"Women in Poetry," a unit created by New York City public school teacher Carolyn Kohli, introduces students to a broad range of women's voices in poetry. Students develop a poetic and technological vocabulary simultaneously through a series of creative and critical writing exercises and Internet research and citation. "Women in Poetry" primarily explores contemporary poetry with themes as diverse as "Entering the Darkness Out of Childhood," "Voices of the Mothers," "The Body Electric," and "Ars Poetica." Each thematic set of lessons requires students to practice basic skills in Microsoft Word and on the Internet, responding to each poem grouping with information obtained in web research and their own creative and critical responses.
Unit Length: 33 Class Periods
By the end of this unit students will be able to:
Television and VCR
How does poetry by women belie and reinforce cultural stereotypes?
The lab routine was the same for every unit: students logged onto the week's unit by clicking on the icon at the page I created at TeacherWeb, copied and pasted the week's poems and guiding questions onto a Microsoft Word page. This was the text for discussion. I projected the poem from my computer, and read aloud, then conducted discussion. Enrichment included projecting video clips from the Favorite Poem Project website, art and photos of the poets. Audio clips of the poets reading their own work were played for the class from the teacher's computer where they were available. As in any regular classroom, all poems were read aloud, and we attempted full-class discussion although the computer terminals were in the way. Students took notes and answered written questions on the MS Word page where they copied each unit. They emailed written answers and short essays to me. In preparation for the final project, a student-created web research page on one of the poets, each week I taught a design or research-related skill: finding, copying and pasting photographs of the poets and relevant works of art; defining figurative language or finding online definitions for unfamiliar words; creating hyperlinks; changing background color, text font and color, playing with text art.
I had the benefit of two teaching poets, one who helped me design the unit, the other who came in and led the students in close readings of two poems.
Students wrote a total of three poems: one modeled in the style of any poem in the section, "We Sing the Body Electric," one from "Whose Story?" and one ars poetica. These poems were read aloud and critiqued in a workshop setting outside of the lab.
Web Research Page
At the end of the cycle, students spent six class days creating a web research page in Microsoft Word on one of the poets whose work we read this cycle. The skills had been taught throughout the cycle, but were written out on the TeacherWeb page and on a handout (particularly for creating hyperlinks and copying and pasting pictures). The project required a picture of the poet and the poet's name and dates of birth/death (where applicable); a 150-word introduction to the poet that discussed her importance to the student; two poems not read for class; a close reading of each poem of the type the visiting poet did; three hyperlinks within the poems or introduction; a relevant work of art; the student's own ars poetica about the importance of poetry. The web research page was reviewed by students the last two days of the cycle. Lesson Plans are broken down into weekly units.
What things do we expect women to be concerned with? What do we consider "feminine"? Do we expect poems to be written by women to be "feminine" by our definition?
Students should follow daily routine model as outlined in Lesson Plan overview. Students should copy and paste from website to Microsoft Word page, then define vocabulary at Dictionary.com and take notes on the computer, finally emailing their work to the teacher.
Students should write a personal response to each poem in this section. Additionally, they will write a 250 word response addressing the question: What do these poems tell us about what women write about? Specific lines should be cited.
résumé and resume
How does the poet use childhood as a starting point? How does the concrete image convey complex emotion? How does enjambment work in these poems?
Find, read and paraphrase biographical material on one of the week's poets. Answer the questions accompanying each poem and email to the teacher.
Things to Think About in These Selections
What are the differences between the way little girls and little boys grow up in our culture? Do we see those differences when a woman poet writes out of her childhood? When the poet taps her childhood experience for a poem, is she writing about her life alone? About experience common only to girls? Or do these poems out of childhood transcend gender and speak to us about how we must all learn some of life's most painful lessons? Also, answer the following questions, in writing, after reading each poem:
Write a 300-500 word essay arguing whether Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" is about the anxieties of becoming a woman or becoming an adult. Cite specific lines.
Questions About "I Go Back to May 1937," by Sharon Olds
Questions About "Hanging Fire," by Audre Lorde
Alvarez and Chin Vocabulary
In Julia Alvarez's "The Lost and Found Senoritas":
In Marilyn Chin's "How I Got That Name":
After reading "How I Got That Name," listen to the poet read her poem.
Bishop Questions and Writing Assignment
Today you will work on your own or with a classmate.
After you read Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" answer the following questions:
Discuss, in a 3 paragraph argument, whether you think "In the Waiting Room" is about the anxieties of becoming a woman or the anxieties of becoming an adult, and why. Cite specific lines -- you could highlight, copy and paste lines -- then say what those lines mean and how they prove your point. Remember: this is an argument that needs proof from the poem, not just your opinion.
You and your classmate will compose your answer on one computer, sign both names, then email me a copy.
Plath and Dallas Questions
How did two women separated by a hundred years create a new poetry? Why does the subject matter still startle us? Are the voices in these poems distinctly female?
The "Mothers" are the spiritual mothers of modern poetry, Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks. Each changed the course of poetry for generations after her work was published. Students follow the directions to read poems by these poets, read about the poets' lives, read criticism, copy pictures of them and hear other people recite their poetry. At the end of the week, students will explain their understanding of these connections.
Copy and paste photos of each poet in your Microsoft Word page. Find, read and respond to literary criticism link (essay by Galway Kinnell).
Favorite Poem Project video of student reciting "I'm Nobody! Who are you?", by Emily Dickinson
Students will answer questions about Dickinson and Brooks and email them to instructor. All work will be created in a new Word file entitled "Mothers". Students will also write a four-paragraph essay comparing one of Dickinson's poems to one by Brooks. The focus will be on what is startling or interesting.
Poems by Emily Dickinson:
Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks:
Students will need to become familiar with the following terminology: slant rhyme, assonance, ballad, and sonnet.
Dickinson and Brooks Project
The following steps should be followed for each of the poets:
Now it's time to read some poetry. Go Back to the Academy site. Click on the poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?". Copy and paste it back into your Word page.
Read "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" and write what you think Dickinson is saying about being a "nobody".
Go back to the the Academy website and scroll through the titles of other Dickinson poems (she wrote over 1700, this is a small sampling). Select any with an appealing title, click on it, copy the poem into your Word page, and read it twice. Write about how the poem affected you: does it leave you feeling confused? enlightened? was it thought-provoking? mundane? morbid? funny?
Before we go on, we'll stop and watch a web video of someone reading "I'm Nobody" on the Favorite Poem Project website.
There is one more thing to do with Dickinson: Read a critic's view of her. At the Academy's website, scroll down below the Dickinson entry to a link called "Reckless Genius: Galway Kinnell on Emily Dickinson" and click on it.
When the site comes up, read it. Copy the passages about Dickinson's rhymes and paste it into your Word page. Then go back and copy the passages about "I heard a Fly buzz".
Before you leave the site, copy the URL from the dialogue box and paste it below the quotes. This is attribution.
Go back to the Academy website and click on "I heard a Fly buzz" and copy/paste it into your Word page.
Read the poem two times.
Write: How did Galway Kinnell help you understand this poem in a way that you might not have? Be specific.
You have completed your page on Emily Dickinson for now. Write what you think makes her a "mother" to modern female poets. You may use information from the biographical notes, Kinnell or the poems themselves.
For Gwendolyn Brooks, you will follow the same directions that you followed for the Emily Dickinson assignment: Academy website, biographical material, notes, copy of her photograph, and so on.
Poems to Copy and Read
Criticism/Background to Read and Paste Sections From
Below the Brooks biographical material on the Academy website, find and click on Modern American Poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Write what you think makes poet Gwendolyn Brooks a "mother" to modern poets. Again, be specific and use citations from anything you read this week.
Our mothers are our guides; whether they nurture or neglect us, they are our first teachers, and we learn from their examples and their advice. Write about how you can see Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks as spiritual mothers to people/women who want to write poetry today. You could structure this as a four-paragraph essay with one body paragraph on each poet. Decide what you want to say about the poet as a mother to young poets--is her example in the subject of her poetry? in the individuality? in the word choices/line style? or something else? Be sure you cite poems or lines from poems to prove your point. In your conclusion, discuss this idea: because Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks have already done certain things, we are free to do other things. What might those things be when it comes to writing poetry? In other words, tell me what types of things poets DON'T have to do now because the mothers already did them. Again, think about subject matter, the way the lines look in their poems, images or anything else. Check your spelling, citations, and punctuation.
Nicaraguan poet Daisy Zamora said, "It is important for a woman to be aware of and to recover her own body because we have been told too many times that we were born to make sure that humankind doesn't disappear; we need to have a consciousness of our own selves and our own bodies. I look at my body in this sacred way because I think that you have to love your own body, the body which contains your soul which, like your body, is unique. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, the list goes on forever of all the people who have been working through the ages to produce each one of us. Having this consciousness that each human being is an individual and has this uniqueness has enabled me to write these poems. Maybe this perspective is nothing new for men, but for a woman, having this consicousness is important." --from The Language of Life, p. 441
4 Poems About the Body
Two of the four poems in this lesson plan were taught by visiting poet Tina Cane. Over the course of two days she conducted close readings of Denise Levertov's "Psalm of Praise to My Husband's Body" and Sharon Olds' "Grandmother Love Poem." I also taught two poems to tie into the theme of the body: "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" by Kathleen Fraser and "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy. In class, I used the following
Students then completed the following Writing Assignment:
You may highlight and Print/Selection to take a paper copy home. You may also hand-write your response.
During Tina's second visit, she assigned the students to Write a Poem
Students should write a poem praising some part of your own or another person's body. I suggested that they might think of Zamora's line "I love my . . ." and use it as a starting point. Zamora begins four of the six stanzas of her poem with this phrase; I encouraged them to do so as well. The technique is called anaphora.
Weekend Homework Assignment
Bring in a 250 word evaluation of poet Tina Cane's visit to the class. In it, note specifically what she helped you understand about poetry or the Denise Levertov poem. Be sure you point out lines or ideas. You may also discuss what having a young working poet come to teach class was like, how it broke up the routine of regular class discussion, or anything else you would like to say about Tina's visit. Attach this evaluation to your two poems written after the models she presented in class. Please check spelling, grammar, word choice and punctuation.
Whose story does the woman poet tell?
You have read confessional poetry by Sharon Olds, who writes about her family, and poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, who creates speakers to tell the story of the Black American experience. And, of course, you have read poetry that tells the story of growing up. This week you will read protest poetry. These poets give voice to those who have no voice, from the illiterate (Pat Mora's "Señora X No More" and Kitty Tsui's outraged grandmother in "Don't Let Them Chip Away at Our Language") to the politically oppressed (Carolyn Forché). In the second half of the week we will explore fictional voices assumed by poets to speak an unspoken experience. We will be reading Louise Glück's "Gretel in Darkness" and Patricia Smith's "Medusa".
Who gave these poets the right to speak for anyone but themselves? And what do you think their art could accomplish?
Questions About Mora and Tsui
Have students respond to the following questions after reading Pat Mora's "Señora X No More":
Have students respond to the following questions after reading Kitty Tsui's "Don't Let Them Chip Away at Our Language":
Fictional Speakers: Glück and Smith
Sometimes the poet creates the voice of a fictional character who never had a chance to speak . . . in myths and fairytales. If the poet creates a voice for a fictional character who never spoke for herself in the original story, what is the poet's goal? Why did she choose that story? That character? And what does this new view have to say about the experience of being female? After students have read Louise Glück's "Gretel in Darkness" and Patricia Smith's "Medusa" have them complete the following activities. Technical: Copy the web address that follows, paste it into the Find box: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/caravaggio. Copy the Medusa painting and put it in your Word file before the poem, "Medusa." Write 3 Poems: Poems #1 and #2 could be modeled on:
Poem #3: Model this poem after Sharon Olds' "Grandmother Love Poem." You might want to consider the following techniques:
"The ars poetica is a poem that takes the art of poetry—its own means of expression—as its explicit subject."
—Ed Hirsch, How to Read a Poem.
In other words, ars poetica is about poetry. This week, we listened to each other read from poetry written in response to women's poetry. So you have read poetry by a number of different women, been instructed by a working poet, and have written poetry of your own. Now we will read two ars poetica, "Poetry" by Marianne Moore and "Ars Poetica" by Claribel Alegría and explore how they justify poetry and its place in life. There are two points of interest in the Moore poem you may want to note. The first is in the lines "to discriminate against 'business documnets and / school books'; all these phenomena are important." 'business documents and schoolbooks' comes from a journal entry by Russian author Leo Tolstoy: "Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies, I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse; prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books." The second reference appears in the following line, "nor till the poets among us can be / 'literalists of / the imagination'." Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote about another poet, William Blake, ". . .he was a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature."
Web Research Project
Welcome to the end of your Women Poets unit. You will now create a Microsoft Word page composed of information you find during Internet research. Your page will tell us more about one of the poets whose work we read this cycle. Here's how:
4. Copy the following:
5. Study the poems and biographical material well.
6. Write a 150 word introduction to your poet; say why the web page user should read this person's work and what it meant to you. Write two 150 word close reading responses to the poems you selected. The idea is to show the reader what you see in those poems that thrills you, makes you think, or changes your view of life. Point out literary devices. Turn these in for correction before posting on page.
Find a piece of art to use with one of the poems at WebMuseum. Copy the art as you learned in previous weeks and put it on the page. Copy the URL and paste it beneath the picture.
A list of literary links that students could access from the webpage I created at TeacherWeb.
Can poetry co-exist with technology? Students will read poetry assigned by the teacher and respond electronically before discussion in class. They will continue their thinking in whole-class and small group dicussion. At the end of a nine week cycle, they will create a web page on a poet studied this cycle which will include two more poems, picture of the poet, a close reading and analysis of one poem as well as a personal reader's response, and three links. The focus on women's poetry is purely personal and driven by two observations: 1. some of the most interesting poetry written in the last part of the twentieth century was written by women—how do today's "post-liberation" students read it? and 2. girls sign up for poetry classes; boys for computer classes—what will the mix be like in this class?
The creation and implementation of this unit was assisted by the poet Carol Conroy from Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York City. She proved an invaluable asset in the planning of the unit and the gathering of material. You can explore the possibilities for bringing a poet to your classroom by visiting the Writers in the Schools Program page.