10-second review: Using the student question approach with a poem, Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck.” Taken from Teaching English, How To… Raymond Stopper, Xlibris, 2004.
With Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” as an example, I will explain how I taught and organized a discussion of a literary work.
Follow-up Reading: What Do We Know and What Don’t We Understand?
I read the poem aloud a second time and then invited the students to explain what the poem said. Students pretty well agreed that the poet was describing vividly the scene after an accident, expressing the impressions and the feelings of the workers and the onlookers, and that the poet’s purpose in writing the poem was to raise a question about why such things happen in life.
Now the students read to identify expressions they did not understand. Some examples of phrases that confused them follow:
wings in a heavy curve
The doors leap open, emptying light;
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling, /Empty husks of locusts to iron poles.
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,/ We speak through sickly smiles and warn/ With the stubborn saw of common sense,/ The grim joke and the banal resolution.
But we remain, touching a wound/ That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?/ Becomes unspoken, Who is innocent?
Cancels our physics with a sneer
And spatters all we knew of dénouement/ Across the expedient and wicked stones.
We had plenty to discuss. When the students’ questions have been resolved, I might inject my own or the text book’s questions—but, in my experience the students usually anticipated those questions.
My role as the teacher, because I had used the poem with many other classes, was to draw as many students as possible into the discussion and to record their ideas on the board. Students’ experiences very much influenced their interpretations of the phrases and expressions The students’ experiences made the discussion interesting .
When the students looked to me to provide the answer, I either countered with a question to clarify the issue or remained on the sideline encouraging the students to reach their own conclusions. I had discovered long ago that a “discussion killer” was my imposing the “correct” interpretation on students.
After the students had resolved their questions, I either gave them some professional criticism against which they could compare their interpretations or I shared with them how other classes had agreed with or differed from their interpretations Students were always impressed by how closely their interpretations agreed with professional critics’ interpretations.
With poems and novels, the activities that lead to full participation in literary discussions are students’ speculating about the puzzling meanings of poems, previewing novels to raise questions and by asking the questions, “What do you know?” and “What don’t you understand?”RayS.