“Māra,” by Moira Wairama

During the last week of term, I introduced many of my E.S.O.L. students to “Māra,” a poem published in Issue 52 of the New Zealand Junior Journal, a journal of writing geared towards students working in level 2 of The New Zealand Curriculum. The full journals, with illustrations and audio recordings, are available here at no charge: http://literacyonline.tki.org.nz/Literacy-Online/Planning-for-my-students-needs/Instructional-Series/Junior-Journal.

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A pēpepe I met in the Auckland Domain

 

In a smooth blend of English and Māori, the speaker invites us into her māra (garden) to meet all of the insects she meets there. The (free) audio recording available on the educators’ resource site highlights the poem’s magical, musical quality, capturing students’ attention in a way that simply handing them the poem as a silent reading assignment could not.

Though the poem is a great example of how students can use imagery, rhyme, and meter in their poems, I find one of the most important things this poem does is highlight the bilingualism and biculturalism that is so important to New Zealand. While I am an American citizen teaching English to non-native speakers, I feel a responsiblity to honour and lift up Te Reo wherever feasible in my teaching as well, and to set a norm in my classroom that all languages are equally precious. Of course, though the poem incorporates both languages, I don’t know if it actually tells us anything particular about Māori culture, so I should be on the lookout for more poems that do this. Learning English is never about replacing what one has grown up with but about adding something new. This is a topic for a future post, but does anyone have suggestions of other poems appropriate for young children that incorporate multiple languages fluently? I’d love to start a solid collection. Thank you!

Most of the articles in the journal come with teacher guides, but the poem does not, so I’ve written up some activities and prepared a vocab sheet for pre-teaching the Māori words and some of the Tier 2 English words that non-native English speakers would need support with. I included some questions to prompt a discussion about the concept of being “special” and what it means to consider something or someone special. My sessions with these students are each quite short, so we don’t have the opportunity for full on CoI, but as always, I’d love to hear of your students’ responses – just hit “reply” below! Adjusting for your students’ needs, I would discuss the unfamiliar words first, so that they have context. Then listen to the poem, giving each student a copy of the poem (from the journal) to have in front of them. Then proceed with the discussion and writing activity.

The guide is available here: http://tinyurl.com/maraguide

After a few drafts, I publish the students’ poems on the wall and give them a chance to read their poetry to each other. It gives each student a chance to showcase their own work and be publicly proud, to review what they have done vs. just turning in an assignment and never seeing it again, to recognize their own work as publish-worthy art, and to learn from and about their peers. I’d love to hear your experiences, successes, and challenges of young students writing and sharing their work!

Strategies for active engagement with poetry

This week my Sheltered English Instruction for English Language Learners course has been focusing on lots of strategies for approaching writing in a way that makes it more accessible for students of varying language backgrounds. I’ve been working a lesson plan incorporating critical thinking into a unit on “The Dormouse and the Doctor” by A. A. Milne. I’ve put together a collection of ideas inspired partly by our discussions and course readings and tailored them all to active engagement with narrative poetry, creative expression and critical thinking. Suggestions/comments very welcome! I would like to expand and specify the ideas below. They are not all explicitly philosophical activities and questions, but could certainly be used as a stimulus to develop some questions for a Community of Inquiry. Most could be adapted for writing prompts or for discussion prompts/question generators, but lend themselves more to one or the other. 

Some Ways to ENGAGE with Narrative Poems for Critical Thinking

Roleplay perspectives.

  • Think about who, what, where, when, how, and especially why characters behave the ways they do or make the decisions they make. Could have students reflect on paper or in small groups.
  • One idea: Act out what happens in the poem OR what they think would happen next and then reflect as a class. Probably more suitable for older children.
  • Another idea: Split up into small groups and encourage unstructured imaginative play for a period of time; then reflect in small groups. Follow up with discussion and/or writing or drawing activity.

Journal from perspective of one of the characters.

  • Similar to the roleplaying idea above, this activity requires students to think critically about the How and 5Ws of individual characters’ behaviour.
  • This assignment is particularly interesting if the student takes on the persona of a minor character or antagonist.
  • I wouldn’t worry about poetic form or formal writing structure at this stage; the idea is to get the juices flowing and think about the reasons someone else might have to justify their ideas/feelings/opinions/behaviour.

Work with “realia” (physical objects related to the poem in some way) to make the poem really come to life.

  • Facilitator or students could bring in.
  • If you are beginning with a poem to spark discussion, the educator could bring in objects to ground the poem; then the next day or the next week students could bring in objects from home to inspire/help ground their own writing. Physical objects help make communication accessible to everyone of different language abilities, and they provide physical stimulation.
  • Kinetic engagement tends to help students make more complex connections and reinforces learned material.

Use graphic organizers.

  • K/W/L charts for brainstorming subject matter: First column is what we know about a topic, second column is what we want to learn, and third column is for recording what we have learned after we research our questions.
  • There are many ways to organize thoughts around plot development (in the writing process of a new poem or in interpreting a poem you’ve read).
    • Cycle Webs can show chronological progression of events and/or cause-and-effect. Students can draw bubbles in a circle with arrows connecting each one.
    • Cause and Effect graphic organizers are another way of showing what follows from what and can strengthen logic and formal reasoning skills.
  • These charts can be created with words, pictures, symbols, or all of the above together, depending on the students’ language ability and how they best process material. Opens opportunity for differentiation for different abilities so that everyone in the class is working on the same project but doing it in a way that will give them each the appropriate amount of challenge (not too much (they’ll freeze) and not too little (they’ll get bored)).
  • Engage with character traits by using Venn diagrams to compare/contrast what is the same and what is different about key speakers in the poem.
  • Main idea webs: Ask the students what the poem is about. Many main ideas will come up. Have them agree on one of them to begin with, and write in the middle of the board. (Note: I’ve found that reaching consensus on a starting point, particularly with a large group, can sometimes be very time-consuming, so if time is limited, you may want to suggest one idea to begin with for discussion, acknowledging that others are just as important and can be discussed another time.) Extend with questions and related ideas to generate a group mind map of inspiration for inquiry around that idea. **NOTE This is related to the “One word or main idea” activity in Philosophy with Young Children: A Classroom Handbook by Philip Cam, Liz Fynes-Clinton, et. al.

Cut, paste, and extend!

  • Physically cut up a poem to engage with it on a physical level. Split the poem into strips so that each line can be moved around and replaced on the page.
  • This can be used as a strategy to edit your own poems OR to glean inspiration from an existing poem you have read.
  • Great activity for children or adults to get a different perspective and strengthen our own writing.
  • Move lines up and down, add spaces and edit, remove words entirely, etc.
  • You can pick just one line you really like from a published poem and write a spin-off poem from that line.

Metaphysics Activities

“It isn’t really Anywhere!”

This is a companion activity to go along with the philosophical discussion that a community could have around the poem “Halfway Down,” by A. A. Milne. I’ve written up beginning discussion questions at Metaphysics Poems.

  1. Read “Halfway Down” by A. A. Milne.
  2. Do you have a special place where you do your best thinking? What makes it so special to you? Make a list of what is and is not there and what you do there.
  3. Using your list, draw a picture of your special place.
    1. –> **Alternative to #3 for students with extra time and some writing skills of their own: Go spend some time in your special place and do a freewrite. Put your pencil to paper and try to just write and write without letting the pencil stop moving for ten or fifteen minutes. What questions come to your mind in/about this special place? What do you hear/see/smell/taste/feel?
  4. Bring back to the circle to share the image/writing of your special place. Explain what is there and what makes it so special. What colours and images did you use? How did you make those decisions? Do your images represent something else? Can you explain what they mean, particularly if your images are not literal representations? How does this place help you think? Does you usually go there alone or with other people? Why?
    1. Have a “scribe” (another student or a teacher) jot down these ideas, or take notes for yourself if you prefer and are able.
  5. Finally, put these ideas into a poem of your own, inspired by “Halfway Down” and your own special place.

Stir Up A Character Poem!

This activity is meant to stimulate discussion on identity formation and essential vs. accidental properties of a species or individual, as well as give students practice writing a revising character poems. A set of essential properties tells us what it means to be that thing or being. The properties of being “male” and “unmarried” are essential properties of a bachelor. All bachelors are male an unmarried, and if someone is not male or unmarried, they are not a bachelor. In contrast, an accidental property is something that just happens to be true about an individual, but is not necessary. I have brown hair. But sometimes I dye it black, blue, or purple. Since “brown hair” is something that just happens to be true, it is an accidental property of myself. When my hair colour is different, I still identify as the same person. I am still Madeleine. But if I imagine myself with completely different body parts or with different parents, I may or may not feel differently.

  1. Begin with “Stir Up A Character Analysis Recipe” at Education World.
  2. Write a poem about a) yourself, b) someone you know, c) a famous person, or d) a character you’ve made up. Incorporate a collection of qualities that make up this individual. This may include physical characteristics, personality traits, things the person is interested in or has done, and more. Incorporate a variety of different types of pieces of information about the person.
  3. Come back to the group and discuss why each property is necessary.
    1. Could you still be human without two eyes, a nose, and a mouth? Why or why not?
    2. Which of the things mentioned in your poem could change and allow you to still be writing about the same person? Which things would have to stay the same? Can you explain why?
    3. A large part of writing good poetry is learning what must be said in a poem versus what can be implied, what the reader might understand without being explicitly told. Is there anything that your poem tells the reader about your character that could be shown in a different way, or something that is actually just not as important as it seemed during the first draft? Think about this for revisions.
    4. Are choices you make essential to your identity? This will probably be different for different people. For example, I am a vegan, and I feel that that is essential to my identity. There may be some vegans, however, who can imagine themselves as the same person if they were to start eating animals. How do you decide if something if part of who you are or just something about your experience, that could be otherwise?

Metaphysics Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

“Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem, translated by Edward Field

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

From the first line of the poem, we are challenged to think about the nature of time in an unconventional way. What does it mean for something to happen “in the very earliest time?” Could something have come before that?

Furthermore, in “Magic Words,” the speaker asserts that a very, very long time ago, the world worked differently than it seems to today. Human and non-human animals could change their form at will, which makes us wonder what the essential and accidental properties of humans and non-human animals are. The speaker also explains that words had the power to change the physical world. Of course, many of us might say that words still possess strong powers! A whole discussion might be had on whether it is our words themselves that hold the power to change the world, or whether words serve only as inspiration for actions that humans must take.

“The Birth of a Stone,” Kwang-kyu Kim (South Korea), translated by Brother Anthony – printed in This Same Sky, p. 111

This poem raises the age old questions about what may or may not exist beyond our own awareness. “I wonder if there are stones/that no one has visited?” the speaker wonders. This brings to mind the classic problem of the tree falling alone in the forest. Over the first two stanzas, the speaker muses about what this ancient stone could have endured over millions or billions of years, outside the realm of human experience. At the end, the speaker concludes with a bold claim, that the stone in fact came into existence as soon as it was observed – “was only born/the moment I first saw it.”

This poem may also raise the epistemic questions around the “tree falls in a forest” conundrum: If see/hear a tree fall but no one else does, how do I know it really happened? Should anyone else believe me that it really happened? Why or why not?

“What is it that upsets the volcanoes?,” by Pablo Neruda (Chile), translated by William O’Daly, This Same Sky, p. 129

This short poem, comprised of four couplets with one line standing on its own in the middle, asks five unconventional questions about the nature of the natural world. Some of its questions also may dip into psychology. It begins, “What is it that upsets the volcanoes/that spit fire, cold, and rage?” Can a natural phenomenon that lacks a brain and nervous system be “upset?” What does it mean to be “upset?” Is it always an emotion? The volcano is described as spitting “cold,” but we know that lava is scalding. Can something be “hot” and “cold” at the same time in different ways? What would that mean?

“The Ship’s Whistle,” Tarapada Ray (India), translated by Shyamasree Devi and P. Lal, This Same Sky, p. 155

Here, there is more potential for discussion on the nature of Time. The poem sketches a scene of people getting ready to leave on a long journey. “Your old paper flowers still in that vase/Forever fresh—forever, what does that mean?” What does forever mean? Can we experience it? Is a paper flower always fresh? Can something be forever fresh that never was alive? Though in fact, the paper itself used to be a living tree, which was killed and preserved into an inanimate object. However, of course, all paper will decay and disintegrate someday, and become again part of the earth. Does this have any implication for the idea of “forever?”

Halfway Down,” A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young, p. 83

This is a lovely little sketch of the special spot right in the middle of things, halfway down (or halfway up, depending on how you look at it) the middle of a staircase. For the child speaker of this poem, it is a particularly special place, unlike any other, where “all sorts of funny thoughts/Run round my head.” After trying to put a label on it and giving only a list of places it is not, the child concludes, “It isn’t really/Anywhere!/It’s somewhere else instead!”

  • Is it possible to not be anywhere at all?
  • If you aren’t anywhere, do you still exist? How do you know?
  • Where is the “halfway” point on a long staircase? If there are twenty steps, is it on the tenth? (really less than exactly half) Or the eleventh? (really more than half) Does it count if you’re on the ninth? How do you decide?

“Day-Dream,” Samarendra Sengupta (India), translated by Lila Ray, This Same Sky, p. 52

“Day-Dream” takes us into a vivid scene of a boy flying a kite alone. With no other people around, the kite takes on a life of its own. When the kite meets another kite in the air, the reader may wonder who, if anyone, is on the other end of the second kite. The line “Space is calligraphic in the clouds” prompts us to think about communication. “The boy/understands although no one else may read it.” What does it mean to communicate something to another person? Is he awake or dreaming?

We can also bring the discussion to epistemic questions.

  • What does the boy understand?
  • How does he know?
  • If you learn something in a dream, is it still true when you wake up?
  • How does the boy know whether he is awake or dreaming?

Finally, this poem can also be used to discuss multiculturalism. Children’s kite-flying is an important piece of Indian culture. A philosophy discussion around “Day-Dream” could easily be incorporated into a primary school unit on sharing different cultural activities and traditions.

Ravikovitch, Dahlia. “Magic.” Israel. translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, This Same Sky, p. 57

“Magic” begins “Today I’m a hill/tomorrow a sea.” Like “Magic Words,” “Magic” brings up more questions on fluid transformation in the natural world. As the poem cycles through a first person description of changing form, the poem can also prompt discussion of identity formation. Who do you think the speaker is?

Holman, Felice. “Possibilities.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 37

Another great poem to get kids thinking and wondering about what is and is not possible. This is a fun read-aloud with repetition and rhyming that feels fantastic to swirl around in your mouth, and a whimsical Gorey illustration that shows ideas and words as clouds emitting from a child’s consciousness.

Holman, Felice. “Voices.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 53

“The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke

The Ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical paradox about a beloved ship made entirely of wooden boards. As the ship begins to fall into disrepair, Theseus has each board replaced as soon as it breaks, until every board of the ship has been replaced. The paradox comes when we ask the question, is it still the same ship? A paradox occurs when two or more answers to a question seem equally plausible. There is a strong case for saying it is not the same ship: Every board is completely different! If the ship had been assembled by taking all of the new boards and putting them together at once, and the original ship simply destroyed, we would have no problem agreeing it there were two ships. However, there is also a strong case for the ship being the same: If it is a different ship now, when did it stop being the original ship? When the very last board had been replaced? When more than half the boards had been replaced? The moment the first board was replaced? If this is the case, then what does this tell us about similarly seemingly inconsequential changes in our possessions, or changes in ourselves? Like “Halfway Down” and its accompanying activity, this is another poem that can stimulate discussion of essential and accidental properties: How much can change about a thing or being before it/she/he becomes something/someone entirely new?

“If A Tree Falls,” Laura Purdie Salas, Bookspeak! Poems About Books

Most of us have heard of the philosophical quandary, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it still make a sound?” In this short and sweet poem that is part of a brilliant collection of poems bringing fiction to life, Salas takes the same idea to investigate the philosophy of fiction: If a book is never read, “does it still embrace a story?” Are stories real? What makes a story real?

Silverstein, Shel. “Colors.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 24 (see Resource List)

Using the -ish sound to great effect, “Colors” describes the rainbow that makes up the outside of one person, concluding with the intriguing line, “And all the colors I am inside/Have not been invented yet.” What does it mean to invent a color? If no one had ever seen the color red, would it not exist at all? See if you can relate this to “If A Tree Falls” by Laura Purdie Salas. How do we know if something exists or not? (You can see how this line of inquiry can also lead into epistemic questions.) Also filed under Social & Political Philosophy Poems.