Friday, March 27, 2009

Sylvia Plath

POETRY CHOICE: BIOGRAPHICAL POETRY—Post a Poetry BREAK with a biographical poem of your choice OR a Poetry BOOK REVIEW on a biographical poetry book of your choice

Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath, written by Stephanie Hemphill, was published in 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Hemphill carries the reader on a biographical journey from Plath’s birth in October 27, 1932 to events that occurred after Plath’s suicide in 1963. To appreciate the verse novel fully, one must read Hemphill’s letter to her readers in the back. She writes about discovering a love for Sylvia Plath when she first heard “Edge” as a young girl of fifteen. To rediscover Plath, Hemphill chose a line a day of Plath’s poetry and wrote a response to the line in her journal in poetic form. Hemphill recounts this activity, “I tried to channel Sylvia, as well as the younger me reacting to Plath for the first time” (Hemphill 2007, p. 247). The remembrance of her reaction to Plath’s poetry as an influential teen of fifteen solidifies this verse novel as one for young adults today.

The YA verse novel lends itself to high school and mature junior high students. Hemphill does not hold back in describing Plath’s many relationships with family, friends, and lovers, particularly the death of Plath’s father when she was eight and the doomed marriage to fellow poet, Ted Hughes. Hemphill emphasizes her verse poetry is a work of fiction, her imagination channeling Plath. Through this endeavor, she creates a haunting work that breathes as much angst as many of Plath’s poems. She not only channels Plath, but she also, through her poetry, gives voice to those in Plath’s life, such as Plath’s mother, Aurelia.

Students will appreciate the creative venue for reading a biography. Instead of a dry, many-paged account of Plath’s live, they receive first-person conjecture in verse form of the various people who touched Plath’s lives, for good and bad. Found at the bottom of the page, at the end of each poem, is commentary of the true events reflected in the verse. An example is the second poem in the book. It encloses Hemphill’s musings of the thoughts of Plath’s mother, Aurelia, at the advent of Plath’s birth.

Dearest Darling, First Born

Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother
October 27, 1932

Child of sea and sand,
your face is mine
but you will be tall
with the dark eyes of your father.

When you cry
I will rock you and rhyme you,
feed you milk of my breast,
give you my diligence, my contract of love.

Big beautiful Sivvy,
we are alone in this hospital.
Grow accustomed
to the antiseptic white.

My baby, my duty,
I will rear you right.
Give you everything, buttons off my shirt.
You will be what I cannot. (p. 2)

The phrasing in this poem foreshadows the rest. Phrases such as “antiseptic white” and “contract of love” preview the verses that follow. By no means though, does Hemphill “copy” Plath; she honors Plath’s life and talent. She delivers the verse using her own unique style, sometimes abstract, sometimes straightforward. Furthermore, each poem is a biographical reflection of an individual or event in Plath’s life.

Hemphill uses poetic devices throughout. For example, she pens these metaphoric lines to describe the Hughes’s version of meeting Plath: I may be black panther / but she draws blood / swirls whiskey-headed / around the dance floor / dizzy on my poetry (p. 114). Many of the events in Plath’s life, depicted through Hemphill’s verse, are heartrending; some are humorous, others controversial. Hemphill includes poems that focus on Plath’s preoccupation with her father’s death, which occurred when she was eight, and verse that presumes Plath’s mindset before committing suicide. The verse is presented realistically, but tastefully. Students gain a strong grasp of who Plath was through Hemphill’s poetic verse, maybe even more so than through Plath’s poetry, which might prove difficult to follow for some young adults.

Hemphill, Stephanie. 2007. Your own, Sylvia: A verse portrait of Sylvia Plath. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2, 114, 247.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

Module 4
POETRY BOOK REVIEW: CURRICULUM CONNECTION-- A book of poetry for children or teens ideally suited to science, math, or social studies instruction and published since 1995

When I taught The Dairy of Anne Frank, published posthumously by Otto Frank, Anne's father, I presented a question to my eighth grade students for consideration during the study. “If you were facing death, would you approach life with despair or hope for the future?” The children who wrote poems and created art in the Terezin Concentration Camp, as they waited for eventual death during the Holocaust, gave future generations a glimpse of their hope. However, not all the poetry in the anthology, . . . I never saw another butterfly . . . , edited by Hana Volavkova, is a picture of hope. Some of the poems speak of burden and tears. However, the inspiration gleaned from these children’s poetry has been a tender gift for later generations.

As the title indicates, the compilation of poems and art, published by Schocken Books in New York, was produced by children from 1942 to 1944 while they were housed in the Terezin Concentration Camp. This particular edition was expanded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which prefaces the edition with a note giving background information about the camp itself, and the children who resided there, along with a description of the Holocaust Museum (Volavkova 1993, p vii -ix).

A foreward, written by Chaim Potok, follows (p. xi). He writes about the history of Terezin, a small town in Czechoslovakia. Once a town of approximately 8,000, inhabited mostly by soldiers, Terezin dwindled to 3,700 people in 1941. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, German troops invaded and the town became a ghetto, part of a German protectorate, and was then renamed Theresienstadt. Ironically, the town was used to present Germany in a favorable light to the outside world. In addition, German military leaders allowed reporters to come in at one point during the World War II era to tour the camp. These reporters witnessed a beautifully kept town, run by prominent Jewish businessmen and artisans, when in fact, it was a holding camp for men, women, and children, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz to die.

The anthology contains an afterword by Vacalv Havel who, as a young adult, experienced shame when he watched his Jewish classmates being denied basic human rights. When he reads these Jewish children’s poems now from an adult’s perspective, he says this about their suffering, “They are full of longing for a world different from the miserable life they led, a longing for games and freedom, for gentleness and beauty. Death, which was so close, appears only between the lines” (p. 104).

The book contains a chronology beginning in 1939, and ending in 1945, when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet Army. The last page speaks of the children: “A total of around 15,000 children under the age of 15 passed through Terezin. Of these, around 100 came back” (pp. 105-106).

Distinctive drawings accompany the freestyle poems. At the back of the book are two separate catalogs for the drawings and poems. Each entry gives biographical information about the artists, and the authors of the poems, if known, and the medium of the art. Five of the poems belong to Franta Bass. “He was born in Brno on September 4, 1930. He was deported to Terezin on December 2, 1941, and died in Auschwitz on October 28, 1944” (p. 96). This young man spent his teenage years in the camp. His poem, “The Garden” is one that helps students comprehend the reality of death during the Holocaust for children of any age.

The Garden
by Franta Bass

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses,
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. (p. 70)

Bass had no illusions about his plight, or the fate of other children in the camp. However, his poetry reveals his strength. In his poem, “I Am A Jew,” he writes, “Even though I am suppressed,/ I will always come back to life.” (p. 57).

The combination of these poems and drawings speak to young people today. The poetry reveals the inner thoughts of a younger generation that helps connect emotions heightened by extreme circumstances to the anxiety young people experience now in their generation. Did my eighth grade students understand the underlying meaning of every poem in the book? No, but they felt the passion, the anger, and the fear of these young writers who were facing death. The poetry of these children and teenagers helped my students realize that human emotion spans the ages and is shared, regardless of what is experienced. Even more, my eighth grade students saw the Holocaust in a deeper light through the despair, and in the hope found in the poetry. Both despair and hope are revealed in “Homesick” by an unidentified author: “But no one must give up! / The world turns and times change. / Yet we all hope the time will come / When we’ll go home again, (p. 47).

. . . I never saw another butterfly . . . should be shared with students during a study of the Holocaust. They will learn the meaning of “poignancy” as the poetry helps them perceive a significant time in history that influences our lives today.

Volavkova, Hana. 1993. . . . I never saw another butterfly . . .: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942 - 1944. NY: Schocken Books. vii-ix, xi, 57, 70, 96, 1-4-106.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring by Karla Kuskin

Module 4 POETRY BREAK: SPRING-- A poem about the season of spring, spring holidays or spring events

Karla Kuskin

I’m shouting
I’m singing
I’m swinging through trees
I’m winging skyhigh
With the buzzing black bees.
I’m the sun
I’m the moon
I’m the dew on the rose.
I’m a rabbit
Whose habit
Is twitching his nose.
I’m lively
I’m lovely
I’m kicking my heels.
I’m crying “Come dance”
To the fresh water eels.
I’m racing through meadows
Without any coat
I’m a gamboling lamb
I’m a light leaping goat
I’m a bud
I’m a bloom
I’m a dove on the wing.
I’m running on rooftops
And welcoming spring!

Kuskin, Karla. 1980. Moments: Poems about the seasons. Hopkins, Lee Bennett, selector. Michael Hague, illus. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 38.

Poetry Break - use a blank white board or hang a large sheet of paper on the wall that several students can write on. Draw a circle map (thinking maps are required in our school). On strips of paper, write the lines of the poem that contain the contraction,” I’m” and a student’s name. Put the strips of paper in a watering can.

Without revealing the title of the poem, read the poem aloud to the children. Ask the children what word is repeated several times. Read the poem a second time so they can hear the repeated contraction, “I’m.” Draw the strips of paper from the watering can one at a time. As each strip of paper is drawn, have the student whose name is on the paper, write the “I’m” line from the poem in the circle map. After everyone has written his or her “I’m” line in the circle map, challenge the students to guess who “I’m” is. Discuss how “racing through the meadows” or “running on the rooftops” reflects spring. Explain the significance of the watering can (to water trees and flowers as they bud out and bloom in spring). Could the actions in the poem reflect other seasons and how?

For an extension activity, tie the poem to science class and a discussion of the seasons. Have the students work in groups and use circle maps they draw to think of other events and things that describe spring. Continue to create circle maps for the remaining seasons: summer, autumn, and winter.

§112.4. Science, Grade 2.
7D observe, measure, and record changes in weather, the night sky, and seasons.

Friday, March 6, 2009

What My Mother and Girlfriend Do Not Know!

Module 3
POETRY BOOK REVIEW: VERSE NOVEL-- A free verse novel for young adults published since 1995

Sones, Sonya. 2006. What my mother doesn’t know. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
­­__ __ 2007. What my girlfriend doesn’t know. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Teens are attracted to the verse novels, What My Mother Doesn’t Know and What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones, and rightly so. The storyline is engaging; the verse style allows the reading of the novel to flow smoothly from one page to the next, and the first-person insight into the protagonists’ thoughts seal the connection between fiction and reality. How do I know? I once was a teenager, and I now observe them everyday! Granted, the verse novel might not appeal to the science fiction enthusiast, or the fantasy fanatic, but those young people who are seeking identity through their hopes and dreams in realistic fiction will pick up these novels and not want to put them down.
Sones takes a specifically framed time in two teenager’s lives, and strings the day in and day out events together with one thread that travels throughout the books from beginning to end. This is how the smooth flowing read comes into play, and how Sones entices the reader into not putting down the book. The thread does not stop at the first book, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, but continues in the sequel, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know. The thread appears in the form of verse, the new rage in poetry for young adults.
How does this thread entwine and enthrall teens? They see themselves in the characters. They understand how it feels to be made fun of; they cringe when Sophie falls for the geek; they cheer when underdog Murphy gets the girl; they suffer when friends turn on friends. Inner thoughts spoken aloud from the pages beguile them: thoughts of sexuality, thoughts of acceptance, thoughts of embarrassment
Recognizable themes draw these young people, some pessimistic, some affirmative. When standard, positive themes are compromised; for example, when “a friend is a friend through thick and thin” changes to “friends are sometimes fickle,” emotions surface. Almost all teens experience the loss of or rejection by a friend; they relate to Sophie when her best friends snub her because she falls for the loser in What My Mother Doesn’t Know. The loser, Robin Murphy, protagonist in What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, maintains the major theme, “Be true to yourself.
Every aspect of plot found in prose: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, is imbedded in the verse. The verse itself is unique. Every page is a poem, and every page is pleasingly poetic. Sometimes the poems rhyme, and most of the time, they don’t. The titles of the poems on each page are an extension of the previous poem’s subject matter. For example, in What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, the verse reads as so:

Sophie Rubs My Back

“You okay?” she asks.

And that’s when I notice
that her face has gone whiter
than the snow,

that her lips
are a thin, straight line,
and her eyes are blinking back tears.

So I pull myself together
and do my best stoner impression:
“Whoa . . . dude,” I say. “That was cold.”

And when Sophie laughs at my pun,
the ache between my shoulders
disappears. (Sones 27).

The title on the next page is “Then We Get on a Roll” (Sones 28). The verse continues smoothly throughout, each poem of verse supplements the previous.
What My Mother Doesn’t Know garnished several awards. The list can be found on Sones’s website, Interestingly, it was also cited as one of the most challenged books in 2004 and 2005 by the American Library Association, which is also listed on Sones’s website. Granted, there are mature themes and images of sexuality, enough to fuel the imagination of a young adult, but the episodes are delicately written, and do not cross boundaries into graphic offensiveness. The selections might be best located in junior high or high school, which goes to reason since the protagonists are high school students. Other characters involved are even older and in college.
I recommend both novels; the first, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, should be read first to understand the premise of the second novel, and is the shorter of the two. They both end triumphantly. In What My Mother Doesn’t Know, Sophie chooses to follow her heart. And in What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, in spite of a big dose of teen-aged angst, Murphy morphs from the geek who has been bullied most of his life, into a self-assured young man who gets the girl.

Sones, Sonya. 2006. What my mother doesn’t know. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for

Young Readers.

­­__ __ 2007. What my girlfriend doesn’t know. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for

Young Readers. 27-28.

Sones, Sonya. 2009. Honors for what my mother doesn’t know. (accessed March 6,


The Labourer

The country of Mauritius
Module 3
POETRY CHOICE: POETRY THAT DOES NOT RHYME—Post a Poetry BREAK with a poem of your choice that does not rhyme OR a Poetry BOOK REVIEW on a poetry book of unrhymed poetry of your choice

The Labourer

The labourer is back from the field
when sunset dies away from the sky
opening the way to darkness.

The labourer is back from the field
with his huge tiredness
hanging on his shoulders.

Night finds him sleeping
under a blanket of boredom.

Life starting at dawn,
ending at dusk.

He prays for courage.
May his bit of food
not slip from his plate.

Toolsy Daby

This poetry break takes a more serious tone. Use this poem with high school students to begin a study of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The poem is a wonderful introduction to the hardships faced by the sharecroppers in the novel, but adds an element of multiculturalism since the poem is found in a poetry collection from around the world, compiled by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Give a copy of the poem to a student who is a strong reader beforehand so he or she can practice reading the poem with feeling and emphasis. After the student reads the poem, pull down a map of the world and let the students find the country of Mauritius.

Extension Lesson: The poem and the novel combined helps young adults realize that sorrow and hard times span centuries and cultures. A quote from Wikipedia provides insight: “Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on a poor family of sharecroppers, the Joads, driven from their home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry” ( As the students read the novel, have them do a research project focusing on themes garnished from the following information:

Steinbeck had unusual difficulty devising a title for his novel. "The Grapes of Wrath", suggested by his wife, Carol Steinbeck, was deemed more suitable than anything the author could come up with. The title is a reference to some lyrics from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", by Julia Ward Howe: [. . . ]. These lyrics refer, in turn, to the biblical passage Revelation 14:19-20, an apocalyptic appeal to divine justice and deliverance from oppression in the final judgment. (

Tie in the poem by including research of Mauritius with emphasis on why the author, Toolsy Daby, wrote the poem. What might the country of Mauritius be like? Have the students create a Power Point featuring one aspect of their research:

Ø The story behind the title, The Grapes of Wrath
Ø Revelations: the scripture concerning the grapes of wrath
Ø The Battle Hymn of the Republic
Ø The country of Mauritius
Ø Sharecroppers and Sharecropping
File:LocationMauritius.png. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1992. This same sky: A collection of poems from around the world. New
York: Four Winds Press. 176.

The grapes of wrath. March 2009. Wikipedia. com. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. (accessed March 5, 2009).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sometimes Poems by Judith Viorst

The text in the small textbox is hard to read; however, a typed version is located below. The poem was printed on two pages, with this section at the bottom of the page, emphasizing "short and fat." The following page in the poetry book reflected "tall and skinny!"

Module 3

POETRY BREAK: UNUSUAL FORM-- A poem written in an unusual poem form (and identify the form)

Viorst, Judith. 1981. If I were in charge of the world and other worries: Poems for children and their parents. Lynne Cherry, illus. NY: Aladdin Books. 36-37.

Sometimes Poems

Sometimes poems are
Short and fat
And have a
Double Chin


And squashed one flat.

This unusual poem, titled Sometimes Poems, by Judith Viorst, is a free style poem, the poem itself personified, first with a double chin, then sporting a tall, skinny, pencil-thin shape. It is whimsical and funny, with an unexpected ending, especially where text is concerned. It could be considered a shape poem. This poem would be great to use to surprise children with its shape and ending. It is a “must see” visual poem.

In junior high, use this poem as a poetry break to present the many faces of poetry to introduce a poetry unit. For junior high students, “poetry unit” has a dry connotation. This poem, however, would help them understand that poetry is not dry, can be fun, and can be written in many forms.

Do not read the poem first, but pass out a “fat,” or thicker pencil than a number 2 to every student. Direct the students to use an ink pen and carve (or simply write) each word from the second stanza onto the pencil, beginning at the top of the pencil. Call out each word one at a time. It might not be possible to write every word on one pencil, but this would create anticipation. After the activity, read the poem aloud, slowly emphasizing the last few lines. Before reading the very last line, be prepared to sit down hard in a chair on a whoopee cushion! After laughing, pass out a copy of the poem to each student and project the poem onto an overhead screen so they can actually see the poem written on paper. Then discuss the many faces of poetry and talk about Judith Viorst and other modern-day poets. Explain that poetry does not have to be “dry.”

For an extension activity, introduce poetry terms, pointing out the personification of the poem itself in Sometimes Poems, along with the imagery. Instruct the students to create their own version of personified items and write a free-style or shape poem about the item. Challenge them to transfer their poems to a concrete form, as they did with the pencil. Spread out a large number of poetry books and ask the students to browse them for unusual poems.