Fun and Functional
Like many educators, I strive to develop learning activities that are both meaningful and engaging. No matter how important an instructional task may be, the truth is that many students will simply refuse to complete an activity if they find it “boring.” And if they don’t complete it, then it doesn’t matter how well the activity targets the desired skill – it will be ineffective simply because it is left incomplete.
As an educator who works in the real world, I understand the value of designing lessons that will capture my students’ interest. But as we create our lessons, we must be careful not to sacrifice educational goals in the service of entertainment. So I’m always looking for ways to make lessons both fun and functional, anchoring all of our activities – even the more creative and playful ones – in educational strands.
With this in mind, I’ve recently turned my attention towards one of the activities I’ve conducted with my students in the past that, if I’m being honest, has always been more engaging than meaningful: Found Poetry.
Found Poetry is a wonderful approach to poetry instruction that introduces poetry skills and concepts to students in ways that are perhaps less-intimidating than jumping straight into analysis or asking students to create an original poem entirely from their own imagination. With Found Poetry (sometimes called “Blackout Poetry”), students are provided an excerpt from a published text of roughly one page in length. They read the passage and then identify words hidden within the larger passage that could be extracted, in sequence, to create an original poem. The unused words are then blacked out, leaving only the “found” portions visible. It’s a great activity that’s been used in classrooms all around the country, including my own. But in previous years, in my classes, the activity has not always carried the same academic heft that I believe our lessons should. Specifically, I believe that the way I’ve integrated Found Poetry activities into my classes in the past failed to sufficiently connect the learning goals to the task. The activities were fun and students enjoyed completing them, but I doubt that many, if any, would be able to articulate how the activity advanced their learning if I had ever bothered to ask. And that’s a problem.
It’s an even bigger problem in a year when we are trying to recover so much lost learning, when every instructional moment is both too brief and too important to squander. So as I’ve been working through the last few units of the year, considering where students currently are and where they need to be, I’ve found myself pondering the merits of incorporating Found Poetry activities into my classes. Recognizing the value of creative activities such as these – we are the home of Writing Wednesdays after all – I didn’t want to lose a lesson that I know my students love. But I also didn’t want to lose instructional time that I know my students need. I knew a solution needed to be found.
Revise, Don’t Rewrite
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to rework existing assignments, and I’ve been teaching long enough to know that, when you’re stuck, the solution is rarely to throw an existing strategy out entirely. Often, simply reimagining that assignment to better align with your needs is the most efficient and effective approach. This isn’t simply because reimagining an assignment saves time – which it does – but because reimagining an assignment allows you to draw on the knowledge you learned about that task in previous years, reflecting on the components that worked and the ones that didn’t in order to refine the lesson effectively. Here’s the process I recommend for tweaking an existing lesson plan or activity:
- Celebrate the wins: Pull up your existing assignment and identify the features that you love and that work well as-is.
- Identify the challenge areas: Review the lesson plan to identify which specific skill(s) may be lacking in its current form that you would like to incorporate more fully into the activity.
- Put yourself in your students’ shoes: Spend a few minutes walking through the assignment as if you were the student. Where are the logical transitions that could be used to move students through the original instructions and towards the desired goals? What new steps, if any, should be added so the activity flows smoothly from one step to the next? What existing steps should be adjusted or removed either because they interrupt the flow or no longer serve your new goals?
- Refine and reassign: Revise your plan accordingly and update the rubric to reflect your changes. (And yes, you need a rubric…) Then, when the time is right, assign the new-and-improved version of the lesson to your students.
Deepen the Learning
In the case of my own classes, we’re going to be reading Fahrenheit 451 shortly and I’d love to have students work with Ray Bradbury’s text to create Found Poetry as part of our unit – an activity made particularly poignant when pairing it with a text that cautions against the dangers of blinding yourself to the value hiding inside the pages of a book. As I planned for the unit, I considered the objectives both for the larger unit and for the individual activity to ensure that all of my individual lessons worked towards the overarching goal. For the Found Poetry lesson, I wanted to achieve several objectives:
- Have students explore the structure of the text by considering how each of the three parts works together to shape meaning;
- Consider one of the theme topics presented in the text and create Found Poetry that serves to deepen, challenge, or complicate their understanding of that theme; and
- Complete a brief written analysis that explores the significance of their findings.
This is a far more comprehensive list of outcomes than my former approach to Found Poetry incorporated, so I wanted to ensure the activity was properly scaffolded. Using the steps outlined above, I redesigned my lesson plan by developing it into a more purposeful, standards-driven activity, complete with a proper rubric, which I shamefacedly admit was one of the components that was lacking in previous iterations. While I’m sure that I’ll continue to make adjustments to the plan once I’ve had a chance to reflect on my students’ work, I am satisfied that this is a far stronger activity than it used to be and I love that I was able to revise a good activity to make it both fun and functional.