Poetry has a compact beauty to it and, for teachers, an indispensable versatility as well. On any given day, you can read one as simply as a treat, as “ear candy” for your students. It also holds up well for reading analysis or writing practice, either expository or creative. It’s the Play-Doh of the curriculum. Take a can out on any day and have some fun with it.
Take, for instance, “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye — a poet admired by teachers and students alike. As is true of all poems, “Famous” could become a 5-minute or full-period lesson. Let’s peek through a few of its doors, portals that work for all poems, really.
- Before You Knock on that Door — Write the word “famous” on the board and let the students free write for four minutes and four seconds (no more, no less). Air thoughts out like fresh laundry on the clothesline, snapping in the wind smartly, either by having students share in pairs, groups, or as an entire class. Notice how the word “famous” loves to swim with stars of the entertainment, sports, and political worlds. Ask: How might a poet play on her audience’s preconceived notions?
- Put a Student Star on that Door — Let’s bring the word “famous” down to earth. Ask students what they are famous for, at least in the small worlds they move in at home, school, and town. Give them a chance to list their “résumés of fame.” Tell them no skill is too small. They can be famous for juggling or for wiggling their ears. Notoriety comes in many guises.
- Consider Doors in Pairs — Some things in life complement each other, work together, are famous duos. Others oppose or contradict each other, compete, and are infamous opponents. Split your class. Have some groups list the cooperative pairs and others the combative ones. Come back to the lists after reading Nye’s poem. How much insight does the warm-up provide?
- Don’t Leave Your Reading Strategies at the Door — Read, re-read, mark-up. Connections to self are allowed if they can be attached to “This helps me better understand the poem because….” Questions like “What does this word mean?” must be answered via resources in the room (hello, dictionaries!). Let inferences come down like raindrops, splattering the poem’s ink in coronas of thought. Which lines are more important than others in determining the theme, and why?
- Academic and Socratic Thought Doors — Sit back and watch as your students begin to unpeel Nye’s poem. Remind them that you have a list and are checking it twice. Who will throw terms around (with no regard for classroom furniture) like clarify and elaborate? Who will demand textual evidence for claims? Who will build-on and challenge arguments, constantly keeping one hand on the all-important talisman — the poem itself?
- Doors that Shift — Have students draw a line between stanzas where the poem shifts. Remind them that importance often lurks in titles, toward the ends of poems, and after shifts in a poem. Do these rules of thumb make an imprint here? How so?
- Swinging Doors — Standardized tests love words whose meanings swing on context, but poets love them too (and, we like to think, for better reasons). Have students make a list of words in “Famous” that depend on the context for their meaning (starting with the title!). Students can even fill out a T-Chart identifying what the words mean here in this poem as opposed to what readers might expect it to mean and/or how it is used in other contexts. Scaffolding Option: Give students some words from the poem, and let them take it from there: famous, inherit, dress (as an adjective, here), shuffling, crossing. If they struggle thinking of other ways the words might be used, give them a dictionary or access to a computer and a dictionary website.
- The City of Angels Door — Welcome to LA: the City of Literary Analysis. Ask students to use this simple recipe in writing a paragraph of analysis: Thesis that uses the poem’s title, poet’s name, and takes a stance (argument) on a topic (the poem “Famous”). Provide brief context before the first quote or paraphrasing, then comment/analyze by showing your readers why the evidence is important to the poem’s meaning. As the local expert, prove that YOU know what Nye is up to here. Transition to your next point. Then continue to weave: Context-quote-analysis. Rinse-lather-repeat. Conclude by creatively returning to your thesis. Readers who never read the poem will understand enough about “Famous” and its meaning to make the student writers famous.
- Creative Doors — Have students emulate Nye’s work by writing their own poems. It should start with a series of lines stating what ordinary things are famous — or infamous — to each other. Then there should be a shift, followed by a series of “I want to be famous to…” lines. “Keep attaching that big word “famous” to mundane things,” tell them. “Make Nye’s unusual slant yours. Share. Revise. Publish. Become famous!”