by Max Shenkin
This post is one in a short series of reflections by students at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, CA, who enrolled in a blended-learning version of Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop in Spring 2017. Click HERE for more.
Second semester senior year, a time many remember as being relaxing. For me, this time was instead filled by two college classes, each challenging and requiring full effort: Calculus 1 through my local community college, and a poetry class through Harvard University. Immediately drawn to the Harvard course by my interest in poetry, I could not wait to sign up and learn even more. My excitement quickly turned to frustration after the first few weeks of this course being filled with technical hiccups, and adjusting to an online learning platform. After a couple of reassuring talks with Professor Bellows, I decided to stick it out and give this course everything I had. Thankfully, after the third week, everything smoothed out, so my fellow learning poets and I began to tear through week after week of material, with the help from our wonderful teacher, Ms. Bellows.
After countless poems, many extremely productive group meetings, and a couple of essays, it became time to tackle the final project–a lesson plan that we not only had to create, but also teach. The first step I took in conquering this looming obstacle was to form a group. Luckily, it was easy to form because all the seniors wanted to be together. The first order of business for my group was to choose a poem to base our lesson on. Normally, having a group of six people all agreeing on one thing is a challenge of itself. But, after quick deliberation, we selected “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman. Next, we needed to create a lesson plan that met the Common Core Standards, and addressed our target grade (Tenth) and main objectives in analysis of the diction. Laurique and Ashley, two intelligent and hardworking seniors, spearheaded this endeavor, while the rest of us decided how we were going to present this lesson. This division of labor proved to be beneficial to the group as we were able to make sure our lesson plan fit the requirements while being an engaging lesson for the students. Collaborating as ‘teachers’ was incredibly fun and fused us in a time when senior connections are dissipating as we head towards college.
Since our project group was so big, we had to split up into pairs in order to cover everything. My particular group was teaching language-specific to the poem, while second pair discussed the form, and the third, the historical context. Splitting up the lesson into three separate, but integrated parts helped keep the students engaged.
The way we tackled teaching diction, we passed out large print-outs of the poem for the students in small groups to annotate, identifying unfamiliar words, making new connections in a larger form together. Students would then share these words, while Ashley and I would help break down these words with the class. These strategies paid off as the students participated a lot and seemed to really enjoy hyperfocusing on their ideas and our direction simultaneously. As each pair dove into another layer of “O Captain! My Captain!”, we all integrated the layers of our own understanding with those of our pupils’, giving a new, multifaceted look at Whitman’s piece.
After experiencing this course and teaching our lesson plan, I can confidently say that I have walked away with many new skills under my belt. For instance, learning not only how to work in a group while analyzing a poem, but also how truly helpful face-to-face collaboration is when trying to decode a text. Another priceless skill I have now is how to write about my perspectives and opinions on a poem with more precision and eloquence. Knowing that, for analytical essays, less is more in terms of the economy of words will definitely go a long way in my academic career. Finally, I also learned that teaching a class filled with tenth graders is a huge undertaking that is extremely work-intensive and frustrating at times. I hope that was not me two years ago!
Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop has truly been a wonderful class, which produced many great memories and moments of growth within me. From almost being a Harvard dropout to standing in front of a class of rabid tenth graders, this class has changed me into a more confident, articulate student and person.