Tripping Over Poetry

It’s Luke Steere again. In preparation for my GID, I turned to Maniotes (2017) in Guided Inquiry Design in Action: High School, who writes that offering a book full of Guided Inquiry Design (GID) units was to “give educators a picture of the wide variety of content and ways that Guided Inquiry can look” (p. 243). At first, she, Ann Caspari, and Carol Kuhlthau, who developed the framework, were hesitant to share content for “fear that people would teach them as canned lessons” (p. 243), but they soon decided to do it as a celebration of sort (akin to this blog), and this book is a trove.

As I wrote before, I work at Hillside. It is an all-boys boarding school serving 5th to 9th students from 13 different countries, a dozen US states, and a range of different learning abilities. We have about 160 students, the majority of which live on campus. I teach three classes of English in addition to my library duties, and though I have a fairly good collaborative relationship with the teachers as a teacher-librarian, I thought I would try my hand at GID solo. It was National Poetry Month.

Typically I assign a Poetry Research project which attempts to expose the students to a wide range of styles of poetry and then lets them pick a “lens” through which to study poetry. We define research questions, hit the databases, and write a paper. In the run up to the project I assign poems: Nikki Giovanni, Shel Silverstein, Sandburg, Whitman, Ogden Nash, William Blake; a smattering. I thought: a good starting point for GID is to reframe projects like this. Why assign reading when you could Open using something like Kofi Dadzie’s 2016 Indie Finals performance from Louder than a Bomb MA? The silence which fell across the room until he hits a symbolic punchline in this poem’s center was great. Were they reacting to his remarks about finding comfort in a new, suburban geography far from home? the rhythm and energy? the fact that it wasn’t an adult? the merciful surprise that this was not another one of Mr. Steere’s handouts?

Here’s the beauty of Open: it didn’t matter. They are taking what they want from the experience of hearing poetry. I invited them to try and find more slam poems or music lyrics or other poems over the next few days as we moved into an Immerse/Explore hybrid which focused on large poetry treasuries, a table where they could go on computers to view other Slam Poetry videos, and a spot to plug headphones into an iPad and listen to their favorite songs. We shared our findings with small Inquiry Circles— some students knew they wanted to focus on rap music, others had only read The Giving Tree by Silverstein and were surprised to find Where the Sidewalk Ends among the stacks of poetry, others were interested in doing Shakespeare. At the beginning and end of each class, I did check-ins. The informal ones, like One-Word Summaries, worked the best, but the involved journal entries which students sent to me on Schoology provided more nuanced feedback. It was good to take the temperature of the class— were they frustrated or were they finding success?

Next came a more concrete deliverable— the so-called “other shoe” which was dropping after my students had enjoyed a relatively loose week of dabbling in poetry. It was time to Identify a research question about poetry. We went over the ways in which one can make a good inquiry question and then I had them email it to me after drafting. We refined them over email or in class the next day and reviewed our database habits, and set off on Gather. One student asked about the connections between country music and poetry, a few wanted to dig into the connections between Shel Silverstein’s training as a cartoonist and as a writer, still more wanted to look into the link between rap music and poetry. Other topics were on jokes, humor, and poetry; American Poetry and the country’s founding, and poetry in the Internet age. I found students were choosing from a bigger variety of topics than when they were assigned the “lens” research paper. Check-ins became more formal and I handed out grids with Successes, Struggles, Questions, and Action Items (which I had got from my practicum with Anita) which allowed students to package these ideas to communicate to me and their peers.

We went digging, feeling good. I was eager. And then: poetry month was over. I still had another unit planned for the year before my final paper was to be assigned, a final paper which would be due at the end of May. Ugh. I would have to modify Create and— but wait— what’s this? An email from the 6th Grade Teacher. From my students, she has heard (!) that I am working on a fun (!) Poetry Research project and is wondering if I would like to collaborate on a Poetry Cafe at the end of the week. Moreover, the Daughters of the American Revolution was coming for their annual visit and awards ceremony.  I thought that each student would write an article, instead of a paper. Of course I had to bring in some curriculum grammar and writing skills, but I allowed them some latitude on what else to do. Some student proposed to bring photos into their article, others wrote poems in the style of their research, but the majority performed at one of the two events. Along with the sixth graders who were reading original poems, my students read research statements, poems they had found over the course of their work, or creative pieces written after certain styles and poets. We were Creating, Sharing, and expanding our learning community!

Luke Steere

Hillside School, Massachusetts