In the beginning poetry was reserved for April. It is National Poetry Month after all, so why not teach about it then? As it became difficult to fit all things poetry into one spring month, I felt like my students were being cheated, so I took a cue from other teachers. These teachers were reading poetry a lot. Some explored a poem a day. Others celebrated Poetry Friday. I decided to start bringing in poetry regularly to help us meet our learning goals. Now poetry is integral to understanding the world around us — the great moments and the tough ones.
My middle school students are now not old enough to remember the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The schema they each hold about those events is varied, to say the least. This year, as we read and discussed articles about the events of the attack, my students chimed in with their knowledge, and we were able to have a great conversation about the significance of that day and how our country and others continue to be affected.
A few days later, in an attempt to show my students how their own schema affects their understanding of text, I presented them with the poem “Reverence.” This poem was written by “Lindsay O.” and is found in Linda Rief’s amazing resource, 100 Quickwrites. I wanted my students to feel the shock and stunning confusion of that day, but I also wanted them to struggle with their understanding and think about their own comprehension.
The poem is cryptic, especially for those who did not live through 9/11. It begins with these words:
Seeming to fall from the sky,
news passed from fated messengers
playing hot potato with
The poem continues with references to public address systems, sidewalks, tears, and silence. I passed out copies to my students and asked them to read it. While they were reading, I expected them to write down some of their thinking in the margins. As I read over shoulders during this process I saw a lot of the same things written down:
“What does this mean?”
“I don’t get this . . .”
“What is falling from the sky?”
“Why is this so sad?”
I asked my students to reflect on this poem in their reading notebooks. They were encouraged to simply write what they thought about it. Again, their confusion was clear. Some students who really wanted to get the answer right wrote things like, “I really liked it.” or, “this is a great poem” but when pressed to tell me why, their answers were superficial. In a few instances students were able to tell me they liked the wording of the poem, or the images, but when asked what the poem was really about, they were somewhat lost.
“How many of you are confused by this poem?” I asked my students. A few hands shot up, and then a few more once it was clear that confusion was okay.
“What was confusing about it?” I pressed.
“Well, it’s like, really sad. But, I can’t tell what is really sad. Like, what happened?” Tammy piped up.
“Yeah,” Chris chimed in,.”What does some of the stuff mean? Like something falling from the sky? What is that?” Murmurs of agreement rolled through the room.
“I can see how that would be confusing to you guys. So, you feel like you need more information?” A chorus of “yes” filled the room.
“Okay, now I am going to remind you of something. Remember the other day when we were talking when the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon were hit by the planes?” The tone of the room shifted. Students straightened up in their chairs and many uttered knowing phrases like, “Ooooh!!! Now I get it!”
“You all have a lot of schema for this event. This poem could be written about that day. Reread it to yourselves, and then, reflect again in your reading notebooks about your new thinking.” The students busily set about their task. And as I moved through the room, I could see their new responses echoing their new understanding:
I asked my students to talk in their groups for a few moments about how their understanding of the poem changed after they actively accessed their schema. Then we shared as a whole group. The conversation this time shifted from being about the poem’s meaning to being about schema.
“What changed for you? How come many of you were confused, then, all of a sudden, understood the poem better?”
“Well, because you told us it was about September 11th. Then I was able to, like, see what everything meant.” Devon replied.
“Okay, so what happens when you are reading something confusing and you don’t have me there to tell you what to think about? What could you do?” The room was silent. I waited. Aside from a few feet shuffling uncomfortably, no one was talking.
“In your table groups, I want you to talk about this. If you were given this poem or something like it which you didn’t really understand, what could you do to help yourself understand?”
The chatter was slow to start, but gained momentum after a few minutes. Kendall suggested that since most of us felt that this poem was about something sad, we could think about sad things that happen to a lot of people and in that way we could have understood the poem better — even if we didn’t connect specifically to the 9/11 attacks. After that, students started sharing other events that could have a similar affect on people, like school shootings and other tragedies. We also learned that poetry touches us each in different ways, and really, regardless of the actual events any poem describes, we can all connect on some level.
Through this activity, my students gained a deeper appreciation of the connections between schema and making meaning. Through rereading, they had very different first and second responses to reflect on. Examining this poem made the tragedy that rocked our country a decade ago relevant, and it helped to make poetry visible as a valid and accessible medium for written expression.