A Weekly Poem: Strengthening Your Students’ Attention

Jim Burke, an English teacher at Middle College at the College of San Mateo, has been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and has written more than twenty-five books about teaching and literacy. He has received numerous awards, including the Exemplary Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English and the Distinguished Service Award from the California Association of Teachers of English. In addition to his commitment to his own classroom, he has served as an advisor for the College Board’s Advanced Placement English Language and Literature Courses and Exams Review Commission. This post originally appeared on the Uncharted Territory blog.

This year I have brought back something I did for many years, but the chaos of the last two years has made difficult to do: having my students read the same poem every day for a week. Though I do not always use a poem from Uncharted Territory, the poem I will focus on here is Pat Mora’s gem of a poem titled “Two Worlds” (see page 478 in Uncharted 2e). The alternative titles it goes by, “Legal Alien” and “My Own True Name,” can be interesting to have students consider.

Author Jim Burke

The weekly poem has few constraints, but the ones it does have, at least in my class, are important. If we are going to read a poem five times in a week, it needs to be substantive enough to warrant that sort of sustained attention. It should be demanding enough that it challenges the students each day but requires little, if any, direct instruction since I am not “teaching” the poem but using it for different purposes than I might if I were actually teaching poetry. I think of it as a daily exercise of their attention. As the poet William Stafford defined it, “A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite from the hearer or reader a certain kind of attention” (from Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation). So, in short, the weekly poem must be short, interesting, accessible, but also demanding in useful, relevant ways. 

Using Mora’s “Two Worlds” as a model, we did the following over the course of a week. First, why this poem? It satisfies all the requirements listed above. It was also Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month, so that was a nice bonus but not the main reason for choosing it. We were actually working on the material in chapter 7 of Uncharted, reading all the different texts by and about Frederick Douglass and his experiences of moving between different worlds, since he was biracial. It was a perfect selection for early in the year, during which I was still introducing the practice of the weekly poem. 

Over course of the week, we followed a pretty consistent series of steps for the weekly poem, though it inevitably varies depending on the larger context of my class:

  • Monday: I read the poem straight through aloud, while the students are looking at the text of the poem. I ask them to turn to a partner and simply discuss what they noticed and what questions came up for them. I emphasize that they should not try to figure out “what the poem is about.” We are just reading it to listen to it, enjoy it, get the sense and sound of it, use it to foster discussion in class. Total time: 5 minutes
  • Tuesday: We reread the poem aloud, using a video or recording of the poet reading it if available. Then I ask the students to go through the poem to get the gist of it, to summarize it with a partner without trying to interpret it. In short, they should tell their partner what they think is going on (i.e., what people are doing, what is happening, what is being described) in the poem. Total time: 5-6 minutes
  • Wednesday: I reread the poem aloud, then ask the students to reread it to themselves, focusing this time on the language. When reading Mora’s poem, for example, I want them to look for all the words that have anything to do with the idea of two or division. So, for example, we discuss the prefix bi– and discuss what they noticed after they finish. Total time: 5-7 minutes
  • Thursday: We reread the poem—sometimes aloud, sometimes to themselves, other times using a video such as this one when they read sonnet 29 one week—and then I ask them to reread it for some other aspect that seems most accessible but important: imagery, structure, an idea. One week, we read four of Lucille Clifton’s poems to Superman, then finished the week on Friday with her poem “won’t you celebrate with me” (page 805 in Uncharted 2e), which I let Clifton read to us here
  • Friday: On Friday, the students come in and write about the poem in some way that is meaningful to them, usually in their notebooks. Here is what I asked them to do with Pat Mora’s poem:

In your notebook, write about this idea of passing between “two worlds.” You can write about your own experiences of this, Frederick Douglass’s, or the speaker’s in the poem here—or just people in general and the different worlds we inhabit, the different identities we inhabit. (I will not require you to share what you write with others.)

Students wrote with great success about the poem at the end of the week. Here’s a representative example from Julyssa Sandoval, a junior in my class:

I think that this idea about passing between “two worlds” relates much to the experience of not feeling like you fit into a certain category. Society today is still very confining and there are so many expectations about people being a certain way or fitting with a certain group. I think that the poet here was trying to convey how they feel isolated in a way. They have to keep switching between worlds. Their worlds do not accept each other, which is why they are separated. I feel like the poet describes her identity as being stretched out between these two worlds, she is constantly fighting both sides. In my personal experience, I can relate because I feel like there is this pressure to have to make your culture proud, but also assimilate to the dominant culture to be accepted. It is hard being able to do both, which is why many people with mixed cultures feel it is hard to be represented and understood. I think that there is very little awareness about how much of a struggle it is being able to be accepted by both sides. Moreover, this struggle is what causes one to feel like they don’t belong in either groups because they are being shunned by each side when they do not conform to either. 

I love the weekly poem for many reasons. I start class with a nice poetry boost. I can take roll. I usually try to check in with a student or two who may have been out. I am able to bring in a wider range of voices, perspectives, and experiences. And, as we see from Julyssa’s response, the weekly poem allows me to invite my students to think about ideas important to them while also sharpening their reading skills and strengthening their attention muscles.

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