I don’t have a classroom, so I borrow Philo’s. This group of students are all preparing to be certified English teachers in India. In India, high school ends at 10th grade, and students who continue their education go to colleges which are two year programs with majors. Pope John Paul II Teacher’s College is a public school (we’d call it “private” in the US as students pay tuition). All the students here speak Tamil as their mother tongue and have learned English in school. Learning English is an ongoing process for them, so lessons must be designed to support their development as English speakers as well as to teach them to teach others to speak English.
I have to both help them as English language learners and model a lesson they could use in their classrooms with younger English language learners in the future. It’s a complex teaching task.
I’ve chosen six poems by Jeet Thayil. Michael Creighton, teacher at the American Embassy School in Delhi and one of the founders of the Deepalaya Community Library Project, mentioned to me that he’s taught these poems before, Jeet’s “How to Be a…” poems. I’ve gathered a group of them for you to use in a one-page downloadable form with a shortened version of this lesson plan on the back: JeetThayilPoems. The poems have been reprinted and made available with Jeet’s permission.
As I thought about the aims of the Indian secondary classrooms I’ve observed, this group of poems seemed like a good fit. They’re excellent poems, both challenging and fun for students. They also have a combination of new and familiar vocabulary, and offer the chance to introduce some literary terms.
This lesson could work with grades 4-12 (depending on how you introduce it). Here are the steps I followed. They are designed with the students I was teaching in mind, Tamil speakers who are learning English with the intention of becoming English teachers in Indian schools. Please feel free to modify the lesson to fit the needs of your students.
1. Choose the poem you want to start with. Pick your favorite. Read the poem aloud to the class demonstrating pronunciation. For this lesson, I focused on the needs of Indian classrooms, in a US classroom, you’ll focus more on recitation than English pronunciation. Ask students to identify words they don’t understand of vocabulary that’s new to them. Vocabulary is important in both Indian and US classrooms, but ELL students might need more words defined. Have students read the poem out loud once they’ve heard it. Choose them in groups of 3 and have one student read each stanza. That helped me get students who were shy to speak English involved–they knew they only needed three lines.
2.Discuss the structure of the poem. Usually I would do this as a guided class discussion. That was a challenge for me in this context. I have an incomprehensible accent to Indian ears, my go-to examples of explanation don’t work for students from South India, and students aren’t used to free-wheeling whole class discussion. I pointed out the three line stanzas are called tercets and that the poems are the use of imperative sentences sets the tone for the poems. I brought up directions and how people say things in English when it’s something you have to do.
3. Practice writing some directions as imperative sentences together. I reminded them that teachers use imperative sentences all the time. Get out your books. Open to the poem. Together we brainstormed some sentences. Brainstorming was a challenge. Students here aren’t used to being asked for examples of their own thinking. When a student stands (because they always stand) to answer a question here, it’s either right or wrong. If they’re right, the teacher will tell the they’re correct and ask them to sit. If they’re wrong, the teacher will ask for another student to answer and leave the first student standing until the question is answered correctly. I’m not used to students standing. After years of being trained in the discussion-focused US system, I’m awkward with Indian students, and the questions I ask must be confusing to them. We managed to get a few sample imperative sentences written together.
4. Ask students to read the other poems on the page aloud. In this classroom I started off by reading one aloud, defined words, and then asked for other readers. First year students at the college are shy to put their English skills on display. Once Philo told me, “The best way for me to get one of my classes to be quiet is to tell them they have to speak English,” and she laughed. I had trouble getting volunteers, so I picked groups of three and asked them each to read a stanza aloud. In that way we got to hear some of the other poems aloud. In my creative writing classroom in the US, I would have broken them into groups of three, assigned poems, and then had them read in front of the class. I’d use the group readings to coach them in recitation and public speaking.
5. Choose an animal as a class and ask each student to write at least three stanzas that are imperative sentences. Each sentence should be a direction for being that animal.
6. Put students into groups of three share their stanzas to each other, then have them choose one stanza for each person to read aloud. They should agree on an order their stanzas and practice reciting together a few times. If students in your classroom are learning English, this will provide them with good speaking and pronunciation practice. Circulate and help. Check that they’ve written imperative sentences.
7. If you’re using a notebook and timed writing in class, this could be turned into an individual writing assignment and each student could write a series of three stanza poems on animals of their choice. They should follow Thayil’s form, three tercets, and use imperative sentences. I keep a timer in my classroom in the US for this purpose and timed writing is a repeated practice that I use to generate topics for longer pieces of student writing. I didn’t do this in my borrowed classroom.
When I return to my classroom in Alaska, I plan to try this lesson with my students in the US. I’ll report back. I’ll use it as a chance to talk about narration in a poem and how a poet structures the voice of the speaker in a persona poem. The imperative sentences lend confidence. Often teens lack confidence in their writing. I’m interested in exploring teaching voice so consciously.
Moving away from Thayil’s poetry, if you haven’t read his novel Narcopolis (which was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize), here’s an interview that focuses on the novel and the structure of the novel, the changes in Bombay, and the role of addiction in both the novel and Thayil’s life. Read the book.