1st Day Lesson — Inspiration with Poetry

It was my second year at Miller Place, and just my fifth year of teaching overall, and I was taking over for everyone’s favorite English teacher. Mr. Newcombe taught for 30 years. His aura loomed large as he had won awards and completed numerous fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities. As he would often tell me, “if you cut me, I bleed English.”

I was assigned to take over his advanced courses and I did not want to let his students down, especially on the first day. I wanted to make an impression, and going over the syllabus and talking about course expectations just wasn’t going to cut it.

I needed a way to show these senior students who I was, what the course would be about, and how we, together, could use literature to achieve something remarkable this year.

I turned to poetry.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” and for me, the poem that has always communicated with me is Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I first read it in my early 20s. It was a formative time as I was trying to determine who I was, what I stood for, and what type of life I wanted to lead. Tennyson’s words filled me with a fire to lead a life of purpose. It has taught me to be a thinker and “follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.” It has warned me of the dangers of being passive, “how dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!” It has also encouraged me to never let a weakness cripple my will to achieve, “that which we are, we are;/ One equal temper of heroic hearts,/ Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.”

Time and time again I have returned to it, and its inspiration has never disappointed. I hoped, in turn, to use it to inspire them.

Tennyson’s Ulysses

At 70 lines, it was too daunting for students to conquer in one 42-minute period. But there were 18 lines (see excerpt below) that would speak directly to them, as seniors, about to embark on one last adventure.

I didn’t want to be typical in any way. I didn’t want to give them the poem, ask them to read it, and answer some questions. They deserved better of me.

I wanted them to experience the poem like they never had experienced one before. I wanted them to think like a poet, write like a poet, and talk like a poet. In doing so, they would read closely and analytically, although they wouldn’t even realize they were doing it because I wanted them so engrossed in what they were doing.

I wanted to show that in this course we would read complex, moving works of literature, we would grow to talk about them in sophisticated and nuanced ways, and we would experience them in personal ways, bringing ourselves into the literature and the literature into ourselves.

Think Like a Poet

The result is “Think Like a Poet,” a lesson in which I recite 18 lines from Ulysses. They have to record it as I say it, and then work with a partner to try and recreate it as the poet wrote it. The students must think critically about how form contributes to meaning. As they examine the poem’s words, they must weigh such poetic decisions as stanzas, line breaks, and rhythm.

Not only is it my first lesson of the year, it is my favorite lesson to teach.

The 1st-Day Lesson Plan

I don’t take attendance, I don’t introduce myself, I don’t ask students to check and make sure they are in the right room. I just start with this invitation that I’ve committed to memory:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and though with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

I recite it again and ask them to write it down in their notebooks. I recite it for a third time. I then tell them to find a partner and to work together. I ask them to stop being students and start thinking like poets. “If they were the poet, how would they have composed those lines? Where would the breaks be? Would it be one stanza or multiple stanzas?”

I tell them I am looking for the pair that can get it as close to the actual poem. Kids are invigorated by the challenge. I probably recite it one more time so they can hear it with an attuned ear. As they work in pairs I drop hints along the way — I say it has X # of lines, I mention something about pentameter, etc. Some kids remember what it is and really get in a groove. After a few have given me their finished copy, I read them and give some encouragement. Then, I finally I put the excerpt on the SmartBoard so they can see how close they came. Finally, I ask, “So what is this all about?”

Kids pick up on the nautical diction. They see images of an end approaching (“the long day wanes… tis not too late”). We begin to ask questions of the speaker — who is he, what does he want? A productive discussion ensues. Then the invitation comes into play on part. “Come my friends, tis not too late to see a newer world.” I tell them that, yes, this is your senior year. This is the end of the ride. You can just mail it in and get a diploma. But something great can still happen — “some work of noble note may yet be done” — in this class.

I seek to inspire them to be explorers of wisdom and learning. We look back to the excerpt and see what else we can find of this speaker. What qualities does he display? What techniques does the poet use to make meaning?

When the smoke clears, I tell them that this is just a piece of a larger poem. Their homework for the night is to find that larger piece, annotate the heck out of it, and be prepared to have our first Socratic Seminar the next day on it.

Effect

This lesson flips those notions upside down.

My students see poetry from the other side. They see it as not as an abstract thing that they are being forced to read, they finally experience it as a poet does. They must tackle the myriad of decisions that a poet faces, they must make sense of the point of view of the speaker of the poem and how that may differ from the poet, and they will see that a close examination of something that may be so foreign to them — an aging captain seeking one last sailing voyage  – can touch something inside them and open up the possible for a spectacular senior year.

What better poem to do that than Ulysses? Tennyson’s dramatic monologue, which explores Odysseus’ frustration with the static life of a king, awakens something in all of us. No matter the stage of life, we can still produce “some work of noble note.”

I love conveying this to my seniors at the beginning of the year. For them, it is a time when many have thoughts about coasting through the year, with their sights set on the traditional senior-year rites of passage — homecoming, college acceptances, the prom, and graduation. This excerpt refocuses their attention on the possibility for something remarkable before they year is done. It  encourages a deep conviction for some worthy pursuit, to believe in the nobility of work, and to assume an adventurous spirit in pursuit of something beyond expectation.

This lesson is taken from The Best Lesson Series: Literature, the book in which 15 master teachers share what has worked in their classroom.

For another 1st-day lesson, check out how Liz Matheny teaches expectations and argument in interesting ways on the first day in her English classes.