language to identity development propelled by imagination. Poetry, therefore, is also the reflection of a profound transformation in the human condition—as pertaining to either one or many persons. More specifically, poetry is a literary genre that allows for meaning to be the primary focus. The meaning, hereby, is supplemented and enhanced by syntactic rules, not dominated or confined. This inverted and therefore special relationship between meaning and syntax, according to Chamcharatsri (2009), enables learners to “express themselves without worrying about structure and grammar, which most of the time inhibits learning and creativity” (Chamcharatsri 2009, p.7). Furthermore, the researcher claims “when students do not worry about structure and grammar, they will be more expressive and play with language at the same time” (Chamcharatsri 2009, p7). Regarding language play, Hanauer (2004) adds that “poetry writing […] should emphasize self-expression and […] meaningful and personal language interaction” (Hanauer 2004, p. 57). Truly, in this free and forgiving approach to language, students can focus on the essentials—their identity. They can feel, think, want, doubt, fear, dream in a safe environment; they can become according to their own imaginative inklings. Thereafter, subgenres of poetry as well as literary devices should be introduced in order to make language play even more intentional.
Mess Meets Mess.
In order to facilitate the meeting of puberty and poetry, teachers must be… well, awesome—awesome first, and then equipped with the perfect lesson plan. I have witnessed Ms. K’s perfect facilitation of The Meeting, and her introductory lesson plan to basic poetic language ought to be shared with other middle school language arts teachers. Because the caterpillar can’t win—the process of becoming a butterfly must be celebrated.
Firstly, gather your students on the floor of your classroom. This specific location is important, because creativity needs intimacy, and desks aren’t intimate. And… breaking all rules starts now. Also, don’t wear a skirt on this day, because you will want to be able to move without having to think and plan first.
So, after you all have taken a seat, go ahead and set the ground rules for the entirety of the lesson: no touching, no sleeping, no yelling out of answers, and whatever else your class needs in order to free up mental space. Then, present to them the arena: a clipboard on which you’ve mapped out the following table:
Into the left column, improvise a three-sentence newspaper version of simple, everyday events. For the purpose of this paper, the example goes as follows:
I woke up at 6a.m. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen. I made coffee and then left for work.
Now, ask your students what they notice about the Reporter’s Version. Be ready to document the answers in a different color around the Reporter’s Version. The answers will—and should—contain adjectives such as “boring,” “plain,” “simple,” “repetitive,” and “predictable.”
Now, take a minute to praise your students; they’ve already done some great, great work.
Next, ask them how all of you together can make the version on the right, the Poet’s Version, more interesting. Hereby, take it sentence-by-sentence and let your students make the changes. Let them take ownership of their work.
In this process, three rules for you:
- Encourage code-switching, the use of two or more languages in the same syntactic environment, during the lesson as well as in the poem.
- Do not nitpick about grammar rules.
- Trust your students; they will be amazing.
As your students transform the newspaper sentences into poetry, write their Poet’s Version down in column on the clipboard. Ms. K’s students developed the following version:
|I opened my crystal green eyesand turned towards my window.
The first thing I saw
were the glistening rays of the rising sun.
I yanked the covers, which were
white and fluffy,
off of me.
My naked toes
touched the cold, wooden floor,
and I walked into the kitchen.
The small, brown coffee beans
turned into soft
powder and then caramel swirls
in my coffee cup.
Now, ask your students about the Poet’s Version: what characterizes it? How is it different from the Reporter’s Version? Some of the responses will—and should—include descriptive language such as “interesting,” “longer and more complex sentences,” “more adjectives and details,” “beautiful images,” and “surprises.” Again, write your students’ answers around the version with differently colored markers so they stand out.
Now, compare the two versions by pointing out the differences, using the adjectives that your students offered. Your students will be excited, because—boom—they just wrote poetry for the first time!
Finally, end the lesson by reviewing what you all did together: the two versions, the differences between them, and the role of both. Close by telling them they did great, by telling them they are becoming poets, by telling them there will be more days like this! And lastly, provide a homework assignment in which students can transform one of their own stories or a short newspaper story into their own poetic version of it.
Ideally, this lesson is the first of many poetry lessons for your middle school students. Ideally, you can use one lesson each week for the entirety of the year to approach that specific week’s theme from a poetic angle. Ideally, by the end of their middle school years, your students, too, can be Poetry Experts who can recite different poems by heart, who know literary devices like the back of their hands, and who treat famous poets as if they’re their best friends. Since we don’t yet live in an ideal world, however, rest assured that even if you only take one lesson to convey the message that creativity—taking the risk of being original, vulnerable, and real—is essential in the exploration of the human condition, then you’ve already let the butterflies in your classroom spread their wings and take off. And once they’re flying… they’re crawling no more.
Canagarajah, A. (2006) “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued.” CCC 57. 4 (2006): 586-619.
Chamcharatsri, P. B. (2009). Negotiating identity from autoethnography: Second language writers’ perspectives. Asian EFL Journal. 38/
Hanauer, D. (2004) Silence, voice and erasure: Psychological embodiment in graffiti at the site of Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination. The Arts in Psychotherapy 31, 29-35.
Hanauer, D. (2010). Laboratory identity: A linguistic landscape analysis of personalized space within a microbiology laboratory. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 7 (2), 152-172.
Ivanic, R. (1998). Writing and Identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1-106.
Kachru, Y. (1995) “Contrastive rhetoric in World Englishes.”English Today 11.1: 21-31.
Maybin J and Swann J. (2007) Editors. Language Creativity in Everyday Contexts. Special issue of Applied Linguistics 2007;28/4:491–608.
 From here on, I will refer to the school as Sacred Heart.
 And from here on referred to with this nickname.