Developing Aesthetic Criteria: Using Music to Move Beyond Like/Dislike with Poetry
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This lesson helps students explore the aesthetics of poetry and music by developing their own criteria. Students begin by examining what makes a good song. They then read criteria for what makes a good poem and examine two examples of ars poetica. Next, they read about the different aesthetic elements for poetry. Finally, students develop their own aesthetic criteria by which to judge poetry by finding poems that they like, designing an aesthetic crietera they can use to evaluate future poems, and then defending their own judgment.
- Mark Strand’s poem “Eating Poetry” and Charles Harper Webb’s essay “Apples and Orangutans: Competing Values in Contemporary Poetry": These authentic texts provide the starting point for student conversations around aesthetic criteria in poetry
- Introductions with Criteria: This handout provides structure to transition students from listing to expressing their own aesthetic criteria for poetry
From Theory to Practice
Morrell and Duncan-Andrade discuss their experience in an inner city California high school where they designed a unit that asks students to compare hip hop lyrics to classic poems from the Western canon. They emphasize that their inspiration for the unit came from noticing how their students had cognitive critical thinking skills when the students evaluated hip hop songs. Hoping to transfer these skills to the students’ understanding of poetry, they championed hip hop as a text and taught parallels between poetry and hip hop songs. Just as Morell and Duncan-Andrade hope to expand their students’ cognitive skills from their discussion of hip hop, this lesson asks students to extend their evaluative tendencies in music to develop a habit of evaluating poems using a more formalized aesthetic criteria.
George Hillocks examines the ways that argumentative writing is often taught in our schools and finds these methods lacking. Specifically he discusses how often students are asked to begin a paper writing process with writing a thesis statement when in fact students should be beginning by looking at data and information. He calls for teachers to consider teaching an alternate method to the more deductive reasoning approach driven by an idea which the student thereafter finds evidence to support. Instead he asks teachers to allow for more inductive reasoning, encouraging students to looks for patterns in information which then generate a thesis statement. This lesson asks students to use this more inductive approach as students are asked first what is it that they like (looking at the data) and then discovering what criteria their preferences fulfill. It is only after investigating and engaging in many different activities with music and then poems that students in this unit develop an aesthetic criteria and then defend it.
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
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 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.
- 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).
Materials and Technology
- Copy of the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding
- Sticky notes
- Copy of the lyrics to a favorite song
- Class set of Mark Strand’s poem “Eating Poetry”
- Poster paper and markers
- Copy of Charles Harper Webb’s essay “Apples and Orangutans: Competing Values in Contemporary Poetry"
- Copies of lyrics for “I used to love h.e.r” by Common
- Computers with Internet access
The Library of Congress Poetry 180 database is designed to make it easy for students to hear or read a poem on each of the 180 days of the school year.
- Ask students to come to the first session of this lesson with the lyrics to one of their favorite songs printed out or hand written.
- Cue movie to the scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding in which the character played by Cameron Diaz sings karaoke.
- Separate the 62 competing values of contemporary poetry from Harper's essay into sets of 2-3 values for each student.
- After class session three, type the student-friendly translations of Webb’s 62 values of contemporary poetry.
- evaluate and analyze their personal preferences in music.
- articulate their evaluation of music and poetry through the use of criteria.
- infer a poet’s personal criteria for good poetry through the explication of an ars poetica.
- explain different elements used to evaluate contemporary poetry by translating these elements into student-friendly language.
- demonstrate their understanding of criteria by choosing contemporary poems that they enjoy and explaining how these poems meet their own personal aesthetic criteria.
- Ask students to get out the lyrics of a favorite song and pair students with a partner that they do not know well and ask them to share the lyrics. The students should swap lyrics, read them, and then ask each other why they like this song.
- After they have finished sharing, take a moment to fill out a Venn Diagram of the similarities and differences in their two sets.
- Ask some students to present their Venn Diagrams to the class.
- As students share the similarities and differences between their songs, place on the board the words “My Aesthetic Criteria.” Explain to the class that aesthetics means the appreciation of beauty and criteria is a list of things that must be met, like requirements. Examples might include aesthetic criteria for something basic like a car or an outfit. For someone to consider her outfit to be beautiful, the requirements that might need to be met often include shoes that match and some sort of multi-strand beaded necklace. Explain to the class that every time we make a judgment about beauty we are doing so based on our own personal aesthetic criteria. Model creating an Aesthetic Criteria by listing under “My Aesthetic Criteria” qualities that you like in a song.
- Explain that the Internet can help you discover why you like certain songs. Demonstrate how Pandora, which utilizes the music genome project to create stations, allows users to start a station with the song you chosen for class. Ask Pandora why it is playing a new song in the station and share the rationale, such as “features basic rock song structures, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, call and answer vocal harmony (antiphony) and repetitive melodic phrasing.” Ask students to go through this process of using Pandora to discover the features of their song. To simplify just discuss the song in more basic terms like “female vocals,” “strong dance beat.”
- Now ask students to look again at the lyrics that they brought in and the qualities that they wrote inside the Venn Diagram. These qualities could be their aesthetic criteria if these are qualities that they often like in songs. Students should begin making their own Aesthetic Criteria List with the qualities that they identified that they often enjoy in music.
- In closing, ask students to search for a song that they do not like for homework. They should repeat these steps from the music genome project for homework to develop an opposing aesthetic criteria list of qualities that they do not enjoy in music.
- Open class by asking students to write a response to this question: Is there such a thing as a bad song? Why or why not?
- Ask students to share their answers. Point out that being able to discuss Aesthetic Criteria is a new way of saying whether or not a song is a quality song. Instead of saying a song is bad, they could say, "This song does not meet my aesthetic criteria." Or they could ask, "What aesthetic criteria does this song meet or fulfill?"
- Partner students in new pairs for this session. Ask them to share their song and then discuss what are the ways this song does or does not meet their aesthetic criteria.
- Explain to the class that just as there are some songs that do not meet our aesthetic criteria, there are some poems that do not meet individual reader’s aesthetic criteria. In fact, even people who read poetry all of the time and poets themselves have strong aesthetic criteria. When poets want to express their own aesthetic criteria for poetry, they often do not write a list, but they write a poem. Poems about what poetry should or should not do are called ars poetica. Explain that the poem that you will focus on in class today is an ars poetica where the poet says he is a dog.
- Introduce Mark Strand’s poem, “Eating Poetry” as an ars poetica. Emphasize that poetry isn’t always easily understood and that sometimes the poet is trying to make the poem a little mysterious. (In fact, poems that are mysterious could be part of your aesthetic criteria for poetry!) This is definitely the case with “Eating Poetry” which at moments feels a little like a horror film.
- Read the poem twice. Distribute the Poetry Discussion Questions handout and ask students to attempt to answer as many of these questions as they can about the poem. Encourage them to work in groups and ask them to make guesses as much as possible.
- Bring everyone back together and read the poem again. Ask different groups to share their answers to these questions and encourage the class to piece together an understanding of the poem.
- As a class, fill out a list entitled Mark Strand’s Aesthetic Criteria. Possible answers could include that Mark Strand thinks poetry should bring out the animal in you, make you feel alive, hit you emotionally in a deep unthinking way, and so forth.
- Ask students to write a closing reflection on whether or not any of qualities in Mark Strand’s Aesthetic Criteria also appear in the songs that they brought in the day before. If any of these qualities could also be applied to their songs, they should add these qualities to their aesthetic criteria.
- Show students a clip from the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding in which the character played by Cameron Diaz sings karaoke off-key. Then ask them to write on the following questions:
- Does this performance match your own aesthetic criteria for beautiful music? Why or why not?
- Did the people in the karaoke audience begin clapping because her performance met their aesthetic criteria for beauty?
- Lead a discussion around the students’ answers to these questions. In this movie clip the audience begins clapping for Diaz's character even though she cannot sing because she meets another part of their aesthetic criteria karaoke. Even though Diaz’s voice is not beautiful, the vulnerability and passion for music that she expresses through her song won them over. Explain that aesthetic criteria is not simply something that people can readily agree on in either music or poetry. Different people have different aesthetic criteria and there is room for everyone to expand their criteria based on the situation.
- Introduce article by Charles Harper Webb, a contemporary poet, entitled “Apples and Orangutans: Competing Values and Voices in Contemporary Poetry” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 37, Number 2) where he actually lists 62 different qualities that might make up a reader’s aesthetic criteria for poetry. Explain that having the language to discuss why you like or do not like a poem (your aesthetic criteria) opens up, rather than shuts down, a discussion a discussion regarding whether a poem is appealing.
- Give each student in your class two or three of the competing values on the list in the article. Ask them to look up any words that they do not know in those values’ descriptions and to translate those two values into student friendly language on sticky notes.
- When the students are finished, they should take their sticky notes to a large piece of poster paper at the front of the room, and put their sticky notes in order based on number. It is okay if not all of the values are translated by the students. (Students who finish first should begin looking through their favorite song and listing off which of these values they found in their song on the sticky notes are also in their favorite song.)
- After the poster is complete, ask students if it is possible for any poem to be all of these things? Why not? Then, how do we decide if a poem is good? Try to bring the discussion to a point where students realize that one poem that one reader thinks is not good another reader might really enjoy, all because they have different aesthetic criteria.
- In closing, ask students to write about whether they would rather define their own aesthetic criteria or have someone give them a criteria they should judge things by? Why or why not?
- Pass out the now typed copy of the student’s translation of Webb’s 62 values of contemporary poetry that the students created on yesterday’s poster.
- Ask student to now look back at Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry” and in pairs list as many of these values as they can find in this poem.
- Ask for volunteers to share what values they found and how they found them. Lead a discussion of whether the poem fits a criteria for asking the reader to ”willingly suspend disbelief” (Number 18) or make “associate leaps” (Number 24).
- Explain that most people’s first reactions are that they like or dislike the poem/song. Usually people have not developed an aesthetic criteria in language as much as they just know one thing is appealing to them. Therefore, it is best to start with finding the poem you like and find appealing and afterwards begin explaining the aesthetic criteria for your judgment.
- Ask students to go to the Poetry 180 website and read poems until they find a poem that they like or find pleasing. Then, ask them to write a list of which of the 62 values of contemporary poetry that they find in the poem they chose.
- Explain to students that developing a criteria can help develop an argument on almost any topic. Often students are stuck when writing an introduction, but criteria development makes introductions much easier and creates an organizational structure for the paragraphs that follow. Pass out and review the Introductions with Criteria handout.
- Ask students to create an introduction for a paper that ends with their aesthetic criteria for poetry as the thesis statement.
- Have students choose one of the assessment options below to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts in this lesson. They should use the Rubric for Closing Activities to determine the criteria for which they will be responsible as they create their final product.
Optional extension activity: Poetry Genome Card Game (to be played after Session Three)
Overview: Place students in small groups of 5-6 players. Give each group a set of blank index cards and ask them to write each of the 62 competing values on a card until they have a deck of 62 cards. The students will then play a card game in which they try to match the cards to a poem given following the guidelines below.
Rules of Play
- There should be one player who serves as the aesthetic master. This player will deal cards and be the judge of whether or not a card can be played on any given poem.
- Each player should always have five cards until one player gains ten points.
- A poem is read to the players by the aesthetic master. Each student is then given a turn to play a card to that poem. The players get one turn at a time and then the players rotate turns until no player has any more cards to play for that poem. Note: A player does not have to play a card in any round at any time. He or she may simply enjoy the game play until a poem is presented that he/she feels is a strong match for their cards.
- In order to play a card to a poem, the player must place the card face up next to the poem and explain to the aesthetic master how the card shows this aesthetic value. The aesthetic master then decides if the card can be played. If the card cannot be played, the player who originally played the card must return the card to their hand.
- For each card successfully played, the player receives one point.
- Successfully played cards return to the deck and are reshuffled by the aesthetic master.
- After all players have had as many turns as they want with one poem, another poem will be presented.
- The first player to reach 10 points wins!
Optional Extension Activity (to be completed after Session Four)
- Ask students to create an introduction with criteria for these fun and quick topics: The Best Dessert, The Worst Movie, The Best Birthday, or A Best Friend.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Informal Observations: Observe student discussions and in class work; prepare to assist and ask guiding questions to help students translate their preferences into aesthetic criteria. Some guiding questions that can help students discover their values include: What about this poem do you remember at the end? Do you like the sound of certain poems/words? Do you prefer when a poem tells you a story (narrative) or just describes a moment (lyrical)?
- Poem Presentation: Ask students to choose a poem to share with the class. After reading the poem aloud to the class, the student should explain their aesthetic criteria and how the poem meets that criteria.
- Argumentative Paper: Real-world contexts for explaining aesthetic criteria essays.
Goal: You are trying to explain to your audience your aesthetic criteria for poetry.
Role: You are interviewing to become the poetry editor of The New Yorker. If you are hired you will be paid to read and select poems that will be featured in The New Yorker. More people read poems in The New Yorker than anywhere else. By being the poetry editor of The New Yorker, you will be one of the most powerful people in the world of contemporary poetry. You will be able to decide which poets get read and which poets remain unknown.
Audience: The editors of The New Yorker have assembled a board of people that you must convince that you have the best and most clearly understood aesthetic criteria for what makes a good poem in contemporary poetry today.
Situation: You must submit a document that highlights at least five aspects of your aesthetic criteria as well as a poem that demonstrates your understanding of your aesthetic criteria in practice. If you do a better job that anyone else, then you will become the new poetry editor.
Product: A paper of about 7 paragraphs (500 words) which explains your aesthetic criteria and how a poet uses his/her craft choices to meet your aesthetic criteria.
Success: In order to be successful in this paper you must:
- Present a well-defined aesthetic criteria
- Blend quotations of a poem into your sentences smoothly to serve as textual evidence
- Fully explain how your aesthetic criteria is in your quotes and the poem
- Completely correct errors in grammar and/or convention between drafts
- Discuss the poet’s craft choices convincingly
- Write your own poem(s): Ask students to submit one poem or a poem series in a group of 3-5 poems that aim to match their own aesthetic criteria. Then, ask students to submit the poems along with an artistic statement outlining how these poems embody their aesthetic criteria.
- Website Design: Students will use free web-based website design software like weebly.com or wix.com to develop a top five best poems of the Millennial. They should model this website off music website’s top lists such as those found on Complex magazine’s online site. Each poem should be presented and the aesthetic criteria explained for each either using an audio file or pictorial slide show.
- Time Capsule Challenge: Students will discover the aesthetic criteria of past decades using poems as clues. Small groups of students are given a time capsule (envelope) of 3-5 poems that were successful in a certain historical era (say the 1800s or 1950-60). Reading these poems the students must determine what were the aesthetic criteria of that time period. Students must present the criteria to the class and read each poem discussing how that criteria is found in that poem.
- Television Game Show The American Aesthetic: In a game show format, pairs of students will present a poem to a panel of judges. The poem will be read and the judges will then each state where they fall on a spectrum of Detest-Dislike-Like-Adore in terms of their initial response to the poem. The student pair will then present on how this poem fulfills a certain aesthetic criteria. The poem will be read again. The judges can then change their status on the spectrum to reflect any changes they have in response to the poem. For every judge who moves from the detest end of the spectrum, the student presenters score one point for each space the judge moved. If, for example, one judge moves from dislike to like, the presenters will score one point. If a judge moves from detest to adore (three spaces), the presenters will score three points. Optionally, points can be taken away if a judge moves from the adore end of the spectrum to the detest end of the spectrum.
- Introductions Criteria Style-A Timed Writing Approach: After reviewing the Introductions with Criteria handout, ask students to write an introduction paragraph for three different topics in one 45 minute class. These topics could be topics that you will ask students to write about later in the semester or they could be taken from samples of standardized, timed writing tests that students will be expected to take at some point in the next six months to a year. Emphasize to students that getting in the habit of developing a criteria which you can visit throughout your essay is a great habit that can organize a timed writing response.