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Using Poetry to Teach the Importance of Word Choice: Part II

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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.

In last month’s post I described the first half of a lesson I prepared for students on the importance of word choice, using different translations of the epic poem Beowulf. The second half of the lesson uses two brief poems. The first poem I used with my students is “Trickle Drops,” by Walt Whitman, because the richness of the language lent itself well to the activity.

Walt Whitman, 1887
Walt Whitman, 1887. Photo by George C. Cox.

First, students numbered lines 1-10 on a sheet of paperthis is a low tech activity. Then I projected the poem for the class with ten words obviously removed. I retyped the poem, leaving blank spaces approximately the size left behind by the words as an additional clue. I chose poetically significant words, some with helpful context clues. The most difficult part of the activity is persuading students to leave behind the idea of a “right” answer. Creating a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to think like poets by exploring the richness of language and playing with word choice ensures the success of this activity. The goal is for students to immerse themselves in the poem and choose words freely, but they are sometimes hesitant to be wrong even in an exercise that asks for deliberate guessing. (Below I  have underlined the ten words I removed.)

TRICKLE drops! my blue veins leaving!
O drops of me! trickle, slow drops,
Candid from me falling, drip, bleeding drops,
From wounds made to free you whence you were prison’d,
From my face, from my forehead and lips,
From my breast, from within where I was conceal’d, press forth red drops, confession drops,
Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I say, bloody drops,
Let them know your scarlet heat, let them glisten,
Saturate them with yourself all ashamed and wet,
Glow upon all I have written or shall write, bleeding drops,
Let it all be seen in your light, blushing drops.

After ten to fifteen minutes of work time I encouraged everyone to fill in all ten blanks. Students then paired to read the poem to each other aloud, filling in the words they had inserted. This usually sparked enthusiastic, engaged conversations about word choice.

Afterwards, we came together as a class to work our way through the poem, discussing Whitman’s word choices as well as their own. This was a great way to prompt conversation about the power of one, carefully chosen word. We finished by reading the entire poem aloud to appreciate it in its entirety. Often, students would want to revisit specific words to express how perfectly they felt Whitman had chosen.

Students usually enjoyed this enough to ask for a second opportunity. I regularly used the poem “Base Details” by Siegfried Sassoon, but any poem that is unlikely to have been studied previously and is less than 14 lines with strong, descriptive words works well. “Base Details” posed a fresh challenge because the context clues were less helpful.

Siegfried Sassoon. The Sun (New York, N.Y.), October 5, 1919.
Siegfried Sassoon. The Sun (New York, N.Y.), October 5, 1919.

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
    I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
    You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
    Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say‘I used to know his father well;
    Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and diein bed.

I found this half of the lesson, following the Beowulf activity, reinforced the importance of careful, deliberate word choice, encouraged students to practice using poetic language in a low stress situation.

How do you engage students in conversation or activities to promote careful word choice?