Under construction: What’s the POINT?

● Purpose (Goals)● Objectives (SWBAT/Standards)● Indicators of Learning (Diagnostic, Formative, Summative)● Negotiables for Differentiation● Tasks/Steps


I recently read a response to a question about schooling that indicated the student felt the assignments were randomly assigned and for no purpose.  It is a bit easier to explain why concepts and skills are important in other subjects.  In English classes, it may indeed seem random sometimes.

This  [passage/poem/novel] addresses a fundamental truth about the human condition, namely… 

Great Literature Rocks Our World

We study great literature to better understand the human condition and our place within human society.  Novels, plays, poems, and other texts maintain their hold on our imagination because their essential messages transcend time, touch our mind, and take hold of our hearts.  They help humans make connections between prior knowledge and new, vicariously-acquired knowledge, even if it takes 20 or more years to realize it.  They infiltrate our understanding of  everything, and change that understanding forever. 

Eventually, as we learn the art of social communication through language, our internal thoughts and language become inextricably linked.  So said Vygotsky, in my interpretation of him.  Language is a social construct, and we develop as human beings using language as a tool to learn and to emulate those who are older.  The more we understand language, the more we are able to acquire the tools we need to survive.  Although we might claim independence and independent thinking at some point –  as we all must to evolve into responsible adults – the fact is that we will always be somewhat interdependent because we share language with our society.  That isn’t a bad thing; after all, your thoughts and observations are just as important as everyone else’s.  The only way for humans to progress as the years pass is to work together.  That is actually quite beautiful: We grow, determine our purpose, and set out to realize it in a way that not only sustains us, but the world itself.

Great writers know their role and use the tools at their disposal to contribute to human progress.  In “Digging,” Seamus Heaney had his speaker say he would use his pen as his forebears used their spade: to dig, to nourish, to help humans find sustenance, but with the written word.  Through independent thought and decisions, the speaker came to the conclusion that he was not on the same path as his father and grandfather and yet, he was at the same time, just using a different tool.  All those words are shared with everyone else who speaks English, but he arranged them and applied his syntax to them to create a poem replete with meaning that addresses an essential part of being human: growing up and realizing one’s role in the world.  His gift to us, then, is a chance to internalize his poem and ask ourselves, “With which tool will I dig?”

Communication Can Be Muted by Confusion

Some great writers craft their texts to avoid confusion from the outset.  Hemingway, for example, would agonize over sentences, wanting them to be just right.  As a journalist and a fiction writer, Hemingway combined both genres to create texts that represented his generation and that would influence, entertain, and induce thought for years after his death.  He wrote for the “everyman.”

Shakespeare also wrote for the masses, using well-known stories to craft plays that would draw crowds and resonate with them.  I’m not sure if he intended those plays to continue to attract performers well after his death or not, but they have because of their structure and their message.  When we remember that he was not nearly as confusing then as he is now, we see the beauty that comes forth from the lines he penned.  Although we need to study and research before we experience the play, his contemporaries didn’t.  Through iambic pentameter, memorable syntactical arrangement, and meticulous word choice, Shakespeare created some of the most cited lines of literature.  Why?  Because they address what it means to be human – both in terms of audacity and cowardice.  In his day, Shakespeare was quite specific about that, both in his plays and his poetry.  

The Struggle Is Real, but Absolutely Necessary

Poetry often gets short shrift.  It’s too confusing.  Its message seems muddled and muted by confusing syntax, weird word choice, and unfamiliar figurative language and imagery.  Humans have to work for it, and seriously – who has the time?  Readers of poetry are often led to it, figuratively kicking and screaming, by teachers who might even be intimidated by it themselves.  In “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins’ speaker states,

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

I’m not afraid to admit that  I could have been the speaker’s student myself.  In high school and college, the poetry unit terrified me.  With everything else I was struggling with, I felt I did not have enough time to truly figure a poem out.  Scansion, stanzas, figurative language, sound devices – who cares?  All that work done, and I’m still confused.  Just tell me what it means so I can answer the question correctly on a test.  I think some of my teachers felt the same way.  Let’s get through this and move on to a novel or short story that makes more sense, like one by Hemingway or Orwell.  

One of my professors in college approached literature differently.  While sitting in the pretzel position on top of her desk, she waxed poetic about poets, novelists, short story writers, and essayists in a way that held our attention as a snake-charmer holds the attention of a cobra.  Heads bobbing with hers, bodies swaying back and forth to her verbal metronome, Dr. Michael would regale us with biography, recitation, and interpretation.  While I loved listening to Dr. Michael and found her fascinating, I often came away confused and unable to put her words into my own.  In other words, I’m not sure how much I actually learned, except as a history major, I was able to regurgitate what she told us for the test because I was taught to memorize, so at least I could remember enough for that. 

The issue was – and this is not intended to be critical of Dr. Michael’s teaching methods – I was being a passive “learner.”  College professors can create that atmosphere, I’m afraid.  I listened, but did not take the chance to apply her enthusiasm.  Fear kept me from being a risk-taker.  Heaven forbid I was wrong!  Therefore, I instead took in how she interpreted something and applied it in such a way that it might appear I understood.  It was not until I was in senior year, doing my thesis on Hegel (of all people) that my advisor, Dr. Riley, admonished me: “Why can’t you think for yourself!?”  I received a big, red F on that thesis and needed to do it over.  He admitted that the original was actually worth a B or B+, but he was so mad at me for not thinking for myself that he did what he did.  He also wanted to be able to justify having me redo the assignment.

(Aside: As a teacher today, I may ask that question as respectfully as possible, but I will never do what he did.  Actually, I want to structure my classes so I never have to.  It was a mortifying experience.)

Perhaps what I was experiencing back then was the inability or unwillingness to relinquish the idea that I had no answers to anything, but that I was good at finding answers from straightforward content.  I wanted to continue to trust the authority figures in my life, instead of  questioning and making decisions.  I did not want to struggle. Rather, I did not want to struggle that way, for struggle I did in high school and college.  

There is a hard truth we must face, however: A significant part of becoming a self-actualized adult involves struggle – and protracted struggle at that.  The teen years are the perfect time to struggle, but for many, childhood is so busy they have few opportunities to engage in it.  These years are the perfect time, also, to question everything, to come into your understanding, bolstered by learning and enculturation, but born from individual intellectual struggle that fortifies your cognitive development.  

Who wants to take those risks, though, when so much hinges on being “right”?  When so much hinges on needing to “ace” that exam?  When your future hangs in the balance, and that scholarship is within your grasp if only you get a certain GPA and have 25 activities you can add to your transcript?  We act like we are all running out of time, but that there will be time for deep thinking later, simultaneously.

When?  Will your experience be like mine?  Will you be approached by a person you admired, respected, and idolized with the rude question in their mouth, posed in a terrifying way: “When will you think for yourself?”  Will you have to learn in trial-by-fire ways, as I have all my life?  Gosh, I hope not.  Not if I have anything to say about it.

So, here is an exercise to try that might combine a favorite activity with a deeper understanding of the purpose of poetry. 

Write a poem about your favorite sport.  How is football like life itself?  How is volleyball, softball, wrestling, cheerleading, martial arts, etc?  Look at the imagery you invoke in the poem.  Who cares if it’s any “good” or not?  Look at the imagery – those words that touch the five senses.  That imagery communicates well to others that have similar experiences.  Did you try to create memorable lines using sound devices?   Did you use allusion to, say, a famous coach to limit how much you needed to write to get your point across?  Did you rhyme lines internally and/or at the end to make your poem feel more like a poem?  

That’s poetry, my friend.  With that poetry, you reached out, put your spade in the ground, and dug a hole into which you planted a seed that will nourish someone’s soul.  That’s a testament to the interdependent nature of humanity, too, and our reliance on common symbols, images, and experiences to communicate.

Now read a poem by a famous rapper, Tupac Shakur, who communicated a message about life using the rose.  This is what he knew, and he shared it  with the world. 

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew

from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong it

learned to walk with out having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,

it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

when no one else ever cared.



When you keep in mind that most poetry is personal in nature, does it help you to give it a bit more grace, to try harder?  I hope it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to give it a chance.  (No, I’m not going to tell you how long.)

Lauryn Hill wrote the following song.  She was a member of the Fugees, a group which was popular in the 90s.  

Everything is everything

What is meant to be, will be

After winter, must come spring

Change, it comes eventually

Everything is everything

What is meant to be, will be

After winter, must come spring

Change, it comes eventually

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth

Who won’t accept deception, instead of what is truth

It seems we lose the game

Before we even start to play

Who made these rules? (Who made these rules?)

We’re so confused (We’re so confused)

Easily led astray

Let me tell ya that

Everything is everything

Everything is everything

After winter, must come spring

Everything is everything

I philosophy

Possibly speak tongues

Beat drum, Abyssinian, street Baptist

Rap this in fine linen, from the beginning

My practice extending across the atlas

I begat this

Flipping in the ghetto on a dirty mattress

You can’t match this rapper slash actress

More powerful than two Cleopatras

Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti

MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti

My rhymes is heavy like the mind of sister Betty (Betty Shabazz)

L-Boogie spars with stars and constellations

Then came down for a little conversation

Adjacent to the king, fear no human being

Roll with cherubims to Nassau Coliseum

Now hear this mixture, where Hip Hop meets scripture

Develop a negative into a positive picture

Now everything is everything

What is meant to be, will be

After winter, must come spring

Change, it comes eventually

Sometimes it seems

We’ll touch that dream

But things come slow or not at all

And the ones on top, won’t make it stop

So convinced that they might fall

Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail

To make a better situation

Tomorrow, our seeds will grow

All we need is dedication

Let me tell ya that

Everything is everything

Everything is everything

After winter, must come spring

Everything is everything

Everything is everything

What is meant to be, will be

After winter, must come spring

Change, it comes eventually

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s