Before outlining this strategy to help students to encounter and explore a poem, first a question: when teaching poetry, what is the appropriate weight to give to our own interpretation of the poem?
I think this is a really interesting question. Presumably, before we teach a poem we read and think about it first, perhaps annotating it or asking ourselves questions. Before we enter the classroom, we probably have, at least in outline form, a sense of how we view and understand the poem. We have decided, to an extent, on an interpretative landscape for the poem.
But, when we start teaching what weight do we give to this interpretation? Do we conceive our job as persuading students of this interpretation? Do we seek to modulate their views, using our interpretation as a kind of epistemological radius to help gauge how close or near students are? Do we provide lots of opportunity for students to work through their own interpretation, but then seek to cue and guide them towards the interpretation we arrived at? Or, do we view our interpretation as just that, one way of reading the poem that may or may not gain traction? Is there room in our classrooms for interpretative parity between how we view the poem and how they do? Should there be? If the lesson concludes and students have arrived at broadly the same interpretation that we arrived at before the lesson then have we successfully guided them to an appropriate understanding? Or, have we merely supplanted our personal reading on top of theirs?
These are all questions I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and it’s within this wider context the below strategy is situated. So, here, then, is what I call ‘resonant reading’ and how it works.
Resonant Reading: A Step by Step Guide
Let’s imagine you have a poem in your hand, which is the focus of the day’s lesson, and the students have not studied or encountered this poem before. Let’s also imagine that they don’t have access to a copy of the poem. In front of them, they might have a piece of paper to jot ideas on or just an empty desk. What happens next?
First of all read the poem once in a normal fashion. Remember they don’t actually have a copy so they can’t see it. They’re just listening to you reading the poem, and hopefully enjoying the experience! Once you reach the end of the poem, asking them to take 20 to 30 seconds to jot down anything that *resonated* with them: a word, image, idea, something that caught their attention. Doesn’t matter why yet. There is nothing they could write down at this stage that is ‘wrong’. The only criteria is that it resonated with them and if they can remember it, even as something half-formed, then it probably did.
Explain you’re just looking for splinters of the poem that caught their attention. They don’t even have to remember it fully — in fact they probably won’t. Share ideas. Revel in that half remembered discussion that will ensue. Perhaps, they remember a word or an image or maybe even they can only paraphrase the image or the word they recall is similar to a word in the poem, but not quite accurate. It doesn’t matter.
Maybe after this first attempt this have something that looks like the below, hastily scribbled and quickly remembered :
The idea, here, and what makes this process valuable, is that you now have a a room of images/words/ideas that for whatever reason somehow resonated with your students. What superb material to begin to explore. Chat about it for a few moments and begin, tentatively, to interrogate. Why do you think that stood out? What did it make you think of? Have you encountered a similar word or image elsewhere? Did anyone else remember the same thing? Why did you remember it? And so on.
Repeat the above process a couple more times, and with each reading they will become more attuned to the poem and their resonances will become more specific. Ask them to listen out for whatever resonated the first time. Did they remember it exactly? What about the lines before and after whatever they remembered? Does that change how they think about it?
As you circulate the room again begin to interrogate further. Why that? Did you remember it exactly? What’s the difference? Here’s the exact line: why do you think you remembered that bit of the line?
After a few cycles hand out/show them the poem, highlight some of the stuff you’ve already discussed, annotate and discuss some more, now in more detail. And there you go: a whole poetry lesson focussing on what resonated with your students.
What is the Value of Doing This?
What are we trying to achieve through this strategy? A couple of things, I think:
1) It shows students poetry operates on half formed ideas, at least at first and that we should be attuned to these resonances
2) It privileges the sound and rhythm of the poem, so often overlooked
3) It provides a reason for students to pay really close attention to the poem and embeds into the activity a rationale for focusing and listening
However, returning to the musings at the start of this post, I also think this works because it helps to reframe how we might conceive of the interpretation of the poem we have as we walk into the classroom. In this model, that interpretation, our interpretation, becomes *our* resonances, not necessarily better than what the student may think about, perhaps even the same.
The strategy helps to introduce some of that interpretative parity I began by contemplating, and this can even be embedded into the discussion itself: oh, we might say to a student, that resonated with me too, why did it resonate with you? Our questioning and discussion is not a way of funnelling students towards a preconceived, our preconceived, understanding of the poem, but as a way shape, scaffold, tease, probe these resonances into a coherent view of the poem. We privilege genuine and authentic student response as a valid starting point for an understanding of the poem, all poems.
We begin with what resonated with them, we help to shape and probe these resonances, and we add our own resonances too.