March Madness Ideas

air timeIt’s March! That time of year when everyone’s filling out their brackets. You can use March Madness as a metaphor for all kinds of activities at school:

  • Poetry: Have students pit their favorite poems against one another. They can create brackets. It can be a fun segue into National Poetry Month in April (see also NCTE’s lesson).
  • Writing: TeachHub has writing prompts related to basketball and March Madness for students in grades K-12.
  • Math: Probability activities and more math-related March Madness.
  • Multiple disciplines: This New York Times activity allows students to use brackets to debate academic questions.

ESPN has tournament brackets available as GIF’s or PDF’s.

Do you have a March Madness idea? Share please!

Creative Commons License photo credit: *sean

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Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologues

Lucrezia de' Medici

Lucrezia de' Medici

Many years ago, I taught a model lesson on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” as part of a job interview. I got the job, and I think the sample lesson was what clinched it. It didn’t hurt that the school was my alma mater and that the department chair was a beloved former teacher of my own, but she herself told me that my lesson made the difference. Essentially, students read the poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” and I asked that we put the character on trial. Is he guilty of the murder of his lover? Students had to rule that he was either guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. They turned to the text for evidence, and it was a fairly lively discussion. Students had a healthy debate and found evidence for either argument in the text. I still teach the poem that way when I teach it.

However, it has been my experience that Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is more frequently anthologized. The inspiration for the poem is believed to be Lucrezia de’ Medici, wife of Alfonso II d’Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara. The Duke left Lucrezia two years before she died, and a hint of poison lurks around the circumstances of her death. He later married Barbara of Austria, and one can just picture the Duke showing his prospective father-in-law this imperious portrait of his first wife.

These two poems differ from many that students have read before in that they are dramatic monologues in which Browning uses the voice of a speaker to tell a story. In fact, I often think of these particular poems when I caution students to describe the narrative voice of a poem as “the speaker” rather than the poet him/herself. Clearly neither speaker is Browning, but these poems open up possibilities to students who might not have considered the storytelling capabilities of poetry.

Many years ago, I purchased a book called Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford. On pages 183-194, the writers discuss monologue poems and use “My Last Duchess” as the centerpiece for the lesson. Their suggestions for creating dramatic monologues are fantastic, and if you don’t have the book, do yourself a favor and get it. Over the years, I have used many of its ideas. I am going to take their advice about “My Last Duchess” and memorize it.

Here are some other resources for teaching Browning and dramatic monologues:

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TPCASTT: A Method for Analyzing Poetry

magnetic poetryOne of the difficulties students tend to have with analyzing poetry is figuring out how to start. One method I’ve adopted after seeing it on Lisa Huff’s blog is TPCASTT.

TPCASTT is an acronym standing for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude, shift, title (again), and theme.

Students begin by looking at the title of the poem to determine what they think it might be about and what it might literally mean.

Next, they read the poem and paraphrase it. What is the “story” of the poem in their own words? They should also define words they don’t know at this stage.

Examining the connotations means looking at words that might have multiple meanings and trying to determine if there is a meaning beyond the literal that lies beneath the surface of the poem. At this stage, students are truly analyzing the text.

Attitude involves determining the tone and emotions associated with the subject. What sort of attitude does the speaker take toward the subject?

Many poems involve a shift in tone. Next, students examine the poem to see if they can detect a shift, and if so, where it occurs, what kind of shift it is, and how it changes the direction and meaning of the poem.

After examining the poem, students return to the title again. Are there any new insights about the title after they have read the poem?

The final step is determining the theme. What greater message did the poet hope to convey? Why did he/she pick up the pen?

One advantage of this method is that it provides students a framework and process for analyzing poetry. Students examine subject, purpose, and audience through this analysis.

My experience has been that students enjoy this organized method of analyzing poetry, and they tend to do well with this sort of guidance. They can learn the acronym and apply it to other poems that they read. I know many AP Literature teachers use this method to teach their students poetry analysis, but I find it works with students of all levels, and particularly with lower level students who have difficulty determining what is important or how to tease out meaning and analysis in a poem. Lisa provides handouts for this method on her blog, too.

I used this method successfully today as my British literature students analyzed Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” and my American literature students analyzed “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It was new to my American literature students, but my British literature students were familiar with the method. It was nice to hear students saying they enjoyed the poetry we read, and I think they enjoyed it mainly because they uncovered a deeper meaning and connection to the poetry through their analysis.

I’ll try to post more poetry ideas as the month progresses. Happy National Poetry Month!

Creative Commons License photo credit: surrealmuse

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Back to the Drawing Board

Tapping a PencilMy lesson on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” bombed pretty spectacularly today. Well, that might be a bit hyperbolic. Surely the time of day, and few classroom irregularities also bear some blame.

I began the lesson by telling students I was going to tell them a story. In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, there is a fantastic story about General James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in the French and Indian War. Things were going badly for the English and Americans. The French wouldn’t budge out of Montreal, and the only way to get to them was up a steep cliff. To top it off, Wolfe had consumption and was so sick at one point he could barely lift his head. He tried to give orders, but all the English attempts to engage the French were failures. Summer was passing quickly, and before long, fall would come, freezing over the St. Lawrence, and making an attack unfeasible until the spring thaw. Suddenly Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan. He had seen a little inlet and wondered if he could get his troops up the cliff. From the text:

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Wolfe died of wounds received in the battle, but his attack was successful, and the English captured Quebec. And yet he says he would rather have written Gray’s poem. After telling my students this story, I asked them to close their eyes and try to picture the images as I read the poem. That was a mistake. It’s about 128 lines long, which is bearable, but longer than their attention spans for sure. Second, they did not have the vocabulary to picture the images in the poem. After I read the poem, the students journaled, and that was where I lost them. They didn’t know what to write, and they knew they had trouble comprehending the language, so they felt a little lost. That was when I realized my mistake. We read it a second time, and I redeemed myself a bit. If I were to do the activity again, I wouldn’t read the poem aloud. Instead, we would read it together or I would split them in groups to read and annotate. I might even have had them read the poem for homework and define all the words they didn’t understand as they read.

My thinking with the read-aloud is that the poem has such strong imagery that I thought listening would lead my students to a stronger understanding of the images used in the poem. I had always intended to read the poem twice, but the first time through was a bit of a waste of our time.

Back to the drawing board!

Do you teach this poem in your class? How do you tackle the vocabulary?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Rennett Stowe

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April Poetry Madness

Magnetic PoetryMarch Madness is upon us. Folks on Twitter are complaining about how lousy their brackets are. It hit me that creating a poetry tournament could be a fun way to celebrate National Poetry Month in April.

I came up with the idea for four brackets: American classics, British/World classics, faculty favorites, and student favorites; however, you could create whatever brackets you want.

Step-by-step directions:

  1. Collect favorites from students and faculty (if you plan to use student and faculty brackets).
  2. English department discussion or teacher determination of quintessential classics of American and British/World brackets (or whatever brackets you have chosen). Alternatively, you could determine which poems should go in the classics brackets through research.
  3. Create your chart. I found downloadable 32- and 64-team blank charts in Excel at this website, but you could create your own if you wish. Google Docs also has several bracket templates you could alter for a poetry tournament. I plan to create a large chart to post outside my classroom using craft paper.
  4. Determine the poems for the first round based on submissions or other criteria.
  5. Pick your favorite way to match the poems up. You can have poetry slams and use an applause meter to determine the winner. You can post the poems and have people check their favorites, then score them. Students can advocate for a poem and determine how to try to convince their peers to vote for their poem. The possibilities are probably endless.

This is the kind of thing you can fill a bulletin board with if you like, but I have already decided to put the National Poetry Month poster from English Journal and all my students’ favorite poems on my bulletin board. Besides, I want to be able to share this project with people walking by the classroom.

Do you have any ideas to add? Please share in the comments.

Update: Well, there is clearly nothing new under the sun; I did, however, have some slightly different ideas as to execution (via Making Curriculum Pop Ning).

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Week in Reflection: February 23-27

This week I am caught up on grading.  I’ve seen lots of talk out there among the English Edublogosphere and Twitter about feedback on student writing.  Something I do about once a semester is type comments as I read a student’s writing.  I usually wind up with about a page when I’m done.  It’s like a written conference.  I wish I had more time for writing conferences in my schedule.  I tried recording my feedback, and it felt like an awkward additional step.  Because I have smaller classes, I am able to give substantial feedback on writing and still ask my students to do plenty of writing.  That’s not to say it’s not a challenge to grade, but it’s such a reward when I can compare students’ progress.  It’s really evident when I compare ninth graders’ writing to eleventh graders’ writing.  It’s not that eleventh graders necessarily are inherently better writers, but I can see the growth that has taken place because I know they were writing like the ninth graders two years ago.  Another thing I have done is allow students to revise for a higher grade.  I gave my students a handout with Seven Deadly Sins — seven common grammatical issues I see in their writing — and a point value to be subtracted for each instance of the “sin” in their paper.  They can erase their sins by figuring out what they did, correcting it, and attaching an explanation of their errors and corrections to the second draft.  All is forgiven.

Right now my juniors are writing poetry explications.  I don’t think I was asked to write an explication until I was in college.  My freshmen are busily writing argumentative essays.  My sophomores are in the midst of a research paper.  Lots of writing going on!

I have really been enjoying the conversations with my department this week.  Teaching can be so isolating, and it is good to connect and discuss with those who share the same burdens and joys that we do as a result of working in the same place.  I feel sad when I hear stories of departments that aren’t close and refuse to collaborate.

My juniors read poetry (John Donne to John Milton) this last couple of weeks, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive comments regarding the readings that they were making on the classroom blog.  My students are generally, I believe, fairly honest about their likes and dislikes.  When I was first exposed to these writers, I admit I didn’t care much for them.  In fact, until college, I didn’t much care for writing before about 1800 or so.  All that changed, and I actually find I like the older literature more now (go figure), but I have to admit that my teachers in high school did very little to engage me in that literature.  I had one excellent English teacher in high school, and the rest of my English classes are a blur.  I remember a lot of what I did with her because it was engaging and interesting.  I hope I am not flattering myself too much to think I have actually engaged my juniors in Late Renaissance/Restoration poetry, but it feels good to read such positive comments.

What this post lacks in coherence chalk up to the fact that what I share is more or less stream of consciousness.  Grad school is starting to get challenging.  I’m learning, and I am enjoying my classes, but I can’t pretend it’s not difficult.

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Beowulf: Lost in Translation

A lot of folks do a translation exercise with Beowulf.  If I remember correctly, the old Scott, Foresman books I used in high school had one.  This ReadWriteThink lesson plan looks like a good one.  I created one for my own students, and I thought I’d share it here.

This translation exercise examines one of my favorite parts of the poem: the scene when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off.  I took four translations done by Michael Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Constance Hieatt.  The last is a prose translation.  I found all of these translations at BeowulfTranslations.net.

After examining the translations, students will answer the questions on the second page (I refer on the handout to pages on the reverse because I always make double-sided copies when I can).  The excerpts in our particular texbook, Prentice Hall’s Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition (also true of their new Penguin edition, though pages differ) are from the Burton Raffel translation.  This is most likely because the Raffel translation is published by Signet, who is owned by Penguin-Putnam.  I’m not sure of the exact relationship between Penguin and Prentice Hall, but there appears to be some sort of understanding.  If readers know, feel free to chime in.

These are the questions:

  1. Compare the translations. What are the major differences that you see? The major similarities?
  2. Burton Raffel translated the version in your textbook (p. 48, lines 381-393) in 1963. Compare this version with the others on the reverse.
  3. Which translation do you think is most interesting/exciting/easy to understand/appealing?
  4. What Anglo-Saxon literary devices that we’ve studied (kennings, caesuras, alliteration) appear? In which versions are these devices preserved?
  5. Which Anglo-Saxon literary devices don’t seem to translate well—in other words, they don’t appear to be easy for translators to work into their versions of Beowulf? Speculate: why do you think this might be?
  6. I included one prose translation of Beowulf, though many more exist.  How do you think a prose translation differs from a poetic one? What qualities might be compromised in a prose translation?
  7. What conclusions can you draw about the process of translation?
  8. What would your advice be to translators (consider the following:  What do they need to think about in order to produce a readable translation that is still faithful to the spirit of the poem? What should they avoid doing?)

I freely admit an affinity for the Heaney translation, but I think others make a more poetic statement with this particular passage.  I am not a huge fan of Raffel’s translation, despite having written a teacher’s guide for this version.  What I hope students gain from this exercise is an understanding that translation is somewhat subjective.  They may not be getting the most accurate, word-for-word version in modern English, and different translators focus on different elements.  Like the ReadWriteThink lesson states, I want them to understand translations are rarely the literary works themselves so much as they are an “imaginative reconstruction” of these works.  I also want them to think about the number of decisions translators must face.

You can download the handouts here:

They are also available on the Handouts page.

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Teaching Poetry

Inspired by this post by Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox Blog, I thought I would share some of my own resources for teaching poetry.

Getting the KnackAs Gardner mentioned, Getting the Knack by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford is a really good resource with lesson plans and ideas for poetry writing assignments.  I have used their found poem exercise many times, always to great success.  I don’t care how old students are, they always enjoy using scissors and glue.  These poems can be surprisingly good and surprisingly challenging to write, too.  What I like about the book is that it presents poetry as a craft, and the exercises enable all students to become poets.  This book has been in my professional development collection for years.  It is a good addition to a middle grades or secondary high school English teacher’s teaching and writing toolbox.

Gardner didn’t mention this book, probably because it is out of print, but Joseph I. Tsujimoto’s Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents is another handy book to have in your collection, and you can find it through used book sellers at Amazon (follow the book link).  It’s a shame this resource was allowed to go out of print!  The strength of Tsujimoto’s work is in the variety of poetry writing assignments (18) and the student models.  In this NCTE article from Classroom Notes Plus (October 2002), Rosemary Laughlin writes glowingly of Tsujimoto’s models, and this article written by Betsey Coleman in VOYA (PDF) also praises his work highly, and both say pretty much what I would say.

Inside OutI have also used Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing by Dan Kirby and Tom Liner (in an earlier edition not including third author Dawn Latta Kirby, but instead with writer Ruth Vinz).  The focus in this book is not strictly on poetry, but on teaching writing in general, including research writing and expository writing.

Lisa Huff has a a new series of posts on teaching poetry at her blog, and the Reflective Teacher’s Literature Pocket Mod could easily be focused on just poetry.  Finally, I posted my poetry unit idea to the UbD Educators wiki, and I would love feedback.

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