The ABCs of Poetry
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This activity allows students to play with words and letters in an imaginative way. Students make the familiar strange by creating image pools of metaphor derived from a single letter in the alphabet. As a class, students look at a letter and brainstorm things that it looks like. They then flip the letter on its sides and upside down, brainstorming new images each time. Next, they brainstorm interesting words that start with that letter. They then put some of the words they have brainstormed together as a poem. After creating the poem as class, students write their own letter poems, using the same process. Students can use an online tool to publish their poems in a class book. As a group exercise, this activity builds community: everyone learns from each other. As an individual exercise, it builds confidence and allows everyone the chance to create an original chain of images.
Model Alphabet Poems: Share these model poems with students as inspiration before they write their own letter poems.
Alphabet Organizer: Students can use this interactive tool to print an alphabet chart or pages for an alphabet book.
From Theory to Practice
"All poets start from love of words and wordplay," says United States poet laureate Donald Hall (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets, Ticknor and Fields, 1992) . This exercise allows students to use their unique knowledge and experience to take something ordinary and familiar and make it new and exciting. As a whole class activity, this exercise builds community and helps all students see that each of their classmates has important contributions to make. Later, as an individual activity, students gain confidence creating original images using figurative language. This is important since "poetry-merely whispering its name frightens everyone away" (1). The simplicity of this assignment makes it nonthreatening and ensures success for all students.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
- invent original metaphors by examining letters of the alphabet.
- create a group poem as a class.
- foster the importance of listening to others and respecting others' views.
- consider new ways of organizing language: by topics, sounds, and so forth.
- practice alliteration by listing favorite words with a common initial letter.
- write original poems by themselves, following the class model.
Instruction & Activities
- Begin by asking a student in class to name any letter in the alphabet. Write the letter on the board or chart paper, and ask students to forget that it’s a letter and to call out all the things the letter looks like. For example, if the letter is P, students may shout out lollipop, a whole note, a flag . . . whatever. Try to elicit at least 10 responses, and write them all down on the board or chart paper.
- Next, ask the students what would happen if you turned this letter upside down. Write the inverted letter on the board or chart paper, and field new responses, writing them all down—the head of a golf club, a foot in a cast, a garden spade digging, and so forth.
- Then turn the letter on its side, one direction at a time, fielding new responses: a bottle rocket, a bobsled, a yoga position.
- When the board or chart paper is filled with images, invite the students to call out the 5 most interesting words they know that begin with our initial letter: perspicacity, perspiration, penguin, pickle, popsicle, popcorn.
- Next, read out the words on the board or chart paper as a poem, ending with the words that students identified as interesting:
P is a a lollipop, a whole note, a flag
P is a foot in a cast, the head of a golf club,
a garden spade, digging.
P is perspiration, perspicacity, penguin, pickle, popsicle, popcorn.
- As an intermediate step, the teacher could also ask the class how they would read the various words which the class has generated.
- Ask if there certain words that go together by sound or by topic? If no suggestions are offered, share some connections of your own and explain to the class what you were thinking as you arranged the words. This process usually takes about 15 minutes in class.
- Invite students to write a letter poem of their own, using a different letter. Share the Model Alphabet Poems with the students.
- Suggest that the students include at least 20 descriptions of the letter total, including all directions. The writing of the letter poems typically takes the rest of the period.
- After about 15 minutes of work time, remind the students that they should end with the list of interesting words that start with the letter they chose.
- If desired, students can publish their letter poems using the Alphabet Organizer. If each student in the class chooses a different letter, than the poems can be printed and bound together in a class alphabet book.
- Finally, invite the students to share the poem that they created.
- One of the great features of this lesson is that it virtually guarantees everyone speaks (you may want to call on reluctant students first). The class can make a cool poem on the spot as a group, which leads to great community building.
- This poetry idea also works well with foreign letters and characters. Other teachers have used the exercise in ESL classes. For example, some students have written a poem using the German esset (ß) and a Japanese student write a poem from a Japanese character. Here is an example which uses the Hebrew bet (ב).
Student Assessment / Reflections
Because this activity is informal, student engagement and participation is perhaps most important. As students work on the activity, pay attention to how they work and share information with the entire class or smaller groups. Anecdotal notetaking can provide information for further assessment of students’ participation in the activity.
Optional: Using Self-Reflection questions, ask students to think about the steps they took as they worked on their poems—what they had problems with, how they worked out their problems, and how they feel about their final draft.