Powerful, Low-Stakes Poetry (with minimal prep)

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“Find a good place to stop in your books,” I say to end our choice-reading time.

I finish up a student-reading conference and look around to see students finishing a page, writing a response on a sticky note, stretching their legs.

“Today we’re going to spend a little bit of time thinking about 9/11. I imagine you’ll do some historical work in your social studies class, so I thought what I can offer us today is a shared experience with poetry,” I say.

“Yes,” one student whispers to a neighbor.

“No,” one another whispers to a neighbor.

“Right, so mixed responses — to the poetry? to 9/11 poetry? I think poetry can help us recognize 9/11 in a way that other mediums — images, documentaries — can’t. I want us to take a look at how some people processed their experience of 9/11 by writing poems.

“You have likely learned poetry in different ways in elementary school — a unit of study, some writing of poetry.  Poems are not actually written for students to analyze. Poems are a very concentrated form of ideas and experiences — big, complex ideas condensed, concentrated into phrases. Powerful words and images about those ideas seem mysterious to readers because phrases and fragments want the reader to think about what’s there and what’s not. What I like about poetry –its form — is that it accepts that sometimes ideas and stories and experiences are partial or incomplete.

“Now what does this have to do with 9/11?  Ater 9/11, people needed a way to process what they were experiencing, and something rather beautiful started happening –incredibly, ironically people started writing poetry and hanging those poems in public places throughout New York City. Some witnesses processed what they experienced by writing poems. The concentrated and fragmented form helped people process the fragments they were piecing together  — the unimaginable and the unspeakable,” I say.

The room is quiet. I think the mood is right to begin. I appreciate their patience and respect. I continue.

“Let’s read a few of those poems to recognize the witnesses’ experiences and, ” I pause, “the experiences that we will never know because those people perished. Instead of an oral reading of these poems or a discussion, I thought we could do this in silence but still together.”

Students open up their Chromebooks, log into our Google classroom, and open up the shared document of poems we can all edit.

I want us to all be inside this document of poems together, trying to make sense of poems that represent that which defies logic and knowing.

I found all these poems to be accessible because of length and language, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy or simple. Most of the following poems can be found in this post by John Lundberg: A. “I Saw You Walking” by Deborah Garrison; B. “When the Towers Fell” by Galway Kinnell; C. “Photography from September 11” by Wislawa Szymborska; D. “The Morning America Changed” by Stanley Plumly; E. “Going to Work” by Nancy Mercado.

I assign students a poem to read, then wait.

I assign students a number to guide them in what to look for, observe, notice in the poem (see below).

I instruct them to select phrases in the poem to support their observation and use the comment feature of the Google doc to explain what they are noticing in the poem.

I also remind students that they can and should open a new tab to look up the denotation of unfamiliar or powerful words as needed:

  1. What do you know about the speaker? His/her relationship to the audience, concerns, purpose for saying these words?
  2. What is the setting or sense of place in this poem? Which words/phrases are most vivid or create an image/picture?
  3. Which words capture the mood throughout the poem?  
  4. Which words seem fancy or unfamiliar? Find the denotation or dictionary definition of a few words.
  5. Which lines or phrases teach us about 9/11? What does the poet want us to know or remember?
  6. Describe the form of the poem: how many lines; does it rhyme; how many syllables in each line, most common punctuation.
  7. Notice any figurative language: simile, metaphor, allusion, personification,alliteration, onomatopoeia, hyperbole.

Students read, select phrases, and attach comments to the phrases. I notice some students opening up a new tab to look up a word, an allusion, an image. They are uncovering meaning, reading into the white spaces the poet left open.

I hover in different spots of the room making myself available for quiet conversations about the poems. One boy calls me over with a wave.

“This poem here doesn’t have a meter and doesn’t rhyme. I don’t think I have anything to comment on,” one student says in a whisper. “Should I do something else?”

I kneel down and take a look at the poem he’s referring to.

“I see what you mean. This is a free verse poem.  There isn’t a pattern. It doesn’t rhyme. We are both noticing the same thing. But let’s think about why that is. A poet crafts each line-break purposefully, so if the form doesn’t follow a regular pattern, that might be for a reason. If we think about the subject of 9/11 and how the poet must have been feeling, it makes sense that there’s lots of irregularity or uncertainty.  It’s possible that the poet is trying to capture the chaos with this irregular meter,” I whisper.

The boy has an “aha” look in his eyes and returns the poem.

“I’m a little confused. Can you help me?” another student asks in a whisper-shout waving me over. She is reading “The Morning America Changed” by Stanley Plumly. “The speaker in this poem seems to be in Italy? Via Garibaldi? What is this part down here about a ‘tiny screen inside’?”

“Aha, I see what you mean. Let’s read this together.  Who is the “her”? Judith. Where is she? Pasticceria.What is the poet describing here as he references a window, a tiny screen?”

“Oh, it is a TV screen inside the pastry shop, and they are seeing the towers fall in America while they are in Italy.” She is no longer talking to me, returning to the shared document to share her discovery.

“This is interesting, Dr. Donovan,” a student says as I start to walk away. “I noticed that this poem is about a photograph, but there’s no photograph.”

“Right, and that’s unexpected. I came across this poem from an article that I read about 9/11; the author noted that there was a photograph that they were going to put on display, but the photograph was too distressing. I think that it is one way of protecting the dignity of the victims and perhaps the memory of the people who survived. Pictures are one way of offering evidence for history, but poetry is another way. These poems show us how people processed 9/11 and, we, in turn, are learning from that.”

“I know,” he says. “I’ve seen videos on YouTube, and we saw a documentary in another class, but this poem is…different.”

Students have had an opportunity to make some comments on their assigned poem, so I interrupt the quiet to move into the online discussion.

“Okay, so finish up the comment you’re making right now. And then go to the top of the poem and read the observations and comments your poem-mates noted. If you click on the comment, you’ll see that you can reply to one another. See if this helps you notice new features of your poem, if this extends your understanding of the poem and 9/11.”


Before we end class, I ask students to return to Google classroom and write a public comment on the assignment: “The poem I read was “__________,” and one thing I learned/found interesting-powerful-insightful-meaningful is __________________because ______________________.”

I thank students for their silent dialogue, compassion, and thoughtful work as we close class. One boy wants to tell me the story of his grandmother who was on a flight the day of 9/11. I listen and then invite him to render his story into a poem.

“That’s all I know,” he says.

“Sort of a fragment of the story? I think that’s enough. You’d be surprised what meaning emerges in the white spaces around the poem once you write it.”

You don’t have to do a poetry unit for students to read a poem. You don’t have to do a lot of frontloading of poetry analysis methods or figurative language for students to be able to access the meaning of a poem.  Gather a few poems; create a few questions; and then let students uncover the poetry. The poem itself is enough to start the conversation. Students will dialogue about meaning with one another to uncover meaning, illuminate the poet’s craft, and respond with their hearts and minds.

As Pablo Neruda says, “Poetry is an act of peace.” And don’t we need more peace now? Don’t wait until April (National Poetry Month) to welcome poetry into your classes.