Letter Poems Deliver: Experimenting with Line Breaks in Poetry Writing
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Letter poems are a particularly apt medium for exploring a defining characteristic of poetry—line breaks. As students work to transform narrative-style letters into poetic format, they are forced to think carefully about where to end each line. Students begin by discussing letters they have written and working with an online tool as an introduction to letter poems. As a group, students look at a letter form of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams and add line breaks to turn it into a poem. They then compare the poem they created with the original, discussing why the poet made the line break choices he did. Next, they work in small groups to rewrite another letter as a poem and then compare the various groups' results with the original poem. Students then use a Venn diagram to compare letters and poems. Finally, they compose their own letter poems.
“This is Just to Say”: William Carlos Williams’ poem is an excellent example of a letter poem.
Letter Poem Creator: This online tool demonstrates for students how to rearrange words from a letter to make a poem.
From Theory to Practice
Dunning and Stafford (1992) assert that: "Poetry is part of everyday life and can be created from everyday experiences, language, and thoughts, as are found in letters." Poetry is made accessible to children by helping them understand its special characteristics and how these work. Poetry celebrates self-expression and can bring much pleasure to readers and writers. Poetry, because it is generally brief and vivid, is appropriate for all children in a classroom, despite diverse reading and writing ability levels. This lesson capitalizes on the students' familiarity with the genre of letters to make poetry more accessible.
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
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 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).
- 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.
Materials and Technology
- William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say” written on chart paper in letter form (with a salutation added) and on a separate piece of chart paper as a poem
- Copies for each student of the poem “Dear Grandma” written as a letter and on a separate piece of paper as a poem. Alternatively, you can select a similar poem from the The Academy of American Poets Website, from Chapter 2 of Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises (Dunning and Stafford 1992), or use a letter poem you have written to model your literacy for students.
- Chart paper or board space for writing ideas
- This lesson assumes that students have already been introduced to poetry. The lesson What Makes Poetry? Exploring Line Breaks is a good precursor to this lesson.
- Browse, select, and gather resources, making copies of “Dear Grandma” (or an alternative) in letter and poem forms.
- Write “This is Just to Say,” in letter and poem forms, on chart paper.
- explore and discuss various poems to demonstrate a growing awareness of how line breaks affect rhythm, sound, meaning, impact, and appearance, and can substitute for punctuation in letter poems.
- demonstrate their understanding of line breaks and how format creates dramatic effect by writing their own letter poems.
- Ask students to informally share what they think is the difference between a letter and a poem. Discuss how line breaks are one characteristic way in which poetry and prose, like letters, differ, yet some poems seem like they could also be written as prose. Explain that today we will focus on letter poems. Letter poems sound like letters and communicate personal messages like letters, but are written in the form of poems. Ask students to talk about letters they might have written—letters to friends, thank you letters, business letters, letters they wrote but perhaps never sent (share your own examples, too). Explain that many of these could be turned into a powerful poem. The same is true of e-mail messages (in essence, informal letters). Discuss how students and their families may use e-mail in their daily lives. E-mail messages can also be turned into effective poems.
- As a group look at the Letter Poem Creator, either via LCD projection or on individual computers if available. The tool demonstrates how letters can be rearranged to make poems. Then look at the letter form of “This is Just to Say” on chart paper and read it aloud. With student input, demonstrate on chart paper or board how this letter might be made into a poem using line breaks. As students suggest where to place line breaks, ask for their rationale. Talk about why lines are broken where they are in poetry (effect on sound, meaning, appearance, emotional impact). When students are satisfied with the poem they have created from the letter, show them the original poem version by William Carlos Williams. Compare this with the student-created poem. Read both aloud (and compare with another read-aloud of the letter format). Discuss differences in line breaks and possible reasons for these differences, noting that a poem’s format is the author’s decision. In particular, focus on why Williams might have chosen to set it up the way he did—how he used line breaks to affect meaning, sound, appearance, and emotional impact or emphasis, as well as to replace punctuation.
- Next students will work in small groups looking at a letter poem, “Dear Grandma” in letter form and rewriting it as a poem (as has just been modeled in the large group). Tell them to experiment with making the letter into a poem by using line breaks. This can be done on paper or computer, using a word-processing program, which makes playing around with alternatives very easy. Circulate and support small-group work. Encourage students to read aloud their results and compare with a read-aloud of the letter form.
- Once each small group has rewritten the letter as a poem, ask them to share with the whole class what they did and why. If they composed on a computer, copies can be printed for all students to look at, or each group can quickly transfer its handwritten version to an overhead. This sharing of poems should lead to further general discussion both about how line breaks function and authorial choice.
- Finally, tell students that this letter was originally a poem. Hand out the poem “Dear Grandma” and discuss similarities and differences with how they turned the letter into poem. Focus on thinking about why the author wrote it as she did (e.g., why are some lines so short and others much longer?). Ask students to summarize what they have learned about line breaks. As this sessions ends, tell them they will be writing their own letter or e-mail poems next time and should start thinking about ideas for these.
- Before the next session students can further experiment with line breaks using the Line Break Explorer, which invites manipulation of line breaks in an online poem. Similar to magnetic poetry, this interactive encourages experimentation with a poem’s format to create the desired effect.
- At the beginning of the second session review briefly what you did in Session One by asking students to summarize the activities and what they learned or still have questions about. The online, interactive Venn Diagram can be used to have them compare letters and poems, as a way to organize their review of the previous day’s work. This resource could be used during (as a whole group) or after (independently or in pairs) the oral discussion of what they’ve learned.
- Remind students that they will write their own letter or e-mail poems today. Have students brainstorm some ideas for addressee and purpose for their letters (see Sample List for ideas or visit the MarcoPolo NEH EdSitement Web Resource for numerous sample letters and ideas. Get enough ideas on the table so that every student has some sense of what they might write and to whom (or what).
- Explain that each student will compose the letter, or e-mail message, first and then rewrite it as a poem. Model starting one yourself, beginning with “Dear….”
- Provide quiet time for thinking and writing, and after awhile invite a few students to share their work so far. As students finish their letters or e-mail messages have them transform these into poems.
- Once the poems are drafted, invite students to confer with a partner or group, get feedback on their poems, and perhaps revise their work, thinking about how the format affects meaning, impact, and sound when read aloud. Final drafts may be shared aloud or published in a class collection of letter poems, or sent, if e-mail messages.
Enjoy the spoofs on William Carlos Williams' poetry found in this episode of a Praire Home Companion. Students can then write their own spoofs of Williams' poems. If the entire transcript is not suitable for your classroom, the parodies may work for your students, and the transcript is surely a delight for teachers who know the Williams' poem.