Welcome to the classroom component of the 2019 National Poetry Month’s education project, Dear Poet. The following unit incorporates multimedia and classroom activities to encourage students to explore and interact with poetry by first writing letters to important historical poets as practice, then writing letters to poets on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors.

While this unit may be most appropriate for middle and high school students, it can be easily adapted for younger students as well. You can use the activities one right after the other, or separate them, as you integrate poetry with other areas of study throughout National Poetry Month. The activities are designed to reach diverse learners through multiple entry points and can be modified further for your particular students.

Aligned with the Common Core Standards, these activities address the three literacy areas of Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening. 

learn more about dear poet

Literature Common Core Standards Addressed in These Activities

Reading, Craft and Structure:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4

Writing, Production and Distribution of Writing:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4 and 5

Speaking and Listening, Comprehension and Collaboration:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.1

Activity 1: Selecting Favorite Poems by Historical Poets

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop
“The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
“The Gray Heron" by Galway Kinnell
“The Little Mute Boy” by Federico García Lorca
“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich

Objectives

Students will

  • identify poets whose poetic voices speak to them;
  • select one of these poets and his or her poem to consider more deeply; and
  • provide verbal explanation or evidence about why they have chosen this poem and poet to their peers.

Pre-Activities

Whole-class Warm-up: The Idea of Voice

  • Ask your students to write some quick associations they have with the word voice in their journals (or on a sheet of paper).
  • Ask students to turn and talk with a neighbor about their associations.
  • Then ask them, sitting alone in their seats, to make a sound, using their own voice, without words, to express how they are feeling at the moment.
  • Have them turn to their neighbors and repeat the sounds they just practiced. While listening, their neighbor should describe the sound in writing in their journals and then tell the “voicer” what they heard. Make sure your students start first with the characteristics of the sounds, and then go into their interpretations of what they think the sounds meant, based on what they heard.
  • Repeat the process, but this time, ask your students to switch roles.
  • Conduct a whole-group discussion about what a person’s voice can tell us without words and how it tells us this.
  • Write the characteristics of the sounds on the board in the front of the room for all to see.
  • Now ask for volunteers from the whole group to be “voicers,” this time using words as well as the characteristics noted earlier to express how they are feeling.
  • Ask other students to describe what they hear this time. How is it different from what they heard without words?
  • Write these comments on the board at the front of the room.

Individual and Small Group Reading: The Poet’s Voice

  • Divide your class into groups of three.
  • Before you hand out the six historical poems (see above) to your students, you may want to look through them to see which are most appropriate for your class.  Give your students all six poems or the selection you have chosen.
  • Ask them to refer back to the list and comments from the warm-up to refresh their memories before they read the poems.
  • As the students read the poems, have them complete a T-chart for each one, listing on one side what jumps out at them in the poem. On the T-chart’s other side, they should include why they think each detail is important to the poet’s voice and poem, and if or how it is important to them as a reader.
  • If they are having difficulties, they can quietly ask the advice of someone in their group.
  • After the students have completed their T-charts, ask them to look over the poems and pick the poet’s voice to which they most relate or personally respond.

Explaining Their Choice

  • When your students have completed their reading and T-charts, ask them to share their choices with the rest of their group. Ask students to explain why they relate to the voice in the poem they chose by giving examples from the text.
  • When a student is presenting, those listening should be thinking of constructive comments and questions.
  • Listeners should present their comments and questions to presenters, and presenters should incorporate helpful ideas in their explanations.
  • Each member of a group should have a chance to present their explanation and receive comments and questions.

Make sure your students save notes from this activity, as they will use them when they write letters.

Vocabulary

Ask your students to keep a running list on the front board of the words in the poems they do not understand. These may include:

assertion
assiduous
bartered
bondsman
casual
chipware
connive
Cousteau
crenellated
expressive
flatware
fluster
foundry
furrow
humble
immerses
intent
leeches
linear
maritime
obscurel
redeem
schooner
stalked
sundry
tentative
threadbare
twinges
vaster
vermeil

Activity 2: Writing to a Historical Poet

Objectives

Students will

  • state why the poem spoke to them;
  • ask questions about the poem and how it was written;
  • use an opening, body and conclusion; and
  • employ proper conventions

to write a letter to a poet whose voice speaks to them.

Pre-Activities

Whole Class Warm-Up: Whip-Arounds

Invite students to stand up and form a circle. Do the following whip-arounds one after the other. Start each cycle with the following prompts:

  • Right now I feel… (using only a hand gesture)
  • Right now I feel… (using only their voice with no words)
  • Right now I feel… (using their gesture, voice, and descriptive words)

Repeat the cycles using as many of the following prompts as you can: “I see…,” “I hear…,” “I dream…,” “I imagine….”

Ask students to sit down at their desks to write how they are feeling (or what they see, hear, dream or imagine) at this moment using only descriptive words. They should try to capture—in words only—some of what happened when they moved and verbalized. (This may be difficult, but they should try. It will get them somewhat closer to what poets have to do with the tools they have—the blank page, their internal voice, rhythm, and words.)

Generating Questions

Ask your students to take out their notes from the lesson where they responded to poets’ voices and discussed their choices. They will use these notes when they write draft letters to these poets.

  • Ask students to look at their notes where they explain why this poet’s poem “spoke to them.”
  • In a new journal entry (or on a piece of paper), they should jot down some questions they would like to ask their poet about how they wrote this poem.
  • Ask students to turn and talk to a neighbor with the questions they want to ask, to review these questions and make suggestions on how to improve them.
  • Ask the whole class for examples of great questions to ask in their letters. Write some of these on the board and discuss what makes a good question.

Whole Class Writing Activity: First Draft

  • Review the format for an informal letter, including date, greeting, and closing.
  • Review what makes a good letter in their own voice—their opening idea, the body of the letter containing several paragraphs with their ideas and evidence, and their concluding thoughts.
  • Ask each student to write a draft letter on their computer addressed to their chosen poet, telling him/her what in the poem spoke to them, and asking questions relating to how the poet wrote this poem and writes others.
  • If they do not finish this draft, they can continue to write for homework or continue in another class session.

Peer Review: Mirroring Activity

When your students have finished writing their first drafts, do the following:

  • Place your students in groups of three (or in their usual writing groups, if you do peer review regularly).
  • Ask students in each group to exchange letters with one another.
  • If necessary, remind your students how to give constructive criticism, citing positives first and then specifics on what can be improved.
  • Ask one student to read aloud the letter she has to the other members of her group.
  • After she reads it, ask her to tell the writer what she thought the letter said and what was confusing about the letter. Is the letter writer’s voice strong and clear? The reader should also make helpful comments about voice, format, and conventions.
  • The writer should take notes and incorporate helpful comments, especially those where the reader’s interpretation differed from the writer’s intent.
  • Continue the process in each group until all three people have had their letters read back to them and recorded helpful comments.

Second Draft (can be accomplished either in class, combined as in-class assignment and homework, or as homework):

  • Ask your students to rewrite their first drafts, paying attention to the comments they received from their peers.
  • Have your students hand in their second drafts to you for questions and comments.

Activity 3: Reading Poems by the Academy of American Poets Chancellors

The Dream That I Told My Mother-in-Law” by Elizabeth Alexander
Lost Dog” by Ellen Bass
Blues on Yellow” by Marilyn Chin
Kata:  Bus Stop” by Forrest Gander
Line Drive Caught by the Grace of God” by Linda Gregerson
The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” by Brenda Hillman
Move” by Alicia Ostriker
A House Called Tomorrow” by Alberto Ríos

Objectives

Students will

Pre-Activity

Whole Class Warm-Up

Remind your students of the warm-ups they did to begin to understand how voice can be expressed by only using words.

  • Ask them quickly to write in their journals (not lifting their pens/pencils off the paper) about what makes a writer’s voice unique. What are the “ingredients” to writing a poem with a strong voice? (You might want to refer to the poetry lesson Poems about Poetry.)
  • Ask them to turn and talk to a student they have not worked with before to come up with a shared list of “ingredients.”
  • Conduct a whole-class discussion: What are the similarities between “voice” in a poem and “voice” in a letter? What are the differences, if any?

Collaborative Work: Reading and Viewing the Poems

Note:  Before asking your students to read poems by the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, make sure you read through the list above and choose the ones that are most appropriate for your class. (Because of its subject matter, “Blues on Yellow” by Marilyn Chin is most appropriate for a high school audience.)

Distribute the poems you have chosen (or have students read them online using the links above).

  • Ask your students to read the poems for homework.
  • Back in class, hand out T-chart forms, one for each poem.
  • Show the videos of the poems and poets you chose one at a time. After your students have listened to and read each poem, ask them to jot down lines that particularly speak to them on the left side, and what they think the poet did (e.g. what “ingredients” the poet used) to make the lines embody a strong voice on the right side.
  • Point out that different elements may jump out from the page and from the video. For instance, a poet’s voice in the video might emphasize certain words or phrases that were not apparent before.
  • When they are finished writing, ask your students to get back into groups of three. (You can use prior groupings, or start new groups, if this works better.)
  • Tell your students that each person in the group is responsible for making sure everyone in their small group gets a chance to speak.
  • Ask for a volunteer to remind the class of what it means to give constructive responses to each other’s work.
  • After the ground rules for the groups have been established, ask students to give their group members examples of lines they think show strong voice and to explain their choices.
  • When the decibel level of the discussion has dropped, ask for a volunteer from each group to summarize, for the whole class, their group’s multiple perspectives on the characteristics of a strong written voice.
  • Write these characteristics on the board.

Ask your students to get back in their groups for a new discussion. The purpose this time, however, is for them to see if they can come to some sense of a shared meaning for each of the poems on which they choose to focus. They are to:

  • Select three of the poems to study in depth.
  • At their computers, view these three poems again and quickly jot down what they think each poem means.
  • Write down examples from the text of the poem and the video they saw that demonstrate their interpretations.
  • Have a discussion about the meanings of the poems, following the same process where each student shares his/her perspective.
  • Try to synthesize shared meanings.
  • Select someone to represent the group’s synthesis to the whole class.
  • Give examples of how they arrived at their interpretations to the whole class.
  • Keep their notes for the next writing activity.

Note: It is important to tell your students that you are not looking for a “right” interpretation of the poems, rather for their reasoned interpretations. The emphasis should be on their reasoned explanation with examples—not on finding the “correct meaning.” They will not only have a good discussion about what they think; they will also be able to use this information when they write to the Chancellor of their choice.

Vocabulary

Ask your students to keep a running list on the front board of the words in the poems they do not understand. These may include:

adroitness
anise
blueprint
brawl
Buddah
cascade
casters
contentment
deliberate
destiny
dismantles
felicity
forearm
fractured
frailty
Fuji
fundamentally
gild
harmonies
hath shorn
hoard
Hokusai
humbling
Invincible
keened
leathery
libated
mellow
nigh
oblivious
parses
quaint
ravaged
seething
sieve
squander
suffused
Taraxacum officionale
torso
unreborn
upstream
vial
waft
yellow-bellied sapsuckers

Activity 4: Writing to the Chancellors

Objectives

Students, in their unique voices, will write a formal letter to a poet who is a present Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets using:

  • evidence that they have read a poem written by the Chancellor;
  • questions for the poet about the poem and their voice as a writer; and
  • proper format and writing conventions.

(You can find examples of previous letters here.)

Pre-Activities

Whole Class Warm-Up

Remind your students that now they will be writing formal letters to some of the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. The following activities are all concerned with writing these letters.

  • In their journals (or on a separate piece of paper) your students should write quick associations to the sentence stem: My writing voice is… (They should write between three and five associations.)
  • Ask them to get writing groups of three students each, with students who are familiar with their writing.
  • In their groups, one student should share her completions to the sentence stem.
  • Students who are listening should add constructive descriptions of the student’s voice that they think are missing. If nothing is missing, they can simply agree with the student’s assessment.
  • Students should go around the group members, sharing their stem completions and commenting until all students in each group have had a chance.

When they are finished, ask each individual student to choose a poem or poet that spoke to them from the poems they read by Chancellors of the Academy.

Generating Connections and Questions

After your students have chosen the poet to whom they would like to write, ask them to read and view the video of the poem carefully again, jotting down lines, words, and images that jump out at them. What questions do they have for the poet about the poem and how it was written? What other questions do they have about how to read a poem in front of an audience? When they have finished writing lines, words, images, and questions, ask for volunteers to share some of these with the whole class. Make a record of some of these on the board at the front of the room. Explain why you chose the ones you did.

Writing a Formal Letter: First Draft

  • Review the format for a formal letter, including date, internal address, greeting with punctuation, and appropriate closing.
  • Ask for a volunteer (or volunteers) to recall what it means to write “in your own voice.”
  • Ask for another volunteer to recall the general form of a letter, i.e., opening idea, several paragraphs containing their ideas and evidence, and their concluding thoughts.
  • Ask each student to type a draft letter to their chosen poet, telling him/her what in the poem spoke to them and asking questions relating to how the poet wrote this poem and writes others.
  • If they do not finish this draft, they can continue to write for homework, or you may prefer they do all their writing at home.

Peer Review: Mirroring Activity

When your students have finished writing their first drafts, do the following:

  • Place your students in groups of four (or in their usual writing groups, if you do peer review regularly).
  • Ask students in each group to exchange letters so they each have someone else’s.
  • If necessary, remind your students how to give constructive criticism, citing positives first and then specifics on what can be improved.
  • Ask one student to read aloud the letter she has to the other members of her group.
  • After she reads it, ask her to tell the writer what she thought the letter said and what was confusing about the letter. Is the writer’s voice strong and clear? The reader should also make helpful comments about voice, format, and conventions.
  • The writer should take notes and incorporate helpful comments, especially those where the reader’s interpretation differed from the writer’s intent.
  • Continue the process in each group until all four people have had their letters read back to them and have recorded helpful comments.

Second Draft (can be accomplished either in class, combined in-class and homework, or as homework)

  • Ask your students to rewrite their first drafts, paying attention to the comments they received from their peers.
  • Students should hand in their second drafts to you for questions and comments.
  • Return students’ second drafts so they can polish a final draft on the computer.

Submitting Letters to the Academy of American Poets

We encourage you to submit your students’ letters for possible publication on Poets.org in the summer of 2019. Send all letters via post or email by the end of day on April 30, 2019. Please include your name and contact information; each student’s name and grade; the poet who inspired each letter; and the name and mailing address of your school.

The Academy of American Poets
ATTN: Dear Poet
75 Maiden Lane, Suite 901
New York, NY 10038

[email protected]org