If you’re unfamiliar with the poetry of our extraordinarily talented West Virginia Poet Laureate, you need to add his work to your summer reading list this year. Marc Harshman is a West Virginia state treasure. An accomplished children’s book author, Harshman has also published two collections of poetry, Green-Silver and Silent and Believe What You Can. His work spans a wide range of complexities, and can be used in any ELA classroom at any level. I have had the pleasure of hosting him in my classroom several times, and I have used his poetry in my Advanced Placement Language and Composition course and in my English 11 class.
Here he is with my students below:
Harshman’s poetry sounds and feels as if Robert Frost and Walt Whitman took a hike together through the Appalachians. His poetry often explores our spiritual connection to the natural world, is rife with Appalachian themes, and filled with images of place, plants, animals, and people, his love of West Virginia evident in every turn of phrase. Often, his poems read like small celebrations of nature and beauty, highlighting the best of our people, our state, and our culture.
Take this one for example:
THERE WILL BE DANCING
A fiddle tune bearing, rough-shod,
the memory of the village:
sunlight on stucco,
leaf-plastered paths in autumn,
in moonlight and bracken,
the lilt of the market tongue,
ancient beyond telling.
A fiddle tune bearing, sweet as fruit,
a memory of timelessness:
candles on narrow sills
marching each night through Advent,
a bowl of rose petals, peach
and orange and crimson,
garlic and lamb simmering
in a black pan,
kisses long enough for tasting.
All have returned, just here.
Listen. They come round again.
There will be dancing, too.
When I started working on this blog post, I was originally going to share a lesson I have used quite successfully that pairs Harshman’s A Song for West Virginia with Whitman’s Song of Myself. A Song for West Virginia was commissioned by the Wheeling National Heritage Area to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial.
See Harshman perform the poem below:
The poem provides a brilliant "highlight-reel" version of West Virginia history—perfect for an ELA or Social Studies class, and could be used in both middle and high school grade classrooms. My lesson explores how poetry can be used to celebrate identity and individuality.
**If you’d still like some details on that lesson, shoot me an email, and I’ll send them over.
(Also, here is a copy of some guided reading questions I came up with for A Song for West Virginia)
But I’m not going to focus this post on that lesson. Instead, I came up with something brand new. As I was re-reading Harshman’s collection, Green-Silver and Silent in preparation for this blog post, I was struck with inspiration. And like we all sometimes do in our classrooms, I switched gears.
You see, because my favorite Harshman poems are his prose style poems. They're these wonderfully intense shorts, that read like flash-fiction.
Take SAVED for example:
At Bible camp, climbing a steep bank, a boy, adventurous and confident, cries out to see a hornet’s nest and so draws them to him. White butterflies linger in the field, haphazard and intentional all at once and unmindful of the thick heat. The mud is cool down by the river where friends cake handfuls of it over the fiery welts that burn across his face, down his neck and snake along his spine. It was a wet spring and the river had cut a new path, deeper. It’s hard to believe anyone was every baptized here, but buried perhaps, yes. The boy’s whimpers die away as he crosses the soybean field on the shortcut back to camp where his counselor will joke that he looks like a mud pie. A green heron stays frozen at its work in the backwash below pale willows. They would have swung on grape vines near here, great living ropes that would have soared twenty feet out over the sluggish, seductive, waters of the stream. All in all a lucky day.
It was when I re-read SAVED that this post went off the rails. I re-read it a few times, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how this piece would be excellent as a model in a mentor text activity. We have talked about using mentor texts a few times on this blog, and for more information about using mentor texts, click HERE.
Harshman gets quite a bit done in just a few lines—lines loaded with imagery and symbolism. He tells us a whole story, but still leaves us with questions, wondering.
These nine sentences manage to do all the things we want our students to do in really great writing.
Take a look at another example from Green-Silver and Silent:
IN TIME FOR SUPPER
He flinches at the sight of his mother’s bra and panties strung along the still clothesline. No wind to enliven this afternoon. A truck is grinding its’ gears up inside the green shade of the mountain. Where the lawn meets the road the grass is brown with dust. A small garden snake slithers out onto the hot asphalt. His mother sleeps in front of the TV where John Wayne charges downhill, bugles blaring, sabers slicing the heavy air into thin wafers of breeze. Ahead, white flags surrender both pride and virtue. A change in the weather? The truck will reach Cumberland in time for supper. As he digs a grave for the snake, the boy will wonder again what it takes to become a man.
Again, nine sentences that tell an incredible story. Dripping with imagery and symbolism, I clearly saw a new lesson here for my students.
I wanted to craft a mentor task activity.
So--the new plan:
I can’t wait to try this in my own classroom, but since it’s the last week of school it may have to wait until August. If you try this lesson, tweet us, Facebook us, or Email us and let us know how it goes! And share great examples of student work!
In the meantime, grab copies of Green-Silver and Silent and Believe What You Can and read some more incredible work by our very talented Poet Laureate. You can also find Harshman and many other West Virginia writers in the brand new anthology, Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods.
Happy reading, happy teaching, and happy (almost) Summer!
*All poems excerpted from Green, Silver, and Silent (2012) with the gracious permission of Marc Harshman, West Virginia Poet Laureate.
Our students live in a world saturated with images. The modern era of television, film, commercials, YouTube, Instagram, and infographics have made it necessary to make visual literacy and visual rhetoric and integral part of our ELA classrooms. And why not? The skills needed to analyze a political cartoon or artwork translate very well language analysis. An artist creates mood with color; a writer creates mood with adjectives. Is there a single figure in the frame? Is there a single idea being expressed in the text? Connecting these skill sets not only prepares our students to enter into a world that will inundate them with visual media, but also makes them stronger readers and writers.
In my own classroom, I try to incorporate a visual component into every lesson, but my favorite visual literacy lesson combines poetry, argument, analysis, and two American treasures, Edward Hopper and Joyce Carol Oates.
This lesson usually happens well into the school year, after we have laid a foundation for writing and making and supporting claims. I start by asking my students if art “can make an argument.” Student responses here will vary. A lot of students generally say “no”, but a few will say “yes”, and may reference political cartoons, or if they’re really hip, graffiti artists like Banksy.
At this point I allow about 10-15 minutes of Socratic style discussion exploring ways that art can be “argument.” I try to lead my students into a conversation that connects author’s purpose to artist’s purpose. Then, I generally provide a few quick examples of photographers or artists who are making a clear claim about something. The iconic "Migrant Mother" photo below is a good example for this early discussion. Most students are familiar with both the photo and its context, and so it’s usually easy to make and then to identify the claims this photographer is making.
After this discussion, I display this painting by American painter, Edward Hopper.
I set a timer for 5 minutes, and the students are to write down as many observations and/or inferences about the painting as they can. When the timer dings, I then tell them that the name of the painting is Nighthawks and it was painted in 1942. I give them another minute or two here to add to or clarify any of their observations.
Students are then put in groups of 3 or 4. They have 15 minutes to share their observations and/or inferences, and decide as a group what claim(s) the artist is making. I usually leave the painting up during this time.
When time is up, each group must share what conclusions they came to about the painting’s claim(s), and support this with evidence from the “text” (the painting).
This introduction to the lesson usually 1-2 class days.
The next day, I pass out copies of the poem “Nighthawks, 1942” by Joyce Carol Oates. Below is the full text of the poem.
This poem is rich with imagery and figurative language. We read it together, and after we analyze the language effects, I ask the students if Oates has accurately analyzed the painting. Because essentially that is what her poem is—an analysis of Hopper’s artwork. Now, at this point most of our students have been trained to think about analytical writing as only essays and articles. The idea that analysis of a text or artwork can appear in the form of a poem, that you can make a claim about a work in poem form, appeals to them, especially the creative writers.
What comes next is the coolest part. I give them a handout of other Hopper paintings. (See the slideshow below.) I use Hopper, not only because of the pairing of Nighthawks with the Oates poem, but because many of Hopper’s paintings are these beautiful, captured moments of time in which Hopper is making a clear claim about humanity, relationships, or the America of the 1940s and 50s.
Students then have an exercise in imitation. They have to pick one of the Hopper paintings in the handout, and write a poem that analyzes the painting in the same way Oates analyzes Nighthawks. Their poem of analysis must be of comparable length to Oates’ poem, and they must imitate Joyce Carol Oates’ style, form, and language effects. I generally give them 2-3 “imitation goals” as well.
For example in her poem, Oates references the female figure’s “pouty lip-sticked mouth.” We would have identified and discussed the adjectivalization of the word “lip-stick,” and one of their tasks in their own poems would be to make a noun that is not normally an adjective, an adjective.
This poetry writing part of the lesson can be done in a day or in several days. I then have students share their poems in a Poetry Coffee House session. We have hot cocoa and cookies, I play music from the 40s and 50s, and as each student shares his or her poem, I project the painting the poem is analyzing on the board behind the student as he or she shares.
It is by far one of the students’ favorite lessons of the year. And it’s one of my favorites because I get to show my students the connections between so many important skills: visual literacy, making clear claims, analysis, poetry, and critical thinking.
This lesson is also the “kick-off” to their first research essay in which students pick a piece of art housed at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. that they think is presenting an argument, and write their first formal research essay. In their research essays, students must present the argument they think the artist is making in the painting or photograph, then support this “claim about claim” with research and their own analysis. This also provides my students with an opportunity to spend the day in the National Gallery of Art. (And who doesn’t like a field trip, right?)
So WVCTE is wondering…
What types of visual literacy lessons do you use in your classroom? How do you connect visual literacy and visual rhetoric to writing? And how can you use and adapt this lesson for your own classroom?
Jessica Salfia teaches AP English, English 11, Mythology, and Creative Writing at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, WV and also serves as an adjunct professor at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. Jessica is the President of WVCTE, an author, a poet, and was selected as the 2016 Berkeley County Teacher of the Year. When she's not teaching, writing, or rescuing shelter dogs, Jessica is probably with her three lovely children and husband at a baseball game. You can check out what Jessica is doing in her classroom by visiting www.salfiaenglishclass.weebly.com, or by following her on Twitter, @jessica_salfia.
by Karla Hilliard
Oh sweet summertime.
That beloved teacher time-of-year to hit the brakes and relax, to put your toes in the water and your mind on neutral, to sleep in until noon and binge on Netflix until whenever, and of course, to fulfill the English teacher dream of savoring the stockpile of books you’ve been waiting to relish in the sunshine.
But we all know that a teacher’s summer is much more than boat drinks and binge watching. Most educators I know are thinking ahead to next year. They are seeking out new professional texts, tweaking their syllabi, attending or presenting at workshops and conferences, collaborating with colleagues, and engaging in online PD. They dedicate plenty of their summer breaks to developing their craft and discovering new ways to engage their students and to become better, stronger, more effective teachers.
In the spirit of the crazy-awesome-amazing-inspiring dedication of teachers everywhere, here are some of my favorite activities and resources you can take back to your classrooms next fall
For Close-Reading & Analysis
Do yourself a favor and take 15 minutes and watch 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling work her magic in an English 12 class. Her Observe, Find Patterns, Draw Conclusions approach is applicable to any genre of text and any level of student. The kind of thinking this strategy requires is solid, and it nudges students towards identifying the complexity of a work. The best part? The students do the heavy lifting – they develop an intimacy with the text, probe for ideas, and construct meanings. Meanwhile, you use your expertise to coach and guide. Trust me: it’s good.
For Mentor Texts & Literary Analysis
As an AP Literature teacher, I’m constantly searching for ways to elevate students’ writing, specifically analysis. Literary analysis is a sticky wicket of an essay. It’s so easy for students to slip into that “sounding smart” voice or and crank out five neat and orderly paragraphs and call it a day. Teacher and author Rebekah O’Dell of Writing With Mentors pitches a genius idea utilizing current, engaging mentor texts (think The New Yorker and The Atlantic) modeling analysis. It makes so much sense! See what she has to say HERE. You’ll be glad you did.
For Novelty & Creativity
I came across a lovely article on Twitter that said when you’re a teacher you learn that, “An idea you had five minutes before class will be such a hit that your kids learn like crazy and talk about it for months afterward.”
This happened to me, and I wrote it about it HERE. The long and short of it is this: poetry + a table of craft supplies + theme analysis + a time limit. I called it the Quickfire Challenge a la Top Chef, and it’s been serving up some mean analysis ever since.
For Formative Assessment
I confess: I’m a sucker for a listicle. But this ain’t no mindless Buzzfeed click-bait. Click HERE to check out the plentiful ideas provided by Todd Finley on Edutopia. (Todd, by the way, has an excellent newsletter called Todd’s Brain. Click here to check it out.) In this article, you’ll find a brief discussion of formative and summative assessments and 53 (fifty-three!) quick and easy ways to assess your students’ understanding. And if you’re feeling wicked, you can have a student choose an activity from the list to assign to the class. Bwahaha!
Brian Sztabnik of Talks With Teachers is a genius. HERE is his Shakespearean Musical Chairs -- a fun, engaging, and adaptable activity that makes for meaningful instruction. Try it out, and make sure to create your own Shakespearean play playlist. I’ll spare you the embarrassing details of my Othello mix, but to give you an idea, it featured Sean “Puffy” Combs AND the theme song from Wizards of Waverly Place.
WVCTE is wondering...
What are YOUR go-to resources? What activities have you had success with? WVCTE would love to learn from you! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Karla Hilliard teaches STEM Academy English and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She has been a classroom teacher for 11 years. When she isn't teaching, you can find Karla hanging with family, cooking up a good meal, reading up on educational trends, crocheting soft things, or eating spoonfuls of peanut butter.
Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE. See what's happening in her classroom at www.hilliardsclass.com or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.