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.