Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Dictatable Poems

Many of the teachers I worked with last year had great success with a classroom strategy based on dictation. It comes from the invaluable book A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Cappella, which I've praised here many times. When Wormser and Cappella came out to Chicago for a two-day workshop at DePaul last August--ye gods and little fishies, that was nearly a year ago!--they started out with this approach, and it dazzled the middle and high school teachers who took part.

For a full description of the strategy, you'll want to look at the book--the first 15 pages will give you a few examples, along with some robust, reflective discussion of how and why it works. But the gist of it is this: you (the teacher) dictate a short poem to your students, who then write it down, line by line, word for word, comma for comma, etc. You make sure they know the details: "Title--each word capitalized..."; "First line, first word begins with a capital letter"; "does everyone know how to spell [this word]? No? it's [...]." In the book, they say that they tell the students to double-check any spellings they're unsure of in the dictionary before they turn in their poetry journals at the end of the week. "Sometimes they check, sometimes they don't," they write. "When their grade comes back a 'C,' they tend to start checking."

By dictating the poem, the book explains,
I can slow time down and get the words into my students' bodies. Poetry is physical and I want them to experience that physicality. By writing the words down--and I make allowances for students who are challenged in various ways, such as being hearing impaired--they have to grapple with the physical nature of each word. I told them today how "apparition" is spelled [they were doing Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"] but sometimes I let them write down a word and then we check on it as a class to determine how to spell that word. It's not that I am on a crusade about spelling; it's that I want them to have to apprehend words in various situations--some more structured that others. I want them to be alive to words, and spelling is part of that alive-ness. (7)
Notice how this approach differs from the more subject-matter-focused, linguistically insouciant poem-to-prompt approach I wrote about yesterday, or two days ago, or whenever the hell that was. (Sorry--my son has insomnia and woke me up at 1, and again at 5, this morning. Am a bit fuzzy on details.) In that prompt, there was much less "aliveness to words," or at least that aliveness was limited to attention to meaning, not to sound or graphic elements. But I digress.

Once the poem has been dictated and taken down, the discussion can begin. You can start with a general question: "I ask them what they noticed as they were writing the poem down. (Dictation is not mechanical; it's focusing.)" Or you can start by asking specific questions about the words in the poem. "Poems are not hierarchical," Wormser and Cappella write: "every word matters. This means the doors into a poem are as numerous as the words in the poem" (12). Here are ten questions they list that might be useful to spark discussion, from page 12:
Ten Questions to Ask About Words
  1. What word intrigues you most?
  2. Is there a word that confuses you?
  3. What word surprises you?
  4. What word seems most metaphorical?
  5. Is there a word that seems unnecessary?
  6. What word is most important?
  7. What is the most physical word in the poem?
  8. What is the most specific word in the poem?
  9. What is the strongest sound word in the poem?
  10. What is the most dynamic verb in the poem?
These questions aren't aimed at getting at "the meaning" of the poem--a clumsy, reductive question, as you know if you're reading this! Rather, they're aimed at getting the students to "think about the near-infinite particularities of this one poem" (14) so that they begin to appreciate "the poem's deep individuality" (15). Here's a passage from the book that sums this up quite nicely:
If you make students aware that literature is art they respond to it as art. They come to see that art is a process, and that once upon a time the great poet was scratching out words and putting in new ones just as they do in their own writing. If you teach literature as knowledge then they start looking for the write answers. If you teach literature as art what they come to understand is that there aren't right answers; there are thoughtful and articulate and intuitive answers, but a poem can't be solved; it isn't a problem. It's a form of being and we would no more ask a poem what it means than ask a friend what he or she means by existing. (14)
I haven't done justice to these sections of the book, and there's much more to be found there, but this will give you the gist of the approach. If you've used it yourself, please drop a comment about what you've done and how it worked! In the mean time, I'm going to start posting short poems here that are useful for the dictation exercise: poems that aren't too long, and seem to me the sort that would spark useful discussions of literature as art.

Starting tomorrow. Enough for today.


Dominic G.P. said...

I read Wormser and Cappella's book this summer and was so happy to happen across your blog. I've been teaching High School English for 10 years, and poetry is always my favorite to teach. Last year I started every period reading a poem, but I had never heard of poem dicatation. Now I'm in Week Two of this school year, and my students are already on poem dictation #3.

It's so much fun scrambling around my personal library and the Internet for short poems perfect for dictation. I'm finding that is a great site to use. Check it out! At the site you can find all the wonderful poems that were used in NY Subways and on NY Busses for their Poetry in Motion project.

Danielle Mari said...

Oh Eric! I have to say that I just adore being the Dictator! I used dictation in my high school courses, but I will also use it in my new job. I'm teaching 6th and 8th grade language arts. I use the poems to help students learn parts of speech, grammar, punctuation, and voice. Many many thanks for everything.