Almost every middle school child will cringe at the thought of poetry. They hate it! Each year, I ask the question: Who's a fan of poetry? And every year at least 2-3 hands slowly float into the air. As a teacher, it's extremely challenging to get them to like this particular genre. The truth is kids despise poetry mainly because they don't appreciate or understand it. "It's too hard," they say. In their minds, poetry is obsolete.
To better understand poetry, students were introduced to the SIFT (Symbol, Imagery, Figurative Language, Theme & Tone) Method. It's a technique used to analyze literature. To get my students to understand the word 'analyze,' I tell them to picture puzzle pieces scattered on a table. I explain that each individual piece has to be examined closely before the whole puzzle is assembled. The 'S' is a puzzle piece as well the the 'I,' 'F,' and 'T.' Once those pieces are understood, the puzzle (poem) can finally be put together. When that happens, the big idea is revealed. To understand poetry or any other type of writing, it's necessary to break it into parts first before attempting to grasp what it all means at once.
To teach poetry this year, I used the poem "International News" by an anonymous poet. It's a poem about the true story of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 2,000 feet (200 stories) beneath the earth after the mine they were working in collapsed. They were stuck for 69 days before a miraculous rescue that stunned the world. Before reading the poem, I showed my students the movie trailer ("The 33") to get them interesting. Some students had heard of this occurrence while others hadn't. The goal was to make sure that they had some knowledge about what happened before studying the poem. The trailer helped set the mood. It enabled students to feel sympathetic. As a result, they were ready to read!
We read the poem twice. The students read it silently first. Then, I asked a student to read the poem out loud. In each class, I chose Hispanic students because 2 lines of the poem were written in Spanish, so it was important to me that other students whose first language wasn't Spanish to hear exactly how the words were supposed to be pronounced. This made a huge difference! After reading, we started to sift the poem as a class. The process can be tedious but for good reasons. I like to take it slow because I want students to really understand all parts. We discuss the elements of the poem while spilling our thoughts onto the paper with pencils and highlighters. Apart from the SIFT Method, we look closely at mood, tone, and graphical elements. It took two class sessions to fully analyze the poem correctly and thoroughly. After studying the poem, students were given multiple-choice questions to demonstrate their comprehension of the text.
After analyzing "International News" together, students were required to sift another poem on their own. I placed them in groups of 3, and they read and analyzed "In Time of Silver Rain" by Langston Hughes. Before starting, I shared with them some things about Hughes. I displayed his picture on the board and talked about his life and important historical events that occurred during his lifetime. I felt that it was important for them to know a little about the poet so that they could make connections as they analyzed the poem. They learned that his parents divorced when he was young and that he started writing poetry in middle school. Furthermore, they learned that he also wrote short stories, plays, and novels. Overall, they learned that he was an ordinary person with an extraordinary gift. Just knowing a little about Hughes allowed them to read with a purpose and sense of gratitude.
After reading exit tickets about the purpose of the SIFT Method, it's evident that a good amount of students grasped the whole concept of sifting a poem in order to understand it better. There is no guarantee that their love has grown for this underrated genre, but at least they have a new skill to add to their toolbox. In the end, we have to teach our students that even if they aren't interested or fond of a certain type of writing, it can still be read and understood. There are many genres that I dislike, but my students will never know because of the energy and enthusiasm that I display in my classroom. I can't control what they like or teach them to love poetry or any other genre, but I can show them or model what it's like to have an inquisitive mind.