Standard Lesson

Thinking Inductively: A Close Reading of Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry Picking"

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Two 50-minute sessions
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This lesson uses Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry Picking" to ease students' fear of analyzing poetry by teaching them an inductive strategy to unlock meaning. First, students list and look for patterns among the images, diction, and figurative language they notice in the poem, and then "lump" list items into categories. They then apply these categories to the poem's structure to determine meaning. Next, students use an online tool to create graffiti drawings that represent the poem's message, supporting their conclusions with specifics from the poem. Once discussion of the poem is complete, students realize that they have just demonstrated their ability to explicate a poem in order to support a theme statement if asked to write about a poem's meaning.

This lesson plan was developed as part of a collaborative professional writing initiative sponsored by the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project (KMWP) at Kennesaw State University.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In his article "The First Shall Be Last: Writing the Essay Backwards," Jeff House reminds us that "we cannot begin with the very thing we are trying to end with. We must tease out the answer, allowing the mind to go through its natural, and logical, procedure." If we expect students to determine a general statement themselves, they need to be taught how to "tease out the answer" by using what they do know as the key to unlocking what they don't know.

When students are taught to read an unfamiliar poem inductively, they notice patterns emerge among the imagery, details, and figurative language, and when considered along with the poem's structure, these specifics lead to the theme. The analytical skills taught through this strategy not only enable students to make a theme statement and support it with specifics from the poem but also, as House states, "increase [a student's] ability to grasp the inner working of an artistic piece."

Further Reading

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.

State Standards

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).
  • 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).

Materials and Technology

Blackboard, whiteboard, overhead projector, or chart for compiling class responses



A poetry explication is a relatively short analysis which describes the possible meanings and relationships of the words, images, and other small units that make up a poem.


  • Read the poem and complete the handout prior to teaching the lesson so you will be better able to anticipate and guide student thinking throughout the activity.

  • Make copies of “Blackberry Picking” and the Inductive Lesson handout for students. If desired, make copies or an overhead transparency of the Homework Questions.

  • Test the Literary Graffiti interactive 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.

  • For background information on writing a formal poetry explication, see Poetry Explications.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • review poetic techniques, including imagery, diction, details, figurative language, and structure.

  • analyze a poem's techniques and analyze how they are used to indicate meaning.

  • draw conclusions about a text's meaning after a careful consideration of the poet's techniques.

  • symbolically illustrate their interpretation of the text and support it with specifics gleaned from the poem.

  • present and discuss their interpretation with others.

  • participate in a whole-class discussion of a text.

Session One

  1. Explain that the class will be walk through a strategy that will help them read a poem and determine its theme. Emphasize the importance of completing each step as you instruct them. Once they become familiar with the strategy, they will be able to apply it to other poems at a much faster speed.

  2. List the following literary terms on the board, and review them with students: imagery, details, diction, and figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and rhyme). Structure will be discussed when you come to that stage of the lesson.

  3. Discuss with students how these elements are a poet’s tools, which the poet deliberately uses to not only draw the reader into the poem’s experience but also to reinforce the poem’s message.

  4. Distribute a copy of the Inductive Lesson handout to each student and instruct them to fold it vertically down the middle so that the words “I see . . .” are in front of them.

  5. Distribute a copy of the poem “Blackberry Picking” to each student.

  6. Explain that as you read students should listen and watch for words, images, and details that stand out to them, and have them underline these words as they read along. They should pay special attention to the sound devices they notice as the poem is read aloud. Suggest that they should not worry about what the poem is about at this point.

  7. Read (or have a student read) the poem to the class.

  8. After the oral reading is complete, allow the students a few minutes to read the poem again silently.

  9. After the students have familiarized themselves with the poem, ask them to list the things they “see” in the “I see . . .” column of the handout. You will need to model this for them; for instance, you might point out that the phrase “glossy purple clot” presents a very vivid image, so you included it on your sheet.

  10. Allow the students several minutes to complete their lists, once again reminding students not to worry about theme at this point. They should focus on listing those words, phrases, etc. that seem particularly striking and significant to them. Assure students that this process is much like brainstorming and there are no “wrong” responses.

  11. As an optional step, allow students to share items from their lists so that each student then has a nice long list before moving on to the next step.

  12. Next, introduce the process of “lumping.” Ask students to open up their worksheets so that they can see both columns of information.

  13. Instruct students to take the items in their lists and “lump” them into categories under the “Lumping” heading in the right column.

  14. Model this process for students by working through an example. For instance, the poem contains numerous references to decay, so next to number 1, write “decay” as a category and beneath it you might list “rat grey fungus,” “fermented,” and “smelt of rot” as supporting specifics.

  15. Allow students to work individually on lumping for a few minutes.

  16. Once students have had time to work through their lists, ask volunteers to share their categories and specifics. As students share their information, compile a list on the board. Some categories and specifics will overlap. Ask students not to worry, as this is just brainstorming.

  17. When students have exhausted their lists, turn to the poem’s pattern and structure. Explain to the students that when examining a poem’s details, diction, and imagery, a reader should also examine the poem’s pattern. “Blackberry-Picking,” for instance, is divided into two stanzas.

  18. Looking at the categories you have listed on the board, ask the students to determine which stanzas contain each category. Students will note that the first stanza contains specifics related to ripeness, blood, and lust, as the speaker describes the act of blackberry picking, while the second stanza contains specifics related to decay, sadness, and loss, as the speaker describes what happens to their bounty. Note that there is a definite shift in tone between the two stanzas.

  19. At this point, aware of the shift in tone between the two stanzas, students may have a sense of what Heaney is saying with this poem. Since the goal is to make them self-sufficient interpreters of text, you want to guide their thinking without imposing meaning.

  20. End the first session by summarizing what you have all determined so far: the first, longer stanza literally describes a berry picking expedition with imagery that is both very sensual (“its flesh was sweet,” “lust for / Picking”) and painful (“briars scratched,” “hands peppered / With thorn pricks”) while the second, shorter stanza is infused with imagery and diction dealing with decay and loss (“rat-grey fungus,” “the sweet flesh would turn sour”).

  21. For homework, ask students to consider the following questions:

    • Why is the first stanza longer than the second?

    • Does the poem have a rhyme scheme? If so, what is it and what is its significance?

    • Scan the poem. Does it have a deliberate meter? If so, what is it, and what is its significance? If not, why do you think Heaney chose not to give it a meter?

    • Do you notice any sound devices? Alliteration? Assonance? Consonance? What is the significance of the devices your identify?

Session Two

  1. Display the Literary Graffiti interactive, or have students access the tool on individual computers. If computers are unavailable, complete this process by supplying the students with plain paper and colored markers.

  2. Introduce the task that students will complete using the tool:

    • In the large left-hand box, students should draw a symbolic representation of the poem’s message.

    • In the box titled “Summary of the Text,” ask students to write their theme statement. Remind them that a theme should be stated in a complete thought, not a single word.

    • In the box below, they should write an explanation of their graffiti drawing.

    • In the bottom right-hand box, ask students to explain the relationship of the graffiti to the text.

    • Once completed, have students print their graffiti pages.

    • Remind the class that the program will not save their work, so it must be printed out.
  3. After students have completed their work, arrange the class in small groups and have them share their graffiti pages with the other group members. Encourage them to refer to specifics from the poem to support their conclusions as they share with their group.

  4. Once the small group sharing is complete, have volunteers share their interpretations with the class, once again supporting their conclusions with specifics from the poem. Although their statements of the theme will certainly vary, students will likely recognize that “once off the bush,” the blackberries “fermented” and “turn[ed] sour” leading students to conclude that Heaney is commenting on the transience and brevity of some aspect of life, youth, or innocence.

  5. To conclude the lesson, lead the class in a discussion of the rhyme, meter, sound devices, and other style elements you asked the students to consider for homework. You might point out that the poem is written in couplets, but the end rhymes are not always exact. For instance, while “clot” and “knot” are exact rhymes, “pots” and “boots” are slant rhymes. Students should consider this choice and how it relates to theme as well as Heaney’s use of alliteration (”bleached . . . boots”), consonance (”trekked . . . picked”), and so forth.

  6. You might also ask the students to share their thoughts on why the first stanza is much longer than the second as well as the choice of title.

  7. Once you have exhausted the discussion of the poem, close the lesson by explaining to students that what they have just demonstrated is their ability to explicate a poem. By working inductively, they have gathered all the specifics they would need to support a theme statement if asked to write about a poem’s meaning. As they become more proficient with using this strategy, they will no longer need the worksheet; instead, they will be able simply to annotate the text as they read, and they will become instinctively aware of the patterns. Stress that this strategy not only works for poetry, but can also be applied to prose.


Student Assessment / Reflections


  • As students complete the different stages of the lesson, informally assess their learning by walking around the room to monitor their progress.

  • If you wish to give them a grade for completing the lesson, use the Inductive Lesson Rubric to assess their effort and understanding.