Whether I’m starting a brand new school year, returning after winter break, or even just starting a new quarter, there’s always this itch in my gut that tells me to take a breather on those first few days together to regroup and reset our classroom culture and community. It’s vitally important to take the temperature of your classroom - has it been feeling toxic lately? Are students there to be the best versions of themselves? Are we having fun but not working hard? Are we working really hard and don’t know each other at all?
These, among many others, are questions that keep me up Sunday night before starting anew. In search for a solution, I turned to my BFF poetry and here’s what I have come up with.
He’s brilliant. He’s engaging. He speaks directly to the hearts of students (and adults for that matter!). My classes have seen “To This Day” (his most famous work by far!) about a billion times, so I went in search of something else he had that just might do the trick. And then I found it. “How to Be A Person”.
I haven’t found the text published anywhere, so I set to work copying this YouTube video into a Google Doc (which I can’t share because I don’t own the copyright). I gave it to my students and we watched and discussed. That was the first time through. Here is a more experienced version of a lesson plan you could try with your kids. For me, this is best used at the return of winter break, but as I said earlier, it can be used anytime you need to hit that reset button and refocus your class on their WHY.
I like to start with a little listing exercise to begin this lesson. Listing is easy, engaging, quick, and is a form of prewriting that really helps students when they try to compose their own pieces later on in the lesson.
5 in 5 (5 Lists in 5 Minutes)
MINUTE 1: List 5 things that annoy you about other people’s behavior in this class/school/hallways/pep assemblies/cafeteria
MINUTE 2: List 5 academic things you are proud of from last semester/last year
MINUTE 3: List 5 personal things you are proud of from last semester/last year
MINUTE 4: List 5 ways you could easily improve your own life
MINUTE 5: List 5 ways you could easily improve the lives of the people around you
Whenever we study poetry, my class works with a framework that I designed in my master’s program called The Big Six. Today’s lesson focuses mainly on two of these six elements: tools and theme.
Make sure that you’ve previewed the poem ahead of time (there are a few lines that you may or may not include/show to your students depending on their grade/maturity level).
If possible, hand students a hard copy of the poem to annotate as they watch and listen to the video a few times.
Watch and enjoy the video once and be casual about it. Ask questions around content, impressions, favorite lines, etc.
Send students in for a second, closer look. Stanza by stanza, I have students try to identify one MAJOR poetic device/technique at work. After watching and reading the poem a second time, I’ll take hands raised for any stanzas that students think they have encountered a “showcase technique”
For any remaining stanzas that we can’t identify on the spot, I’ll assign students to think, pair, share about those. During this time, I’ll filter around the room facilitating discussions about the things they’re noticing. Depending on the level that you teach, you might scaffold this experience with a word bank or some kind of structure that helps students use the kind of language that you’re looking for. Here’s what we usually find and discuss for this poem:
Stanza 1: Metaphor
Stanza 2: Repetition
Stanza 3: Anaphora
Stanza 4: Cause & Effect
Stanza 5: Listing
Stanza 6: Metaphor
Stanza 7: Alliteration
Stanza 8: Powerful Diction
Stanza 9: One-Word Sentence
Stanza 10: Visual Imagery
Stanza 11: Personification
Once we have found these techniques, we then work through what each of the techniques reveals. How does personification demonstrate the speaker’s message? What about repetition? As we look through each technique, what themes and messages are emerging about being a person? Does Koyczan qualify whether or not he wants to be a “good” person? Why or why not? (As you can see, the questions just start to write themselves after a while!) . I don’t spend a long time analyzing the poem, but just enough that students have an engaging discussion
TIME TO WRITE
Now comes my favorite part - the part where students WRITE THEIR OWN. You can structure this as strictly or loosely as you’d like, but so far what’s worked for me (I try to keep this whole lesson down to one class period and a homework assignment), I have the students try a three stanza imitation. Each of their three stanzas uses a different technique that Koyczan implemented in his poem and all of their poems are also titled “How to Be A Person” and roughly follow the same thematic approach. Here is a student sample (used with permission and changed name):
How to be a person!
By Jasmine (10th grade, ELL, double block ELA support)
One: Be like the world, Strong even if you’re ugly on the inside. Be strong because if you aren’t you won’t be able to succeed.
Two: Be like the clouds, cry if you have to because pain inside, will kill you. The clouds cry too!
Three: Be like the wind, invisible to those who don’t like you so that you can blow on their faces to let them know that you aren’t weak like they thought you were.
Four: Be like the sky, blue so that others who are younger admire you, so that others look up to you, and show them that you can achieve what you want.
Five: Be like the doors, Open just in case someone wants you to let them in, but if you feel like the that person is not worth your time and if you feel like that person doesn’t treat you the right way don’t let them in.
Six: Don’t be like the planet ‘Pluto’ far far away so that no one will notice you, because one day they will forget you. Get Closer to the world don’t fear to be wrong.
Seven: Don’t be like the grass, on the ground so that everyone who walks would always step on you with their dirty shoes. Stand up from there!
Did you try this lesson with your class? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below and let the Mud and Ink community know what you did and how it worked! Also, remember to tag me on Instagram @mudandinkteaching!