Poetry transcription is a winner
I tried poetry transcription with my high school poetry class last year, and it was a solid winner. It was such a winner that I’m planning on doing it in my college freshman literature classes this fall. I learned about poetry transcription on Liz Prather‘s Teach Like Everyone is Listening website using this 2014 blog post, Poetry Transcription: Work It, Own It.
What is poetry transcription?
Well, here’s my quick definition: a listening activity where a reader dictates a poem to a listener, who records it as accurately as possible in order to notice and analyze the choices writers make.
Based on the information and details in Prather’s blog post, poetry transcription immediately struck me as one of those wonderfully simple activities that would yield big results. And I wasn’t wrong.
Reflecting back on my first attempt with poetry transcription, I’m sold on its value and effectiveness because it not only showcases beautiful poetry, but because it also demonstrates basic writing skills and grammar so well. As In The Atlantic’s “Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important,” Andrew Simmons writes, “Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do — and do not — abide by traditional writing rules in their work.”
In other words, poetry transcription serves to show the choices that poets make to create their art.
Poetry transcription turned into one of my class’ favorite activities that they looked forward to every. single. time. This was the case especially when I stepped out of the leadership role, and let the students handle the entire activity.
Here’s my poetry transcription routine:
- Before class, I found a poem (usually from the Poetry Out Loud website or Poetry Foundation) that I both enjoyed and wasn’t more than twenty lines long.
- At the beginning of class, I told students to get out a sheet of paper and a pencil (not a pen, because they’ll probably need to erase at one point) and get ready to transcribe.
- Then I read the poem aloud line by line, slowly, signaling for punctuation, capital letters, extra spaces, italics, spelling out unknown words, homonyms, etc. For example, here’s exactly how I would say it: “This is a poem by Emily Dickinson. The poem is untitled, so we are going to use the first line as the title. So the title to write down is Hope is the thing with feathers. The word hope has a capital H. The next line is the byline, which tells who the poem is “by.” So below the title, write by with a lower case b followed by Emily Dickinson. Spell Emily capital E-m-i-l-y and Dickinson capital D-i-c-k-i-n-s-o-n. So let’s start with the first line. Here it is: Hope… with a capital H… is the thing with feathers. There are quotation marks around the word hope. There is a dash at the end of the line. Second line. First word is that with a capital T. That perches in the soul. There is a dash after the word soul.” And then I would continue until the end of the poem.
- I would wait for students to write down each line as it was read. Also, based on Prather’s suggestion, I had told students I would repeat the line once, but not more than that. If students didn’t listen, they weren’t able to complete the activity. In addition, if they were unsure of a word’s spelling, they could ask. (It’s amazing how many students don’t know that they don’t know how to spell a word! I remember nearly everyone — like 14 out of 20 — misspelled the word “monstrous” as “monsterous” while transcribing one day.)
- When I finished reading the poem, I would choose someone to read it in its entirety. Hearing it without interruption felt like unwrapping a gift! As they listened, students would follow along on their copies, correcting any errors they had made.
- After the poem’s uninterrupted reading, then discussion would begin. And this was where it became really fun with…
…the most authentic discussions ever!
- For example, students questioned Dickinson’s use of those dashes.
- And then someone else asked why are they even there?
- Or another would question the quotation marks around the word hope.
- Or why the words such as gale, bird, and extremity began with a capital letter.
- In return, others would offer their ideas: She probably wanted to emphasize a word’s importance, to offset it maybe.
- Or perhaps she intended to personify the bird, for example, in some way.
- And then another student wondered about the purpose of the metaphor.
See what I mean by authentic discussions?!
And these were real questions asked by curious, serious students! Slowing down, reading the poem word by word, and pausing to clarify something allowed the poem the time needed to sink in and brew, so we could contemplate the poet’s choices and her reasonings for those choices.
And, for my poetry teaching last year (my first year teaching it, btw), a key objective was to convey to students that poetry is simply this: an endeavor where writers make numerous choices. Yes, my class would often try to determine a poem’s meaning, but, as a general rule, we didn’t become bogged down by that often impossible task. Instead, poetry transcription allowed us to consider the poet’s choices that could indicate meaning. (Read Billy Collins’ Introduction to Poetry to dispel the myth that poetry must be understood.)
My school last year operated on a four-day week and once I started doing poetry transcription, my class did it about one or two days a week. After we transcribed a poem, we would make a pot of coffee and then students would work on their weekly poem that they would present later that week (usually on Fridays).
At first, I chose poems in groups of two or three by the same poet to determine if we could detect the poet’s style. I started with Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and “Fame is a fickle food”, before switching to Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips”, “Blessing the Boats”, and “I Am Accused of Tending to the Past.” (Other poems we transcribed included Shel Silverstein’s “Lazy Jane”; Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “At the Pumpkin Festival My Lips Burn Bright”. Just for laughs we used two poems from John Kenney’s Love Poems (for the Office): “Team Building” and “Thank you for heating up fish leftovers in the break room microwave again.” We transcribed several more, but as I look back through my plans, I didn’t keep a complete list — darn!)
As for grading, I made this strictly a participation activity. I would collect everyone’s transcriptions and glance through them making sure everyone was taking part. I wasn’t checking their work per se, but I did want to see evidence that students were taking the activity seriously.
After one class period, I noticed that nearly everyone misspelled “monstrous” from the poem we had transcribed that day. The next afternoon, I reminded students to be sure to ask about the spelling of any word they were not completely sure how to spell. In other words, they shouldn’t assume they know how to spell every word. After that day, students started asking more questions, taking the time to get every line written exactly as it was originally conceived by the poet.
Eventually, as the students became accustomed to the poetry transcription, they would volunteer to lead the activity, which was music to my ears!
Isn’t it SO AWESOME when your kids show total buy-in?!
To take their turn leading transcription, I reminded them to take the time to find a poem they truly liked and to make sure it was ten to twenty lines long.
And once the kids took over, I could participate as a student. I would grab a vacant seat alongside them, sit with them, listen, write, notice, question, discuss, wonder, and just love poetry transcription so much!
Thanks for reading!
Have you ever tried poetry transcription? I’m totally sold on it! It really is one of the best things I did during the 2021-2022 school year. The way it calls attention to writer’s choices and gets students talking authentically about grammar and language makes it a winner! Use it as a bell-ringer or class opener and get class off to an awesome start.
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