Uncovering Truths Beneath a Found Poem
Summary: Hundley explains how he uses what could have been a throwaway day to help his students create "found poems," showing how a collaborative, student-centered learning environment promotes success.
One Friday in late April, I set out simply to survive what I expected to be a difficult afternoon in my eighth grade language arts class. I teach in a medium-sized town in the geographical and farming center of California, the San Joaquin Valley. Most of my students come from lower- and middle-income families; they are a racially and ethnically mixed group. On average, they read at about the sixth grade level, and few have had much experience in writing, coming from classrooms where comprehension-heavy worksheets are the norm.
A Bad Day at Mitchell Intermediate School
I expected my eighth-graders to complete a writing activity on this Friday, and I knew this would be a challenge for a number of reasons. First of all, it was the week after Spring Break. Worse yet, the day was rainy with occasional downpours—a distraction that middle school teachers know brews trouble. And then, because it was also test week—a week wracked by the special, week-long STAR/SAT-9 testing schedule—my two-period block was broken up by lunch. Last but not least, today was "leftover time" in this already crazy schedule.
For the entire week, students had been testing in the mornings and then bouncing from one class to the next, with inverted order and altered durations. Other classes were showing videos, having impromptu parties, playing games, or generally engaging in activities that seemed of little educational value. Each day the students asked what I was planning for the two fifty-six-minute periods of "free time" on Friday. Hearing that I had no free-time plans, they implored me to mend my ways and "do what the other teachers are doing." But I was determined to buck the headwind and actually teach in the face of what I envisioned would be a Friday fiasco: a barrage of students coming and going to and from medical appointments, notes from the office, memos from the test administrators and from the yearbook advisor. The phone would be ringing constantly, and the principal's office would issue more than one announcement over the intercom system. All of this, in fact, happened. Given these circumstances, there was little reason to expect any serious reading or writing lesson would succeed.
Why then did I embark on this fool's errand? I think my lesson-planning decision had something to do with my simmering frustration over standardized testing and with the way the frenzied schoolwide plans for this testing week had produced a leftover Friday of potential chaos. I don't think any class period should ever be just a place for kids to hang out until the dismissal bell rings. So on this Friday in late April, I looked up from my roll sheet at the twenty-nine students in my period 5-6 language arts class, took a deep breath, and got to work.
Two hours later, when I excused class, the grin on my face told all: Despite the challenging circumstances, the chaos I had anticipated did not occur. My lesson was astonishingly successful. My mission on this potentially disastrous day was to shepherd students as they created "found poems." Found poetry seemed like an ideal exercise for one of those school days on the edge of the abyss, because it is an activity at which all students can succeed. Students learn some basics of making poetic meaning without the personal investment of coming up with their own words. They are able to manipulate a pool of language that isn't their own.
In skeleton form, my lesson plan went like this: I read to my students—as they followed along—the story "The Battle by the Breadfruit Tree," a nonfiction first-person narrative by Theodore Waldeck. In the account, Waldeck, a nature photographer, perches in a breadfruit tree in order to capture on film the behavior of a troop of baboons. Before the arrival of any wildlife, he witnesses an awe-inspiring sunrise. He captures the beauty of this scene by using evocative language that foreshadows violence ("a great sword of crimson . . . raised itself to slash across the plateau . . ."). Then he describes how a mother baboon and her baby emerge from the forest. Suddenly, a hungry leopard appears and viciously attacks them. The mother defends her offspring in a thrilling, yet brutal series of predator–prey confrontations in which the leopard eventually kills the mother. At the moment the leopard is about to pounce on the baby, the entire baboon troop arrives and descends upon the predator. Waldeck realizes he missed the photo opportunity of a lifetime.
While I read the story aloud, the students and I wrote down words and phrases from the text that we liked. After a brief discussion of the text, we shared our lists of words and phrases and made a class list on an overhead transparency. During a five-minute break, I wrote a found poem. When students returned, I modeled my poem on the overhead projector. We discussed my poem, and the students asked questions and suggested changes. Using my model and ideas from our discussion, the students went to work on their own poems. I revised, then modeled my revision; the students, many eagerly working together, developed their own revisions. Near the end of class, several students read their poems aloud. That was it.
Why It Worked
My lesson plan worked on this difficult day for several reasons:
I read a high-interest, action-filled, descriptive text aloud to my students. Since my primary objective was to guide students on the road to creating their found poems, I took responsibility for reading the text. This way we avoided the problematic round-robin reading format where one student struggles through a passage, the next student worries about reading, and the rest of the class loses interest. Students could relax and more fully enjoy the pacing of the story without listening to student readers stumble over pronunciation of difficult words. While listening, they jotted down words and phrases they liked from the text. We examined the "Breadfruit" text not for answers to the publisher's preset questions at the end but for the quality of the writing and as a way of satisfying our fascination and curiosity about the story. Students recorded phrases such as "fury incarnate," "raked deeply," "it was music made visible," and "the green of the trees was light and like a touch of agony." I paused twice in the reading and made a list of phrases for my own use. For the students, the afternoon began as an easy exercise. I had established a relaxed atmosphere. Then I told them we would be writing a poem.
I made all key components of the lesson student-centered. Students had responsibility for choosing three favorite words and phrases from their lists of words. They volunteered these words for the collection of language on the overhead projector. As we shared, I encouraged them to add words to their own lists. Next, students traded papers with a nearby partner to compare lists. After the break, students analyzed my found poem draft, generated a list of Found Poem Rules to guide their efforts, and then wrote their own drafts.
I encouraged students to talk and share as they wrote. Though the noise level from conversation proved distracting for some students, the fact that virtually all students achieved success in this writing activity provided evidence that the student-centered benefits of free-flowing discussion during writing time can outweigh the teacher-centered benefits of writing in solitary classroom confinement.
I modeled what we would do so students could see the steps involved. I wanted to show them that all writers, even teachers, struggle to make and clarify meaning, and that all writers can gain from the help of colleagues. I shared my first-draft attempt on the overhead projector:
My students were quick to comment on my work in the hatchet language common to thirteen-year-olds: "Are we supposed to get it?" "What's the ending all about?" "Mr. Hundley, what were you thinking?" I thanked them for their candor and asked them three specific questions: "What did I do to compose this? Does it rhyme? What makes it look like a poem?" These questions led to a brief and enthusiastic discussion, and we created a list of rules on the whiteboard for generating a found poem. I used their language for the rules they created. To paraphrase:
- Use words and phrases from the story.
- Add words of your own.
- Rearrange words to develop meaning, to make some kind of sense.
- Do not feel compelled to rhyme.
- Arrange the words as phrases or chunks of meaning not as paragraphs.
Then we went back to my draft. In lines 7–9, students wanted to know what I meant by "magical armies." The truth is, I didn't really know, so I cut these lines. Without student prodding, I cut the "of" from line 16 of my draft to demonstrate how I could tighten a poem's meaning by making fewer words count for more. "Poets condense language," I said.
We returned to their critique. "Whose blood?" they wanted to know. They felt that the words hell, hate, and fury obscured whatever focus I was trying to achieve. I admitted to being swept up in the potent language without attending enough to meaning. I decided to pare down the opening lines of the poem and create the line "Day can break / mercilessly" by pulling "merciless" from line 15 to show that it is possible to play with different meanings by rearranging text.
I then set out to revise my poem as students drafted theirs. When I was certain each student had a draft of a poem, I returned to the overhead and modeled my revision. Using my poem, I talked my way through the poem line by line, showing how each line relies upon the others. I crossed out and reworded and rearranged once more, encouraging the class to critique my work. I wanted to create the feeling that criticism is a help not a putdown. Two students took on roles as my writing coaches, discovering new possible meanings and ways to alter my stanzas for clarity. We worked quickly. "See how this new line is cleaner, clearer?" I said. "It says what I want it to say with fewer words."
I then wrote out a new draft of my poem on the overhead:
Students remained in charge of their own draft and revision efforts. Too often, teachers let their expertise, their need for control, or their well-wishing interrupt the time students need to experience the challenges and rewards of writing. I made a point in this lesson to be cautious in the nature of my comments. I wanted neither to give unwarranted praise nor to revise writing for my students. After modeling revision using my poem, I summarized the activity for the whole class. "Examine your first drafts line by line," I said. "Ask yourself if your poem loses anything, besides length, by deleting a line or a word. Remember: You want meaning to come through, so look over your list of words and see if your poem needs new words or phrases to capture what you want to say." Then I worked my way around the room to confer with individual students.
Several students, uncertain of their work, asked for my opinion. To students who asked, "Is this good?" I would respond with, "What made you choose this line to end your poem?" or "How does this stanza fit in with your title?" In each conference I forced myself to wait to hear the students evaluate their choices and formulate answers, insisting through my silence that they take ownership of their writing and their revision processes. During these brief meetings with students, I concentrated on the changes they had made and asked them to describe their revising processes. "What makes this new draft more effective? What did you change? Why?"
One student, Kathleen, wrote a strikingly poetic description of the African sunrise that captured Theodore Waldeck's feeling of awe. A student sitting nearby was having trouble finding a clear way to construct meaning from some of the same phrases Kathleen had used. "Read Kathleen's first stanza," I said. "See if you like how she described the sunrise." The two students traded and read each other's writing without hesitation.
I honored the collaborative, messy, time-intensive nature of the writing process. Few writers gain inspiration and pen great works of art in solitude. Humans are social creatures in general and never more so than in the teen years. When students help one another as writers, they promote success not only on discreet tasks within a particular assignment but also by creating productive collaborative bonds that help them negotiate the circuitous, recursive course of the writing process in general. They are learning about the process not how to produce a one-time product. So I encouraged students to work collabo-ratively while we drafted poems from the "Breadfruit Tree" lists we had generated.
Soon I could recognize which students were succeeding at the task and which ones needed assistance. As many students wrote and talked and shared in a flurry of noise and activity, I gave special attention to those students who needed assistance.
One Student's Struggle
Despite outward appearances, all teens want to succeed in the eyes of their peers. In the midst of this free working time, Beka, a struggling student, wrote two early drafts presented in figure 1.
Love at death:
Dripping with the color of crimson a bloodcurdling scream that you could not hear. A vision of a life, panting, stained with blood, thinking to itself "Never Give Up" you see and realize a bullet opening the gates of hell, hate, and fury. The brightly coming up with its rays of gold, the gate to heaven with the sighn of a mother who fought to her death, to save the life of her child.
Figure 1: Drafts of Beka's work.
Beka made a habit of using her outgoing, defiant classroom personality to mask frustration over her low academic skills. Some teachers criticized Beka's seemingly single-minded attention to boys; others were frustrated by her short attention span and her ability to disrupt a lesson. I had seen these aspects of Beka's personality in my class, too. This day, after writing two drafts, she thought she was done. But as I walked by her desk, Beka blurted out, "I don't like my poem."
"What don't you like about it?" I wanted to capitalize on this moment to talk with her about writing instead of behavior. "Show me where."
"This part is just sentences. It doesn't look like a poem."
"Read these first three lines," I told her. "Tell me what you mean here in as few words as possible. . . . Underline the main phrase in this line. Do you need the other words? If you decide you do, perhaps breaking this line into two parts would help to express another idea."
Beka's eyes brightened and I left her to her work. Her next draft showed clear improvement:
I chose to include Beka's poem here for three reasons. First, middle school teachers know kids like Beka; they are our greatest challenge. Second, Beka was the behavioral force of entropy I most dreaded on this difficult teaching day. A lesson plan that could engage her interest must have something going for it. Finally, Beka's work shows her early stage of development as a writer. She willingly grapples with a demanding cognitive task. As an aside, her poem might serve as a fairly accurate measurement of what she gained from the text.
Like many adolescents, Beka had little room for academics in her crowded social calendar. Although she is an eighth-grader, her progress, as we see in this poetry activity, does not keep pace with many in her class. Her last draft, though problematic, muddled and confusing, illustrates the incipient stage of a writer's development. Becka's beginning effort is an unpunctuated sequence of found words and phrases. After seeing my example and those of her peers, she wanted my help so she could have a chance at success in this activity. Her last effort shows clear improvement in form if not in clarity. She shows she can revise to condense meaning and arrange line breaks. She can indent, isolate words, and communicate words that carry emotional weight and immediacy. The next time she reads or writes a poem, she will bring to it a newfound awareness of the form.
I think Beka had an emotional reaction to the mother baboon's plight. Perhaps in the midst of Beka's tumultuous, mercurial life she found a connection to this narrative, fascinated by what she perceived in her poem as the power of compassion "with the sign that stands / forever," establishing the mother baboon as a symbol of unwavering devotion to love and maternal duty. While it is impossible to know what motivated Beka to put forth her admittedly stumbling effort, small victories like these encourage us to work harder in general on behalf of kids like Beka. On this day she worked and concentrated harder than on any other assignment of the year.
Beka was rightfully proud of her effort. She proved to herself, to her peers, and to her teacher that she could concentrate, read, compose, and revise. She could write in a poetic form. She could learn concepts and apply them to her own work. She could succeed at a challenging and creative task, in spite of the personal and situational obstacles impeding her. In short she took on the role of a writer and thrived.
As I worked my way from one group to another, student after student was revising, writing, and talking about poetry and the language and the work at hand. I noticed that the students' tone in discussing each other's work was gentler than the tone they used when critiquing my work. In nearly every case, the second-draft poems showed clear improvement over the first drafts. Near the end of class several students, including Beka, read their poems aloud.
The Larger Meaning of Found-Poem Friday
Beka was not the only student who found success on this challenging Friday in late April. "The Battle by the Breadfruit Tree" reading/writing activity worked for the entire class. I think my students reacted positively to this lesson at least in part because it was different from the intensive test preparation lessons they had been experiencing in all their classes over the past several weeks and especially different from the five-day gauntlet of testing they had just finished. Both testing and the curriculum of testing effectively disconnect students from the collaborative, meaning-centered learning that I believe students of all ages, particularly teens, require to be successful in school. This Friday lesson re-established that connection I had worked for all year as my students practiced writing in a meaning-centered writer's workshop classroom.
Another Student Effort
While Beka entered my found-poem lesson as a struggling student, another student, Wilson, like most of my students, was able to create a first draft based on the language in "The Battle by the Breadfruit Tree" that looked more like poetry. His second draft shows several improvements typical of productive peer revision at the middle school level. By manipulating text he borrowed from the story, he learned how to revise.
"Knowlegge of Doom"
The shreiking of savages, devils, and imps
Knowledge of Doom
Shreiking of savages, devils, and imps
Figure 2: Drafts of Wilson's work.
Many of my students, particularly the English language learners, knew not to feel stifled by failure, but to see it as a starting point from which to learn. Students knew that in my class effort was critical to learning. (My grades reward evidence of struggle as much as level of achievement.) Beka, for example, felt motivated enough to produce a third draft, even though her first two efforts failed as poetry. One goal I have as a teacher is to find ways to break cycles of failure by exploiting successful moments like these with my reluctant learners to promote sustainable achievement over a period of weeks and months.
The events of this one-day experience encouraged me to re-examine issues of learning and teaching in general and to reflect upon the implications of this lesson's success in relation to the current trend toward direct instruction and test-centered instruction in California's public schools and elsewhere. To begin, it is clear to me that the positive effects of social climate, engaging lessons, and teacher expectations within a classroom can overcome nearly any impediments to learning that Mother Nature or a SAT-9 administrator can provide, excepting earthquakes or fire drills. Secondly, if my collaborative, student-centered learning environment promoted success on this challenging day, that same environment should serve as a guide for promoting success on any day with any students. Furthermore, the success of this lesson demonstrates that the traditional and increasingly popular classroom conditions for learning (i.e. silent, teacher-centered rooms; children seated in neat rows; interaction with text limited to vocabulary instruction, preset comprehension questions, and multiple-choice tests) do not provide the best context for today's students to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers. For example, I contend that revision is best learned experientially and through social interaction. While this view of revision may be a matter of common sense to many English teachers, it is poorly reflected in California's recent text adoptions, and it is absent from current standardized test preparation packets from which a number of California schools construct year-long curriculum plans and pacing calendars.
In education, as in society, we often confuse what is easiest with what is best. It is easier to arrange students in rows and teach writing skills through worksheets; it is best to let students work collaboratively. It is easier to let preset questions and worksheets guide instruction; it is best to engage students in meaningful, student-centered reading and writing activities. It is easier to teach to a multiple-choice test than to teach writing; to show a video than to read. After reflecting on what I learned from this teaching experience, doing what is best for my students is now an easier decision to make.