Lesson Plan: Poetry Friday with Naomi Shihab Nye

Photo courtesy of Naomi Shihab Nye.
Photo courtesy of Naomi Shihab Nye.

Every Friday in each class period I share a new group of poems with all of my students at the youth facility. My hope is Poetry Friday will create a small poetic canon connecting students dealing with the complexities of life and high school classes in the Juvenile Detention Center. I plan to post all my Poetry Friday lessons on this blog.

Once my five-year-old daughter asked me who I was voting for in an election. I considered a moment and replied, “I’m going to vote for the person who believes in sharing and taking care of each other.” Think of these lessons as my politics made concrete. My intention is to share, so that any teacher, anywhere in the world, could find the resources for a lesson on a contemporary poet that includes video, audio, and options both for literary analysis and creative writing.

I will make efforts to use poems and videos that are widely available online. In the event that I cannot find a free copy of a poems online, I will seek the poet’s permission or I will provide links for readers to purchase the books.

In the beginning, most of these lessons will feature poets from the United States (including many Alaska Native and Alaskan writers). Once I’m in India, they will feature Indian poets writing in English.

Dear ones who are English Teachers: I know your brand of exhaustion. If you need to bring poems to your classroom, please use these in a way that works for you and your students. I would love to hear in the comments what you think. Are you planning to try the lesson? Are you already familiar with Nye’s work or is she new to you? Did you try it and how did it go? Do you have a suggestion of a poet or poem I should try for Poetry Friday? Your comments will help me to learn what is most useful to other teachers.

Dear ones who are not English Teachers: Skip the lesson plan entirely, but please watch these poems. Your life will be made richer for it.

And here it begins. . .

Poetry Friday #1 featuring Naomi Shihab Nye

This Friday we needed some gratitude, some warmth, and a little humor in my classroom. It’s Daylight Savings Time week in Alaska, a nonsensical exercise in clock-fiddling that plunges the sun down behind the hills an hour earlier with no effect other than to sour everyone’s moods. To combat the darkness, I chose Naomi Shihab Nye.

In introduction, I asked my students which had little brothers, sisters, or cousins, and whether they could remember any of the bizarre things that three-year-olds tend to say about the world. I told them a little about Nye, how she’s made her life of poems. I mentioned that she wrote down most of the things her son said to her when he was two or three andturned them into this poem. I  explained a poem made out of words a poet finds in the world is called a found poem. Then I played this:

Next I asked if they knew what the word “earnest” meant. You may not have to do that, but in my case none of my students knew. I explained “earnest” and “earnestness” and then told them that once an eighth-grader handed Nye a piece of paper with his address and said, “Write me a poem.” This poem was her response. I told them that Naomi herself would explain why she wrote the poem. Then I played this:

After that, I dedicated the next poem to students who fancy themselves poets or rappers. That helped get my students engaged. In your introductions to the videos, do what you need to do to meet your students, to get them to listen and watch with full attention. In this poem, Nye gives advice in answer to a question she often gets as a visiting writer in schools. I told them that Nye has visited thousands of classrooms. It’s one of the ways she’s demonstrated her commitment to sharing poetry. Then I show them this:

Videos watched and discussed. It was time to write. I gave my students a handout that included Nye’s poems “Famous,” “Making a Fist,” and “Daily.” In my classroom, reading went like this: I asked which poem they wanted to read aloud first. Then I asked if they’d like me to read or if one of them wanted to volunteer. That question is important in my classroom, with the revolving metal detector of newly incarcerated teens or those about to get called out of the room to meet with their lawyers, with the changes in gender dynamics since we serve few girls, (and when we do, she is often the only girl), and with reading levels which swing from not-at-all to twelfth grade in the same room.

For your class reading will be different. For the typical U.S. 30-35 student high school classroom, I recommend partner reading paired with bins of highlighters. Give each student a highlighter. Have each set of partners read the poems aloud to each other. Yes, it gets loud, but the more students who get to experience the candy of Nye’s words in their own voices, the more they’ll connect with the poems (and not to mention the good practice in expressive reading). After each poem have them highlight the lines they thought were strongest and explain to their partner why. Circulate, talk, get people reading and talking. Then bring them all back together for a whole class discussion of their highlights.

That’s my suggestion for the large classroom, but do reading in whatever way works in your classroom. You know best.

After reading, I offered a writing activity based on the poem “Daily.” I pointed out the repetition of “this” and “that” in the poem. I see “Daily” as an exercise in gratitude. I had my class begin with “This” or “That” and then name something small, physical, something lacking recognition, that they appreciate.

If you try this, remember that gratitude can be difficult for teens. You know best what your class can handle, how to encourage them.

Naomi Nye BooksFor my students, gratitude for the everyday is doubly tricky. Being incarcerated, the everyday is in no way their own. I offered them options: write about small things in the world outside the facility, write about small things in the facility, and if nothing comes, write about anything you can put words to on this day. “No matter what you choose,” I told them, “return to “this” and “that” when you run out of options.” I told them when the ideas failed, they could let the form carry them for a little while. Ideas always come back.

And literature teachers, darlings, I haven’t forgotten you. Use these poems as examples of the following literary terms for your students. Try “Valentine for Ernest Mann” to teach juxtaposition. Nye talks about it herself without naming it in her explanation of the poem. If you’re teaching found poetry, use “One Boy Told Me” as a sample. Use “How do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?” as an example of controlling metaphor. “Daily” offers an example of litany and anaphora.

Having students watch readings of poets using the literary terms on your agenda allows them to see the terms in action and pushes them to an understanding that’s beyond obsessive Quizlet flashcard memorization.

For my class this exercise will be  entered as “writing practice” in my gradebook (a category I use for formative assessment). It’s freewriting, prewriting. Perhaps later, I’d have them revise this and make a final draft.

Outside the gradebook, this exercise offered the following images to me:

That golf pencil, gripped tight in a student’s hand, scratching the one sheet of paper I was allowed to give him. This paper, full of words, and the author’s confidence as he said to me, Read it. It’s legit. This comment, from a surprised student: Oh, I never thought writing a poem could be so easy.


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