Reading and Writing Poems About Place
Teacher:  Judy Bebelaar

Overview: What makes a poem sing? Good readers know to look for images, metaphor and simile, personification, detail, inference, tone, meaning. They know to identify words, phrases, sentences they do and don’t understand, and to ask questions of themselves and others in order to expand their understanding.

Good writers know how to use tools such as image, metaphor and simile, personification, selective descriptive detail, and appeal to the senses in order to convey meaning and mood. They know how to edit and revise to make their writing speak to an audience.

In this activity, students will learn to be good readers as they study poems centered in a sense of place. Following their study, students will attempt to become good (or at least better) writers themselves by incorporating those same elements in their own place-centered poems.


Copies of the following poems are referred to in the lesson. You may substitute appropriate poems of your choosing.

  • Carl Sandberg "Chicago" (The Harper American Literature, Volume 2, ed. Donald McQuade, Harper Collins, New York, 1993)
  • Jennifer Brown "Africa and the Caribbean" (Ain’t I a Woman: A Book of Women’s Poetry from Around the World, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1990)
  • Mari Evans "Modern American Suite in Four Movements" (A Dark and Splendid Mass, Harlem River Press, New York, 1992)

Time: 2-3 hours

Instructional Sequence:

  1. Students read one of the poems and:
  • identify vocabulary they don’t understand
  • identify images
  • look for figures of speech
  • talk about tone and meaning
  • brainstorm a list of elements these writers employ to describe their cities
  • look for and list examples of the particular techniques these writers use:
    • Sandberg — personification
    • Evans — lists, alliteration
    • Brown — a poem of address
  1. Explain what an image is, then ask students to look for (give them a minute or two) and say aloud the images they find most interesting and effective.

  2. Students make a list of cities important to them — birthplaces, favorite cities, hometowns.

  3. Students choose one (probably the city or town they share) and begin a model poem together, with your help, on the board. Explain that since they are using a poet’s form and trying his/her techniques, they must include, in their titles, "After a Poem by…" or "Inspired by X’s poem, "Y" or some such phrase. With the Sandberg poem, ask what sort of a person he’s made Chicago, and outline for students Sandberg’s pattern of lines:
    • Four kinds of workers, short lines
    • Three adjectives (vivid, two made from strong verbs)
    • "City" followed by a prepositional phrase that paints a picture
    • Next stanza has very long lines, and uses the phrases, "They tell me you… and I believe them, for I have seen…;" "And they tell me…;" "And having answered so I turn…," etc.

  4. Students can stay as close or stray as far from the model as they wish, as long as they paint a picture of the city which personifies it as a very particular person, one we can see and hear. The strong images are key, as are the strong verbs and adjectives made from verbs. (Here’s a place to sneak in a lesson about participles.)

  5. Sandberg returns to short, one word lines, then three words in a line, then back to long lines which repeat "laughing," and "laughs." Ask students to think about the effect of that word on the image of Chicago.

  6. For the Evans poem, ask students to identify what she chooses to list, what kinds of adjectives she uses; why she makes line breaks where she does and isolates some words, like "to me," and "the Giftless," and "to Give;" why she capitalizes some words and phrases; where she uses rhyme, and why. Ask them to write short lines, thinking about what words will be first or last in a line, and therefore receive slightly more emphasis. Ask them to look for alliteration. Ask them if they see references to Langston Hughes anywhere, and explain that writers often pay homage to other writers in their work.

  7. For Brown’s poem, ask who is speaking, to whom? Ask what the two lovers represent, and why the Caribbean needed to "find" and "recall." Why were her songs "new"? Ask them to think of two cities or countries which represent them, or their families, and to personify them. Ask them to begin the poem with an "I," and speak to a "you."

  8. Use only one model poem per lesson, unless you have a class of very sophisticated writers.

  9. Read model student poems also. Then each student chooses a city and writes his/her own poem for ten to twenty minutes. Let them know you’ll be reading some aloud, anonymously, unless you’re doing this lesson at the end of the year, when students are comfortable with (and more skilled at) reading their own work. Toward the end of the time, ask them to work on an ending — the hardest part. They may want to repeat a line, end with the beginning lines, summarize, cast a new light on the city or place. They should jot down any ideas they won’t have time to complete. The teacher selects a few to read aloud, commenting on especially effective images, details, personification, etc. Give students revision tips and read aloud, or ask students to read some of the revised poems.

Evaluation: Students' poetry

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