Over the years I’ve noticed that my students are getting further and further away from knowing what happened on September 11, 2001, and feeling the weight of its magnitude on our nation’s history. I was in college when the towers were struck, and I remember sitting on the bed in my dorm room feeling crushed and scared and praying for every family affected by that senseless act of terrorism. I will never forget how I felt. Now, over a decade later, we are still impacted by choices and decisions made that day. Each September, I try to pause for a quick lesson in honor and remembrance of our freedom in America. Teaching September 11 can be tricky, but with poetry, it is much more manageable and meaningful. Here are 5 reasons why I love using poetry to teach the events of September 11.
Covering Standards with Poetry
One thing I love about poetry is that it packs a big punch. So many standards can be met when teaching just a tiny poem. Theme and use of language are two standards that might be hard to teach with a larger text, but they are much more manageable when examining a poem. Specifically when dealing with tough issues such as the terrorism and loss on September 11, theme is an important discussion — what do we need to learn from this event… from history, so it doesn’t repeat? These are pertinent questions to ask, and they are perfect questions for understanding and inferring theme.
In both of the lessons I’ve linked at the bottom of this post, theme is heavily examined, and because theme is so universal, a poetry study is the perfect type of lesson to make connections across texts as well. In my lesson plan for “True-Blue American,” students will explore the idea of entitlement v. gratitude and how that fits into their role as an American. The subtle ironic tone of this lesson will challenge your students to reflect on their own lives and choices. Its ultimate goal is for students to be able to delineate how theme develops and how two different texts can share the same theme. By the time they’ve finished looking at the poem, you’ve met numerous standards in depth. Then, when you add the additional texts and other exercises, you’ve taught even more standards — in a meaningful and authentic way.
Close Reading and Annotating Poetry
I think of close reading as dissecting a text in stages — stepping into the four corners of the text multiple times with different goals each time. First, we read for just the main point or to summarize. (I use my SWBST strategy.) We also go ahead and catch any unfamiliar words here, too. I usually play an audio version of the poem for this round, if one is available. I always provide a highlighter and encourage them to make notes in the margin. Next, I have a student volunteer to read it again aloud, and here they looking for deeper meaning, language usage, word choice, and tone. If students have a new purpose each time, I’ve found they are less likely to get “bored” with looking at the same text multiple times. After students have worked individually with the texts, we have a group discussion. To reinforce their ideas and model strong annotating, I will get a blank copy of the text and annotate under my document camera as they discuss and share. In the “True-Blue American” poetry lesson since we were ultimately leading up to comparison, after annotating, I provided them with a thematic Venn diagram on which they recorded their analysis.
Another approach I like to use for annotating is the guided annotations technique. Basically, I give students prompts to point their attention to certain details that they should notice and note. This is a perfect strategy for differentiating for students who are learning to annotate. My “We Grow Accustomed” lesson plan includes guided annotations right on the page. See more information about using guided annotations at this Instagram post.
Collaborating and Discussing Poetry
Academically productive talk has become a staple in my classroom the past few years. I admit that I was so unwilling to even try it at first, but as a Common Core Coach for my state, I felt highly obligated. Once I began to realize the value in it – students talking about texts and ideas to prepare them for their own individual task, to learn how to express themselves accurately, to form rebuttals purposefully and respectfully – I was sold. When I conducted the “True-Blue American” poetry lesson, I tried something new– the interactive anchor chart. The two forms of text we were comparing were a poem and a video lecture/talk. I wanted to make anchor charts for each type, but I didn’t want to just stand up in the front of class basically writing answers for them. Instead, I formulated 4 questions about each genre and gave them a few minutes to work individually. I’ve written a host of questions for analyzing poetry in task card format that are in printable and digital form. You can grab those here. Second, students collaborated with their shoulder partner about their responses. (Watch a quick tutorial about shoulder partners here.) The next step is where the interactive anchor chart comes in. Each group got one sticky note and was assigned to be the expert on one of the questions. They wrote their answer to that one question on their sticky and placed it on the anchor chart in the designated space. To review the answers, I read them out loud and we added and deleted ideas as necessary. This strategy could work with any type of situation where you want students to have notes about a topic and maybe they have some prior knowledge you could activate. Plus, they were doing the work- not me.
Making Personal Connections with Poetry
Some of my students are usually slightly familiar with what happened on 911, but it’s generally pretty foggy. I know that their history teacher is covering the facts, so I don’t usually need to take time to do that. However, I did want to do something and as an ELA teacher, and a thematic approach with textual analysis seemed fitting. While these poetry lessons could work for many other patriotic holidays or just as a stand-alone mini unit, I did it to bring up issues surrounding the events at Ground Zero. Most of the time, we are so focused on skills and objectives, that we forget to make text-to-self and text-to-world connections — and that is where the real magic happens. I like that these lessons allowed us to do that. To close the lessons, then, I give students a creative prompt. In the “True-Blue American” lesson, they designed a flag that illustrated what it means to really be a true-blue American. In the “We Grow Accustomed” lesson, students drew a picture that reflected light and hope. Looking at what they wrote and drew makes me proud to be a teacher in this great country.
Our actions and words affect other people and make this world we live in what it is – for better or worse. Poetry is one tool we have in our teacher toolbox that can allow us to share light and hope with our students while teaching standards as well. I hope that in my classroom I can do a few things that achieve both objectives.
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Written by: Julie Faulkner