My first foray into CloseReading took place in June 2013. At the End of Year Conference for Principals hosted by Teachers College, Lucy Calkins shared the poem “To A Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan.
“To a Daughter Leaving Home”
When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
for your life, screaming
the hair flapping
behind you like a
“To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening. © Norton, 1998.
In her demonstration, she had participants work in partnerships where Partner A would read collecting text evidence about the mother in the poem and Partner B would do the same for the daughter. Based on the evidence we gathered, we developed new, deeper perspectives about the poem and what it could be about. After watching her, I felt confident that I could turnkey this in one of my teacher’s classrooms. I chose to work with fifth graders as graduation was rapidly approaching and the bittersweet sentiments associated with commencement and leaving your first “school family” resonated with me. The dad in me, still reeling from watching my son “step-up” from Pre-K, also hoped a close reading of the poem might help the students grasp the enormity of this moment in their lives for their parents. Like mine, their babies are growing up, way too fast.
On the first day, the students came to the meeting area with a copy of the poem in their SMART Pals folders and a dry-erase marker. After glancing quickly at the poem, I asked them to identify the genre of the piece to which they replied, “It’s a poem.” Quickly, they were prompted to write down everything they knew about this genre with regard to text features and/or a poet’s reason for writing. This provided an opportunity for assessment as it allowed me to see what they remembered about the genre. Based my observations, I noted that I would like to reinforce the students’ familiarity with Author’s Craft and how poets/writers use things like similes and metaphors to add richness to their pieces. However, for this lesson, I wanted students to consider that there are typically two types of poems, Narrative Poems and Expository Poems. After having the students skim the poem, they quickly realized that the poem was narrative in nature. In our reading, I asked them to consider “the story” being told and it’s central message or theme.
After reading the poem, I shared with the students the following sentence frame which they would use when talking to their partners and later when writing about the poem:
On the surface, this could be about… On another level, it could be about…
In their conversations, with some coaching, the students commented that this short poem seemed to be about a bike ride, but on another level, it could be about “growing up,” “leaving home,” and “the love between a parent and a child.” We concluded the lesson by having the children use the frame to help them write about the poem in their Response Notebooks.
On the second day, I mirrored much of the work that Lucy did with the participants in our principals’ workshop. The students were very successful in finding text evidence and were very confident when sharing what they found, first in partnerships, and then in a larger group. After jotting their evidence on a chart, I asked them to look for patterns in their noticings and to see if this reading made them revise, rethink or add on to their responses from the previous day. To my surprise, the inferential thinking done on the first day became more literal which made me panic… slightly. However, I knew we would have one more day to bring the students full circle.
On the final day, I decided to focus the students on the language the poet used and I introduced the concepts of “line length” and “white space.” When analyzing this poem, I noted the length of the lines caused a flowing white space and paralleled the words “wind” and “curved path” utilized in the poem. I also wanted the students to notice the poem contained no stanzas which one could argue was done purposely to reflect the unbreakable bond that exists between a child and a parent. To help the students see this, I turned the paper the poem was written on to display it in landscape form. This made it easier for the students to respond to the question, “How does the shape of the poem created by the poet mirror the words in the poem?”
To their credit, many students cited the lines “my own mouth rounding in surprise when you pulled ahead down the curved path of the park” and “while you grew smaller, more breakable with distance” when explaining they thought the poem was about growing up. One child noted the change in line length caused the poem to look like a “heartbeat” on a heart monitor when explaining he thought the poem was about the love between parents and children. These noticings added to the conversation that followed our third reading where students talked more about the deeper meaning of the poem.
Overall, I was most pleased with the students’ observations and their ability to articulate their thinking. I found the progression of steps we took in our close reading achieved a lot of what Chris says here when discussing our goals for lesson planning:
Truly, I hope and believe that the students can continue this work on their own when they face a piece of unfamiliar text. On a selfish note, the experience for me was one of the best I had all year and I couldn’t wait for summer to come and go so I could try this again with a new group of students.