Put That on the List: Collaboratively Writing a Catalog Poem
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In these contemporary times, our lives are often driven by lists—to-do lists, shopping lists, wish lists. Working in small groups, students brainstorm a list of human emotions such as anger, guilt, and happiness. Then, as a class, they select six to eight emotions from the list. Students then add more specific ideas, words, and phrases that describe and provide examples of each emotion. Next, students read and discuss Raymond Carver's poem "Fear" as a model for writing their own powerful poetry. Finally, working with one of the emotions listed by the class, each group composes their own list poem. These poems, stripped down in the most minimalist fashion, allow students to concentrate on important aspects of poetry, including word choice, phrasing and rhythm as well as the all-important "heart" of the poem.
ReadWriteThink Printing Press: Use this online tool to create a newspaper, brochure, booklet, or flyer. Students choose a layout, add content, and then print out their work.
From Theory to Practice
Through their reading of Carver's work, students ultimately understand the true spirit of poetry. Carver wrote, "Every poem is an act of love, and faith" (McCaffery and Gregory 72), and any lover of poetry would agree. But adolescents aren't typically lovers of poetry, and often they see the structure and substance of poetry as enigmatic and incomprehensible-and not very interesting. Which...is just how Raymond Carver felt.
Rilke is quoted as saying, "Poetry is experience." That's partly it. In any event, one always recognizes the real article from the trumped-up ersatz product which is so often top-heavy with technique and intellection and struggling to "say" something. I'm tired of reading poems that are just well-made poems (qtd. in Stull, "Matters of Life and Death" 179).
Carver's poetry offers readers something beyond the "well-made" poem. His poetry often tells a story, and it treads the same fine line between truth and imagination that one finds in his fiction. So too does it mimic Carver's fiction in its compression, its simplicity, and its precision. And always at its center is the truth of human feeling, often expressed in quite mundane terms. For these reasons, it's poetry that students can readily read and comprehend. When students understand, both on an intellectual and an emotional level, what a poet is saying, they can respond to his poetry in a meaningful way.
(Excerpted and Adapted from Rubenstein 64-65)
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 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
Copies of “Fear” in All of Us by Raymond Carver (Vintage)
- Obtain copies of Raymond Carver’s poem “Fear,” which appears in his book All of Us: The Collected Poems (NY: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000).
- Familiarize yourself with biographical information on Raymond Carver in order to talk about the poem as a reflection of the poet’s life. Useful Websites about Carver are listed in the Resources section. Also see Chapter One “Where Life and Art Intersect” in Raymond Carver in the Classroom “A Small, Good Thing” by Susanne Rubenstein (NCTE, 2005).
- Make copies or overhead transparencies of the Checklist, Questions for Reflection, and the student-written catalog poems “Joy” and “Fear.”
- Test the ReadWriteThink Printing Press on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- examine the design of the catalog/list poem.
- consider the characteristics of contemporary poetry.
- develop an awareness of the subtleties of language.
- learn to collaborate with others in creative efforts.
- Begin by asking students why we make lists. Possible responses will likely include the following: to remember things, to categorize things, to highlight important things, to itemize or number—and to avoid having to write a lot!
- Ask students to brainstorm types of lists (e.g., grocery lists, to-do lists, wish lists, Christmas lists to Santa, class roster lists, homework lists, mailing lists, waiting lists, guest lists, even David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists).
- Ask students to consider how we compose lists (i.e., by order of importance, chronologically, through linkage of ideas, etc.).
- Focus discussion on why the design of a list is such a contemporary form. Students will likely note that ours is a fast-paced society, and we’re driven to shorten, speed up, and do everything quickly. (Note: Classes who are studying the minimalist style of writing can make a strong connection here.)
- Ask students to enumerate a class list of “human emotions.” Record their responses on the board or on chart paper. Encourage students to move beyond the most obvious (i.e., happiness, sadness, fear, jealousy, etc.) toward some that are more complex (i.e., guilt, frustration, pride). Allow students to share comments about these emotions as they are listed because this conversation will help to spur ideas for the next part of the activity.
- When students have compiled a lengthy list, ask the class to choose six to eight of the emotions. Write each of the emotions at the top of separate piece of paper and circulate the papers around the room, asking students to add their own more specific ideas to the list of emotions. If students have trouble getting started, you can share some examples—Confusion about growing up, pride in being class president, boredom with first period Spanish, satisfaction with a hot fudge sundae.
- When the papers have finished circulating, ask students to read each list aloud, and then let the class pick the four or five (depending on the size of the class) lists they like best to use in creating their group poems.
- Break the class into groups of four or five, and give each group a different list.
- Ask each group to read through the material in the class-generated lists and highlight those ideas they like. They should then come up with additional lines and phrases that fit with the emotion.
- Tell students that they will use this material in the next class session to collaborate on a group poem.
- In this second class session, introduce students to the design of the list/catalog poem and give students the opportunity to write such poems.
- Begin by reading Raymond Carver’s poem “Fear,” a list poem in which the author enumerates the fears he confronts, among them, fear of dogs and late night telephone calls, fear of poverty and of the police, and ultimately fear of death.
- Ask students to point out their favorite lines and discuss why these are their favorites.
- Guide students to recognize that the cool, stripped-down structure of the poem is in sharp contrast to the intense emotion it expresses.
- Ask students to reflect on why the poet chose to list things in the order that he did, and help them focus on the importance of word choice and on the use of phrasing in order to establish a rhythm that makes the poem flow. Emphasize especially the ending, the line that offers a “twist” which breaks the pattern and the rhythm, and, in doing so, establishes the heart of the poem.
- At this point, you may want to discuss aspects of Carver’s life that inspired lines in the poem. This discussion can help students reach into their own experience for powerful ideas to include in their own poems.
- After the discussion of “Fear,” ask students to return to the groups they established in the previous class to begin creating their own list poems based on the “emotion list” each group was working with.
- Point out to students that although this writing might seem easy at first, as easy as compiling a grocery list, they need to do two important things:
- Decide on a plan, a rationale for the organization of the poem.
- Work hard to choose just the right words because the poem is composed of so few words.
- Decide on a plan, a rationale for the organization of the poem.
- Offer as a model the poem “Joy,” written by a group of students.
- Ask students to discuss its organization and word choice.
- Pass out copies of the Checklist, which outlines the vital features of a good list poem, and go over the characteristics as a group.
- Compare the items on the checklist to Carver’s “Fear” and the collaborative student poem “Joy.”
- Allow the rest of the session for groups to compose a first draft of their poems.
- During this session, focus students’ attention on revision and rewriting, leading to publication of the poems through class presentation.
- Ask students to share the drafts of their list poem with another group. Each group should offer positive feedback as well as suggestions for improvement. Comments that encourage good revision should focus particularly on lines that are confusing, words that could be more powerful or more precise, ideas that might be added, and the relative strength of the ending.
- Ask each response group to answer this question: “What is the essence of the poem?” In considering the response, the writers should reflect on whether they have communicated the message they intended to communicate.
- Using the feedback from their classmates, ask each group to continue to revise its poem.
- Remind students to return to the Checklist to verify that their final piece includes the specific features of a list poem.
- When final drafts are complete, ask students to write their poems on poster paper. If time and/or inclination allow, students can also illustrate their poems with artwork. Alternatively, students can use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press to publish their poems in brochure or booklet format.
- Have each group then presents its poem to the class. The presentation includes an oral reading (this might include a choral reading or a dramatic performance) as well as a short explanation of “how the poem came to be” in terms of decisions the group made regarding organization, word choice, and so forth.
- Finally, hang the poems in the classroom for other students to enjoy!
- Follow this lesson with Put That on the List: Independently Writing a Catalog Poem, which uses Carver’s poem “The Car” as the model for catalog poems students write individually.
- In another variation on the “emotion poem,” students can work alone or in groups to create a poem that focuses the emotion on a specific experience which evokes that emotion. Although this is somewhat harder to do, the writing is often very moving. A group of my students who loved skateboarding created a poem on fear.
- Poetry deserves publication. Possible publishing options include:
- list poems displayed in the classroom with accompanying artwork.
- a class publication with all of the “possession poems” collected in a booklet, brochure or binder. Read as a group, this collection can be seen as a commentary on the adolescent experience in our times. Students can use the booklet format in the ReadWriteThink Printing Press if desired.
- submissions to print and on line publications that seek poetry.
- list poems displayed in the classroom with accompanying artwork.
- For a connection to popular culture, follow this lesson with the ReadWriteThink lesson plan You’re the Top! Pop Culture Then and Now.
- You can also introduce or extend this lesson by using picture books as models for additional poems. “Something Beautiful: Reading Picture Books, Writing Poetry” by Dean Schneider, from Book Links, April/May 2001 (v.10 no.5), provides a book list of picture books using list poem format.
Student Assessment / Reflections
If desired, grade the poem as a complete writing assignment, using the Checklist to guide your evaluation and feedback.
Students can also assess their own work and learning by completing a Reflection Sheet. Either pass out the sheet and ask students to choose four to five questions to respond to, or customize a sheet for your class, drawing from the options listed. Focus on asking questions that encourage writers to really think about their pieces and the processes that led to their creation. Each student can write a separate reflection sheet and then share their comments with other group members before all reflections are handed in to the teacher.
If the class agrees to share their poems with an outside reader(s), the teacher might ask two or three of his/her colleagues to read the class poems and decide which is their favorite.