Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poetry and Performance

I have discovered something new and great.

It started almost by accident. We had a brilliant guest teacher in the other second grade, who came in and taught a poetry lesson. He introduced the students to the poem "The Eagle," by Tennyson.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands,
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed by the azure world he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

It was an excellent lesson, in which he didn't reveal the title of the poem, and they had to use clues in the poem to guess who "he" was. They also got to act out the poem, learning what the unfamiliar vocabulary words meant, and even jumping off of desks to imitate "like a thunderbolt he falls." They illustrated each line of the poem, having only 3 minutes per line to sketch quickly what they visualized when they heard that line. They recited lines of the poem over and over again, concentrating on fluency, expression, word endings, enunciation, and performance skills.

I decided to do the same lesson in my class Monday. I was excited and inspired. But my students were silly. They were annoyed that they had to stand up to recite. They spoke too loudly, yelling the lines. They went too fast, and sounded out-of-sync. They flopped around on the rug, and made fun of the poem.

I persisted. I stayed animated and positive about the poem. Some students were intent on memorizing and reciting it, and on the idea that when the whole class could recite it beautifully together, we would go outside and jump off a (low) wall at the last line. I let those who wanted to sit down sit, and I worked with the others. Every time they chanted a line, I got excited, and commented on the parts they did well. We practiced the word "clasps" over and over again. We even practiced the "sps" sound over and over again, in preparation for the word "clasps." "Beautiful!" I exclaimed as they began to recite in unison, ending with a few seconds of silence, the final consonants ringing in our ears.

On Day 2 of the poem, there was less silliness. At one point, I ended up alone with 3 students in the room. I asked if they wanted to recite it together. They chose not to look at the words, and they did it perfectly, working as a group to start and end each line together. Their expression and articulation could use a little work, but they had the whole thing memorized in two days.

Today, those three students performed for the class. Then they chose 3 more students to stand and join them. Finally, they chose 4 students to replace them, and to recite it as a group. After each recitation, the class broke out in applause. I continued to comment on crisp consonants, coordination of teams, and expressive voices, and to delight in the beauty of the poem.

The teachers have been thinking a lot about fluency lately. Our students can often read on grade-level, but not fluently, and comprehension breaks down, especially when they get to third grade. So today I took my lowest guided reading group, and asked them to practice reading one page of a non-fiction book about sharks over and over again. I read it fluently and with expression, and they echoed me. They read it for and with their partners. We noticed what each student did well, and made suggestions. They read the same four sentences over and over and over, until they sounded almost perfect, like fluent readers.

In the middle of the lesson, I turned around to see that Ramon had stood up as he practiced the reading. Ramon, who the day before had complained bitterly about having to stand to perform the eagle poem, and had flopped down on the rug in exhaustion.

"Whatcha doin' standing up?" I asked him.

"I'm performing," he answered.

"Oh really?" I asked, grinning. "Whatever happened to 'I don't want to stand up to read the poem!'" I whined in imitation of his tone.

"That was yesterday!" he responded without missing a beat, his eyes crinkling up as he laughed at himself.

I realized that performing is powerful stuff. Reading is so hard for Ramon, who has a serious reading disability. But he likes practicing it over and over again, and he is good at memorizing. The more he repeats a poem, or a page of text, the better he will know the content, and the more he will recognize those words the next time he encounters them. He, and his classmates, are starting to relish the sound of their own voices when they sound strong, beautiful, and competent -- not the way they usually read. They feel proud as they get better at the text they practice. And they are motivated by the promise of a real audience, whether it's our class or the entire lower school.

I promised his group that they would each get one chapter of the sharks book to master. They could take it home with them to practice, practice at school, practice, practice, practice, until they were good enough to "perform" it for the audience of their choice. They were excited, and our reading group returned to class full of energy and smiles.

Meanwhile, poetry is taking off. We started talking about alliteration, focusing on the first line of the eagle poem. I brought in tongue twisters to try, again focusing on articulation and word endings. Students got a page of alliterative phrases with blanks, such as "tough teachers _____," and they got to fill in the blanks with another word that started the same way. Some of these began to turn into silly poems. Every day, there is great enthusiasm at the end of reading, as some students get to perform what they have written, or recite a poem they have memorized. It is an organic process -- it is just unfolding, and I am picking up on the energy and growing it, but I am not making it happen. This is how good teaching happens, kind of magically, kind of by mistake, and your only choice is to run with it.

1 comment:

  1. So great! I think their performance would be a YouTube sensation. Just a thought...