AP Language and Composition is very heavily geared to non-fiction and rhetoric, so when I asked the students what they would like to do for a week or so until they start writing their college essays after their AP Exam, it was refreshing to hear many of them ask to work with poetry (how can an English teacher say ‘no’ to students asking for poetry???). In the syllabus as part of the unit on sports I have listed a book of poetry called Losing Season by Jack Ridl, in which the poems are set up like a basketball season (four quarters) and each poem chronicles the emotions and events surrounding a losing high school basketball team. There are a number of recurring characters, such as the coach, his wife, the star, the scrub, as well as other people in the school community like the janitor, music teacher, and coffee shop owner. Given the central topic of the book and the connected poems, I thought this would be a great way for students to consider multiple central ideas in a text, a major shift for reading standards at grades eleven and twelve. I love using poetry to teach a variety of ideas and concepts, because the structures act as a skeleton of language. In this case, most of the poems are about the people and places around a high school basketball team, and the brevity and individuality of each poem work to clearly see how multiple interlocking themes are being presented.
Similarly to previous books, I asked student to do a set of reading logs for the book that will act as their notes for a Socratic seminar-like discussion for the book. For this particular book, I asked them to choose two poems from each quarter that struck them for some reason, and explain why (I won’t really care if they don’t choose two from each quarter; I put that stipulation in so they can’t just choose the first eight poems in the book and be done). Additionally, I asked them to consider the central ideas/themes Ridl presents through the course of the book.
The protocol will be for a student to start by simply noting a poem they chose and why from the first quarter. I will have all the students go to the poem in their book, and the student will read the poem out loud before explaining why they liked it (theme, language use, etc.)—this gives students practice in reading poems out loud, and also provides a common context so people can discuss the poem more freely. After the student has read the poem and talked about it, other students are free to pick up the conversation, and I will also encourage them to continue the conversation by reading a poem they chose from anywhere in the book that they feel somehow connects to the one on floor. They will have their logs in front of them, so they should be able to use these to move the conversation forward.
As with every other book in this class, I’ve never used this one in a class (nor have I ever had students read a whole book of poems), so I will simply be a participant in this process. We’ve done a lot of Socratic seminar-type discussions this year, so the students are very good now at carrying on a conversation with each other, and allowing me to simply be one of the participants. This being said, as the class goes on and we hit on a number of poems, I will eventually ask students to start considering the main themes they think the book gets to, and how they relate to each other (this addresses the Reading Standard 2 shift to determining multiple themes). So, at some point I will transition to facilitator and have students watch a short video (embedded in next section) as they consider themes of the book.
I was really excited by how much the students enjoyed this book. Prior to diving into individual poems, we talked for a few minutes about their experience reading the book, talking about how reading a book of poems is a lot like listening to a new music album—there are some you start and read carefully to the end because you’re so into the content, some you read through to the end and think “meh,” and others that you read a few lines and skip to the next one. I agreed with them, because that is exactly what happens when reading a book of poetry! This is one of those times when it would be easy to slip into righteous teacher mode, but in fact this kind of honesty, I think, encourages more reading, because they know that they can enjoy it in this way—its’ okay to do that.
The conversations on the poems were largely about themes and how they could relate in some way to what was being said, or empathize with the characters. They talked a lot about themes regarding the different players, and how each player has their own unique emotional space hidden from view to some extent. I asked about the coach and how he fits in (they were funny because they read all the coach ones from a player’s point of view, relating the poems to things their own coach probably thought); I had to probe a little to get to the idea that coach is more consumed by the team than the players, and just as emotional and oblivious to others’ emotions as the students are. This got us to a whole new theme regarding the interaction of students and adults around a school (and basketball team). There was a whole other string of ideas regarding the town—the adults around the team, but not part of it—that suggested a theme regarding the interaction between a community and high school sports.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of time, I never got to use the video portion of the lesson (as it turned out, we had a short class due to standardized testing going on in the school and therefore a modified schedule). I don't think I will get to it this year, given the schedule we're on, but hope to use it next year to expand this discussion, since the students really responded well to the book.
Given that this is a “light” unit to have some academic fun after reviewing for the test for a few weeks, it was a strong discussion. While we are moving on to using these poems and this book as a creative writing prompt, I learned that I can, in fact, teach a book of poetry successfully!
After the students have had a chance to talk about their observations of the book, I will pause and transition to a discussion of themes regarding the book, and how some of the poems they've mentioned build themes.
To help them think about this, we will watch a portion of this video of Jack Ridl doing a Tedtalk called "Perfectly Imperfect"--when I watched this video, I thought that some of the things he talks about in it, particularly the contrast of himself and his daughter, are similar to some of the themes of Losing Season. So, I thought hearing and seeing the author in a different context would help students think about themes of a book where there are over 50 small connecting pieces. We will watch a portion of the video (the whole thing is 17 minutes), then I will have students do a five minute free-write of how the themes he mentioned relate to the book, and how some of the poems mentioned in the previous discussion are evidence of these ideas.
This unit is meant to mostly be one of creative writing, since the students asked to do some of that after the exam was over. Therefore, tomorrow I will use one of the poems in the book as a prompt for writing.