As an English undergrad, I was an obsessed fan of William Blake. And, let’s be honest, it wasn’t just the poems. Blake’s illustrations and the mythology that connected words and images fascinated me. During an Early Romanticism class, I was so eager to incorporate Blake’s images into poetry explication that I lobbied to be permitted to include imagery from the paintings into a paper on several works from Songs of Innocence and Experience. My indulgent professor, a poet himself, showed me how to cite images and include them in an appendix to my analysis. I was still working with a typewriter in those days, so copying and pasting the images actually involved photocopying, cutting, and then gluing them onto a master document. I poured endless hours into that paper. When I turned the paper in, I paid for color copies because I couldn’t fathom loving them if reduced to black and white. For me, the Blake essay initiated a marriage of poetry and art in my life.
In the spring of 2012, Kathleen Riley, my daughter’s fifth grade art teacher at Chagrin Falls Intermediate School, asked me about my trip to The Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching in Franconia, NH. Before our conversation ended, she invited me to co-teach a lesson incorporating poetry into an art lesson with all of her fifth graders.
I would be given one class period, about 50 minutes, with each of her 8 fifth grade classes. She prepared a lesson based on Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror.” Students would design their own eye using imagery inspired by a poem they’d write during my lesson. After having worked with Kindergarteners on a poetry unit for several years, fifth graders would be the first group old enough for me to use the dictation as described by Wormser & Capella in A Surge of Language.
The memorable and valuable parts of the lesson for me were the insights the fifth graders brought to a single poem in just a few minutes.
First, in order to demonstrate an easy connection between art and poetry, I displayed the words to William Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure” and displayed a poster-of Charles Demuth’s “The Figure Five in Gold” which was inspired by the Williams poem.
With the poem and the painting side-by-side, students pointed out similarities. I’ve taught this painting and poem in Kindergarten and know that we could have spent the entire class period on just these two works, but our focus is on a different Williams poem, so this comparison lasted only 10 minutes.
Next, with only paper and pencil on their desks, students listened to and wrote the words to “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams which I dictated beginning with the title. I read slowly, pausing as necessary to allow each student to write every word and bit of punctuation correctly. I explained which words began with capital letters, where space existed between lines, the location of each line break, etc. Students asked for words to be repeated or spelled. One student even checked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten to tell them about capital letters in the body of the poem. This slow and deliberate process continued until everyone had written the poem correctly.
The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)
by William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Next, I asked, “What do you notice?” I repeated this question many times as we collected observations. In no particular order, the fifth graders noticed the following things about the poem:
- Including the title, there are 19 words. They are surprised how short this poem is.
- There are four groups of 2 lines.
- The first line always contains three words.
- The second line always contains one word. Later they noticed that the single word always has two syllables.
- There are two colors named in the poem: red and white.
- There are no capital letters except in the title. One student suggested that the capital letter in the title might be the beginning of the sentence. They took turns reading it aloud as if the whole thing was a single sentence beginning with the title. I loved this since it brought the title into focus for us.
Next, I asked them to tell me which word they thought was the most important word in the poem and why. I heard lots of answers. I actually want many answers because this reinforces the importance of every word in a poem. For the purpose of our lesson, I kept asking for important words to assure that I got the word depends. This was the focus word for their own poem. A few words they considered important and the reasons they provided for each:
- red- They told me that this word appears twice, so it must be the most important word.
- wheelbarrow – This word also appears twice. It is also the subject of the poem and the biggest object named. When they picture the poem, they said started with an image of the wheelbarrow.
- chickens – This word is important because it represents the only living thing mentioned in the poem. When I dictated this poem, nearly every class giggled when they heard this word. They weren’t expecting the word chickens and it sounded funny to them.
- depends – Some classes come to this word earlier than others. All of them told me it’s the verb in this poem. They also told me, somewhat awkwardly at times, that depends shows that the wheelbarrow is important for “so much” and that “to depend” means “to rely.”
The next part of our discussion comes about in different ways. In some classes, a student noticed that “wheelbarrow” was written as a single word in the title, but as two words in the poem. Other times I ask about it.
“Why is wheelbarrow written two different ways in the poem? Do you think the poet forgot how to write the word?” They laugh and shake their heads. For all the talk about how intentional the words in poems are, the idea that this poet might have forgotten how to write a key word in his own poem sounds absurd. “Well, if we all agree it’s not an accident,” I continue, “then why would he have written the word two different ways?”
The answers are varied. One person suggests that the poet doesn’t care about things like that. Another thinks he made it up just to continue the one-word line after a three-word line. They’ve heard me call poets “wordsmiths,” so in each class there was a moment when someone would suddenly ask, “Could barrow be a word?” Using the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, we find the entry. The standard school dictionaries – print or online – weren’t robust enough to list barrow, so they are shocked that there are so many definitions listed in the OED. When we get to the third definition, there is a little excitement. Barrow is “a mound of earth or stone erected in early times over a grave; a grave-mound, a tumulus.”
“Oh,” one student announced, “that’s what depends on the wheelbarrow – burying the dead. Wow.” Fellow fifth-graders are excited by this possibility. They discovered something about the poem that was not obvious to them when we began. Again, the message is that every word matters. Words that feel out of place or unfamiliar are worth investigation. Students question word choice and demonstrate a curiosity about words.
I always love watching how curiosity about a word awakens in one or just a few children and then spreads quickly to include everyone. They brainstormed all the things in the scene that would depend on that wheelbarrow and list everything from hauling feed for the chickens to moving earth for a grave. So much really does depend on that red wheelbarrow!
Now that they have a better understanding of what “depends,” students spend time drafting their own poem about something important to them. The art teacher has them think about the imagery in the next art project. They’ll draw their own eye and illustrate it with the important thing that “so much depends upon” from their poem. They can use a template or free write their poem. The template borrows the first two lines from “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Sometimes those lines remain even in the final draft.
It’s been nearly two years since Kathleen Riley, now retired, invited me to bring poetry into her class. I am so grateful that she welcomed poetry as a natural companion to art in her classes.
A lesson plan, handouts, additional resources, and sample student work is posted at this LiveBinder: http://www.livebinders.com/play/play?id=1632767 .