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Poetry in the Classroom

Writer(s): 
Mario Leto, TES College, Tokyo, Japan

 

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Listening, writing, poetry, poems, personal narrative
  • Learner English level: Beginner through advanced
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Audio, photocopy of poem, writing paper, three pictures of poets

Introduction

Teaching poetry in the classroom can be a rewarding experience for both students and teachers. Along with teaching the rudiments of the language, it allows students a creative outlet and the opportunity to express themselves without the limitations imposed by grammar and more formal styles of writing. This lesson uses Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and covers the four basic language skills. I have chosen a grammatical focus on the past tense and a functional focus on personal narrative, but teachers can choose how exactly they want to fit this lesson into the language education of their students. It works best with mature students, but was fairly successful with beginners.

 

Preparation

Prepare an audio copy of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and a hardcopy of the poem with selected words removed—I chose verbs, infinitives and gerunds. This will serve as the listening gap-fill exercise. Audio copies can be downloaded from the Internet. The following Academy of American Poets website contains a short biography, a print copy of the poem, and an audio version: <www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/192>. Also print out a picture of Robert Frost and a couple of famous Japanese poets. I used pictures of Mitsuo Aida and Matsuo Basho, found through a simple image search on the Internet.

Procedure

Step 1:Show the students the picture of Robert Frost and have them speculate about his occupation. Students won’t know him and will give answers like writer, politician, teacher, etc. Then show them the picture of Mitsuo Aida and tell them that he has the same occupation. While the students will know his name, they probably won’t recognize his picture. Then show them the picture of Matsuo Basho and tell them that he too has the same occupation. A couple students should be able to identify him, at which time you can return to the Mitsuo Aida picture and the Robert Frost picture to reveal their identities. Elicit opinions from the students about their thoughts on poetry and writing in general. Then give them a little background information about Frost before doing the listening exercise in Step 2.

Step 2:Hand out The Road Not Taken and play the poem while students do the gap-fill exercise. Play it as many times as necessary (it’s only about a minute long). When finished, have the students read along with the audio and then discuss the theme of the poem, a simplified version being about making choices in life.

Step 3:In pairs or groups, have the students discuss choices they’ve made in their own lives (see Appendix A). High-level students can also discuss past and present hypothetical situations (i.e., how different choices would have resulted in different outcomes).

Step 4:Hand out writing paper and have students write a poem about their own lives. Begin with a short example on the board first. This works best in Japanese to avoid copying and to get a tension-breaking laugh. Emphasize that grammar and punctuation are not a concern (see Appendix B for the rationale behind this). Collect the poems at the end of the class for correction, and then return them the following lesson (with comments!), reading them aloud if students give permission to do so.

Conclusion

The most rewarding part of this lesson is watching the students go from moaning and groaning about a lesson on poetry to sheer pleasure at being able to write and express themselves with no limitations. The poems I received were stunning in their originality; they were humorous, heartbreaking, and sometimes simply tragic. The biggest benefit—aside from addressing all four basic language skills in one seamless lesson—is getting to know more about your students on a personal level and using that to address their individual educational needs. And finally, remember that your enthusiasm will set the tone and make a big difference in the success, or lack thereof, of the lesson. I actually told my students that they would thank me years down the road for introducing the poem to them. They laughed at me. I’m waiting.

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