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Teacher’s Corner: Using Poetry to Illustrate the Importance of Drafting

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Developing skills in written expression is as important a life skill as it is a school skill. One step in developing writing skills is drafting. Students are sometimes reluctant to revise work after they have completed what they consider a final draft–one way to engage them in a discussion of the importance of revision and editing is with primary source drafts of works by well-known authors and poets.

Here is an example from the Library’s collections: Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes, half-length portrait, facing left
Langston Hughes, half-length portrait, facing left. Photo by Jack Delano for OWI, 1942.

The Library has five drafts of his poem “The Ballad of Booker T.” Begin with the final (5th) version of the poem, reading it aloud.

Final draft, “Ballad of Booker T.” June 1, 1941.

Reading aloud serves two important purposes:

  • Students will experience the meter and rhyme of a poem more powerfully than they would if they read silently.
  • Students will be able to listen for nuance in meaning and tone as employed in a poem–a valuable skill.

Next, read the 1st draft aloud. Ask: In what way is your reaction to the first draft different from your reaction to the final draft? If possible, identify specifics about the poem that caused any differences.

Decide at this point whether to continue reading through the drafts sequentially to note the effect the poem has on the listener as it develops, or to distribute copies of the draft for a closer look before moving to the next. Each strategy has benefits:

  • Listening to all the drafts before a closer look at any retains the emotional experience of hearing the poem.
  • Taking time for a deep analysis of each draft before moving on builds familiarity with the text, supporting discovery of differences that affect meaning, tone, meter, and rhyme.

As an alternative, invite individuals or small groups to read only one of the first three drafts along with the final draft and make observations about the impact of the changes. Use a jigsaw strategy to share discoveries and insights.

Finally, provide all the drafts. Ask students to examine them closely, visually tracing changes and deepening their interaction with the poem. Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool to support analysis, observing and reflecting on Hughes’ use of poetic devices and striking words. These observations will be useful when comparing drafts, to note which were carried through to the final version and which were added or modified as he worked.

In a culminating discussion, ask:

  • What have you discovered about Hughes as a writer from studying this poem’s evolution?
  • What do these pieces teach us about the importance of drafting?

Studying the drafting process through the work of well-known authors and poets is one way to illustrate to students the importance of revising work to better communicate meaning, emotion, or argument.