An Inquiry Stance in the Poetry Workshop

by Jill Eurich


One of my favorite teaching moments came in a discussion fifth grade students were having about “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It was as if, like in the cartoons a light bulb lit up over this boys head as he exclaimed,

“This isn’t just about a road you know!”

In experiencing poetry having students work together to think about what they are understanding from the poem and what they are noticing about how the poem is written generates rich conversations, conversations that can cause an epiphany like the one my friend had with “The Road Not Taken”.

Katie Wood Ray has talked about setting up an inquiry stance that is “structured for surprise”. One way to do this is to give groups of three or four students about a half dozen poems and ask them to make as many connections between them as they can. They can make connections between as few as two or as many as all of the poems.  An extension of this can be to have them create a visual representation of the connections they are making. If there are certain elements you have been studying in poetry like figurative language, line spacing, theme, rhythm or rhyme schemes you can choose poems to reflect that curriculum. In the spirit of open inquiry though, freely choosing the poems can yield fascinating and unexpected results. Another choice to think about is whether you want groups of students to have the same poems so that they can see the different ideas they come up with, or if you want each group to have different poems and present them to each other.

Choral reading can be a powerful extension of poetry workshop and be significant in helping students become more fluent expressive readers. One way to help students connect how something is written to expressing to expressing its intended meaning is to have groups of students practice how they would read the same poem or speech and then share them with each other. In this case the inquiry results from students thinking about the writers intended meaning and how they can best represent that by making decisions like voice volume, tone and expression, pacing and what lines will be read solo by two, three, the whole group, all boys or girls. Inquiring together as to how best to read the piece will not only makes your students aware of decisions related to oral interpretation, but also heightens their thinking of the decisions the writer made around punctuation, print features and line breaks as a way to guide the reader. In turn this will helps students make purposeful decisions in the writing of their own poetry.

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