Responding to Young Adult Fiction through Writing Poetry: Trying to Understand a MoleGerrit Bleeker and Barbara Bleeker
"Look! I've thought of the last line of my poem," Luke triumphantly announces as he shares a smudged piece of spiral notebook paper with us. Luke has written: "Friendship is trying to understand a mole." It is a moment to celebrate. Sixth-grader Luke is making meaning by responding to a text through the writing of poetry.
Responding to young adult fiction through writing is becoming common practice in English language arts classrooms. Jane E. Brown and Elaine Stephens point out in Teaching Young Adult Literature: Sharing the Connection that "current trends shift the emphasis in formal writing away from a critical analysis of literature to writing that allows students to explore their responses to the literature" (p. 217). In addition, Richard Beach and James Marshall in Teaching Literature in the Secondary School argue that teachers need to provide a meaningful structure to elicit students' responses to literature, "...a structure that allows them freedom at the same time that it points them in potentially rewarding directions" (p. 101).
One way students can respond to fiction is through writing poetry. Poetic forms, recommended by the teacher, provide a framework for students' responses and allow them freedom to respond independently and creatively to a given text. Five poetic forms - riddle poem , found poem , character poem , poem for two voices , and repeat poster poem - are particularly useful in helping students engage with young adult fiction. A choice of these poetic forms offers students appropriate and varied constructs for responding to the characters, themes, emotions, and artistry found in young adult literature.
Riddles intrigue children and young adults; consequently, students enjoy responding to literature by composing riddle poems. A riddle poem is a five-line poem describing an object, setting, event, symbol, theme or character in a piece of literature. The first four lines give the reader clues, and the fifth line offers the answer to the riddle. The first line of the riddle poem names something that will give the reader a clue about the subject of the poem. The second line gives a hint, using an adjective and noun. The third line names two actions connected with the riddle. The fourth line offers the last clue in the form of a phrase or statement, and the fifth line gives the answer to the riddle. Students may like to share the first four lines of the poem and then ask classmates to guess the answer. Or the student poet may offer only the first four lines of the riddle poem and then encourage others to read the novel to discover the answer.
Sixth-grader Julie responds to Theodore Taylor's The Cay by composing this riddle poem:
looking smooth except for sharp teeth
stubborn and stinky
spread out like a gray carpet
herd of sheep
Flats of green grass
dull-hued spaces of mesquite and cactus
sweeping and spacious
home to huddled groups of frame houses
Another poetic form that lends itself to capturing a student's response to literature is the found poem. To write a found poem, the reader begins by choosing an exciting incident or an interesting character in the book. The reader returns to the book and "finds" a few words and phrases that capture the spirit of the incident or a dominant trait of a character. The reader then arranges these selected words and phrases from the text into a found poem.
Seventh-grader Amanda finds her poem while reading E. L. Koningsburg's novel From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler :
Graceful and beautiful
the small angel statue
between the velvet ropes
still and alone
while the crowd asks,
"Is it the work of
Naked in the sun,
it seemed you could see
down into him.
Nightjohn, he came
to bring the way to know.
A third poetic form that helps trigger a student's response to literature is the character poem, a variation of the biopoem, popularized by, among others, Anne Gere in Roots in the Sawdust: Writing To Learn Across The Disciplines (p. 222) . Although less prescriptive than the biopoem, the character poem, like the biopoem, helps students focus and reflect on the complexities of a given character by completing statements about a character as elicited by the poem's format and a reader's understanding of a character. One possible format for a character poem follows; students may choose to complete only those lines that seem applicable to the literary character they are trying to describe.
(first name of character)_______________________
Lives in __________________ where ___________
Loves _________________________________, and
(last name of character) _______________________
Joshua, an eighth-grader, uses the character poem to record his interpretation of Robin Hood after reading Ann McGovern's Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest:
Lives in Sherwood Forest where he
Hears about the archery contest,
Sees the evil sheriff as an enemy,
Gives money to the poor,
Dreams about maid Marian,
Loves the feel of a bow in his hands and
Is happy to live in Sherwood Forest
Lives in London where he
Hears the sounds of the city,
Fears the skinheads,
Dreams of his Indian coming to life, and then
Is in fear for the safety of his little friend
Lives in Mexico where she
Hears Mexican records sounding like "songs of sobbing,"
Sees her grandmother sadly sitting by the window
Touches her cold and greasy rice sandwich,
Needs to feel like she belongs,
Fears ending up like her grandmother,
Dreams of leaving the red house on Mango Street,
Believes she has a story to tell,
Plans to pack books and paper and say good bye to Mango
Poem for Two Voices
A fourth type of poetic response, both fun and creative, is a poem for two voices, a poetic form popularized by Paul Fleischman in his poetry books, I Am Phoenix and Joyful Noise . In composing a poem for two voices as a way to respond to fiction, the reader chooses two characters from a book or story and shows how each of them looks at the same thing in a different way. Sometimes one character speaks in the poem, sometimes the other character speaks, and sometimes they speak together. Two people or two groups of people are needed to read the poem; each person or group reads one column.
Amanda chooses to respond to Madeleine L'Engles' A Wrinkle in Time by exploring the perspectives of characters Meg and Charles Wallace. She writes:
A Poem for Two Voices
Luke also uses a poem for two voices to demonstrate his understanding of two points of view found in Lynne R. Banks' The Indian in the Cupboard:
A Poem for Two Voices
Finally, Michael responds to J. Street's Weep No More, My Lady by showing in a poem for two voices how Skeeter and Jonathan approach the same situation from very different perspectives.
A Poem for Two Voices
Just as in found poetry, students may quote words and phrases from the text as they create a poem for two voices.
Repeat Poster Poem
A fifth kind of poetry, repeat poster poetry, lends itself well to collaborative student writing but may also be written individually. After selecting a main idea or theme from a book, the reader writes several statements about this theme, all beginning with the same word or phrase. Next the reader designs a shape representing the major theme, writes one statement on each of the cut-out shapes, and glues the shapes in rows on a poster. To read the poster poem, one can move in any direction (up and down, diagonally, forward, backward, or skip about at random), choosing about five of the statements. The poem may change for each reading, depending on the choices the reader makes.
Sixth-grader Mike's repeat poster poem, inspired by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon's The Black Gryphon , may read:
War is the only enemy
War changes people
War is not the way life should be
The only true enemy is war itself.
Luke's repeat poster poem, based on Brian Jacque's Salamandastron , also offers a series of metaphors:
Friendship is being there
Friendship is of the heart
Friendship is sharing a mug of Octoberal
with a hare
Friendship is a feast
Friendship is trying to understand a mole
Repeat poster poems not only help guide the reader's response to a given piece of young adult fiction but, when displayed in the classroom or media center, also may inspire others to read the book.
Responding to young adult fiction through writing poetry encourages young readers to discover and to construct meaning in a text thoughtfully and creatively. Poetic forms suggested by the teacher help trigger and shape student responses. Writing a poetic response also offers young readers a rich and rewarding way to understand, embrace, and celebrate what others -- even a mole -- have to say to them.
Gerrit Bleeker is a professor of English and Barbara Bleeker, an Instructor of English at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas, where they both teach courses in young adult literature and English methods.