Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Performing Poetry: Poetry Post #3

Last week I wrote about my seniors' "Poetry to Art" project and featured Melissa's work. While I have students in my speech classes perform poetry in group presentations, this project is equally applicable to studying poetry in English.

First, I choose a variety of poems for students to perform. I look for poems that tell a story, although the specific poem may or may not be a narrative poem. I also look for poems students will enjoy, poems with sound effects and onomatopoeic wording, poems with the potential of using props, and poems with several characters (human and animal).

This year I used the following poems:

1. "Locked In" by Ingemar Gustafson
2. "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died" by Emily Dickinson
3. "Oranges" by Gary Soto
4. "Beat! Beat! Drums" by Walt Whitman
5. "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carol
6. "Another Reason Why I Don't Leave a Gun in the House" by Billy Collins
7. "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

One reason I choose poems from the cannon is to give students pleasure in working with classic texts. If I don't tell them the poem is a classic that we often find in a text book, they eagerly choose the poem based on the title alone. Also, all the poems are easily found on the internet, making document preparation a cinch.

Huy as the barking dog in "Another Reason Why I Don't Leave a Gun in the House."

I provide students with a set of instructions, too:

1. Find "the story" in your poem. You might want to draw a plot diagram to help you visualize the story. Also, a storyboard will help you visualize the poem.

2. Determine the number of "characters" in your poem or group. Note: I did this for each class/group and determined the size of groups based on each individual poem.

3. Plan the action. This is called blocking in the theater. Some questions to consider:

  • What props will we need for our scene?
  • Where will characters stand, move, and sit?
  • Who are you in the scene?
  • To whom are you speaking?
  • Where are you?
  • What is happening?
  • What is the tone of the poem? Does it change?
  • How can you "physicalize" (create physical gestures and movement) figurative language such as metaphor, simile, and personification?
  • Where might you pause?
  • Is there a key line the group will need to emphasize and perhaps repeat?
  • What sounds can you add to your scene?
4. Spend 15 minutes planning the performance and 15 minutes practicing the actual performance. Note It's important for kids to get up and actually practice as though on a stage or practicing an athletic event. 

5. Introduce the scene with the title and author of the poem. Conclude the scene by having someone in the group say "scene." 

6. All in your group must participate in performing the scene. This means no one person should stand to the side and narrate. Share the lines, movement, etc. Also, feel free to use your scripts; you don't have time to memorize the poem. 

I keep a crate of props and costume items in my room for students to use.

Sonnet Performances: Shakespeare's Sonnets as Scripts, a lesson from The Folger Shakespeare Library, offers additional resources for student poetry performances. 

The most important thing to remember is have fun. The more kids work with the language of poetry, the more they will understand it and love it. We don't have to limit the reading choices we give students to books. Choosing a poem to block and perform is another way to offer students choice. They won't realize they're eating poetry, even as the ink drips from their mouths during their scenes. It'll be just like feeding a toddler zucchini cake and cookies! What mom doesn't like that nutritional trick? As a teacher, I'm all for tricking teens into devouring a heaping helping of verse. 

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