Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poetry Unit, Day 1: Beautiful Corpse Poetry

I started off my 7th and 8th Grade poetry unit with a session of Beautiful Corpse Poetry. I told my students that we were going to be pulling out parts of our brains and putting them on the page to make this new, beautiful thing. When I explained to them that writing Beautiful Corpse Poetry was kind of like being zombies, they were all about trying it.

Photo courtesy of VelmaGiggleWink at deviantart.com.


One of my college professors introduced me to Beautiful Corpse Poetry, and I have been in love with the process of the activity ever since. Similar to writing-in-the-round (a term I hate), Beautiful Corpse Poetry utilizes the contributions of the entire class in the creation of poems. Here is how it works:

  • Students are not allowed to talk to one another.
  • Each student gets a sheet of paper.
  • The students write one line of poetry on their own papers.
  • After a specified length of time (I like to use ten seconds), the teacher says "Pass" and all students hand their poems to the person to their immediate right (it helps if you have all of the students sitting in a circle).
  • The process repeats itself, with each student only having ten seconds to read the previous line and add their own new line. Giving the students ten seconds to add to the poem cuts down on the likelihood that they will try to read the entire poem before adding their own line.
  • When the papers go all the way around the circle and students get back "their" poems (the poems where they wrote the first line), everyone yells "STOP!"
  • Students have one minute to read their poems, decide if they want to add one final line to wrap the whole thing up, and come up with a good title.
  • Volunteers go to the front and share their poems.

Students had a great time with this activity. Most of them were brave enough to go in front of the class and share their "corpses," which is no small thing for 12- to 14-year-olds. This willingness to share primarily came from not having the full burden of creating the poem, i.e. they weren't as vulnerable as they would have been had the poems been their sole creations. I also used this time to explain to students some bits of workshop etiquette:

  • Clap when someone is going up to read.
  • Introduce yourself and give the title of your poem before you read.
  • Snap your fingers or "golf clap" when someone finishes reciting.

Throughout the course of our readings, we discussed how it felt to stand in front of a group of people who were applauding you versus standing in front of a group who was quiet. All of the students found the applause to be comforting and confidence-building, some even saying the applause "pumped them up" and made them want to read that much more! We also discussed why it was important to introduce yourself and your work and how snapping after someone reads can help them feel good about their work and make them want to read aloud again.

After the snaps and giggles were over (a lot of the corpses were pretty silly and laugh-worthy), I used the following questions to help them understand what poetry is. Students responded by raising their hands.

  • Who thought this activity was fun?
  • Even though some of them are goofy, who would consider these corpses to be poems?
  • Did all of these poems rhyme?
  • Did some of these poems rhyme?
  • Did some of these poems make sense?
  • Did parts of these poems make sense?
  • Do you think if you looked at them long enough, or even in different ways, you could understand all of these poems?
  • Raise your hand if you actually liked some of these poems!

Hands flew up after each question/prompt. I used students responses to explain that not all poems have to rhyme, though some do; not all poems make sense the first time we read them, but others do; sometimes we have to hear/read a poem more than once to understand it; and, finally, no matter what you write, someone out there will like it. There can still be beauty in something that maybe isn't so pretty to look at, like a corpse or a crazy poem.

Ultimately, this intro to our poetry unit was a great success. Students had a lot of fun with the activity, and the process helped them get a grasp of what poetry is. By far, the best part of the BCP session was the confidence students gained from reading in front of their peers.

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