Some high school teachers might cringe at the thought of using a book about a fourth-or-fifth grade boy who doesn’t want to write poetry to teach their students about poetry, but never have I had such a positive reception to poetry as I do with Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. (And if this post encourages any high school teachers who are unfamiliar with the book to pick it up and give it a quick read, I think they’ll see what I mean. Be warned: you might cry.)
The book is written as Jack’s journal for Miss Stretchberry’s classroom. Throughout the school year, he responds to her writing assignments and poetry analysis exercises with his own poems–although they’re not poems, “because boys / don’t write poetry. / Girls do.” Miss Strechberry introduces her students to a wide range of poets–William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, William Blake, Valerie Worth, Arnold Adoff, S.C. Rigg, and Walter Dean Myers. Jack mimics the style, rhyme, or form of the poets in his journal responses and even, although he’s not sure he wants to claim them, his own poems.
The structure of the book provides a great opportunity to teach these same poets and many poetic terms/forms/techniques.
First, I have my students make a book by tearing and folding paper. Then, they get the chance to decorate the cover of their poetry books. Depending on where we are in our study of poetry, we may do a poetry word web as a class and then freewrite about our feelings about poetry on the first couple of pages of the book.
I read the book aloud, but because the form of Jack’s journal is so important, I project the pages using my document camera/projector. When we get to the point that Creech introduces a new poem, I stop my read-aloud and share the poem. For example, on the third page of the book, Jack responds to “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. Prior to reading this page, I share Williams’s poem with my class. (Creech provides copies of each referenced poem in the back of the book, but I have written them on chart paper and made PowerPoint slides of them throughout the years.) We don’t analyze or discuss the poem; I just read it. Then, we read Jack’s response:
I don’t understand
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much
If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You’ve just got to
Now, the students create their own poem with short lines in their poetry booklets. I encourage them to start with “so much depends / upon” as Williams does (and as Jack will do on the following pages).
We do this throughout the book; you’ll see the natural breaking places for students to write–usually before Jack shares his response with us. It takes about a week to read and write our way through the book. It’s a fun, nonthreatening way to begin a deeper study of poetry and your students will probably surprise you with some of the poems they create. I offer them the chance to type up their favorites for display on a bulletin board at the end of the week.
One year, our introduction to poetry coincided with the NCAA basketball March Madness. I used the poems in this book and other class favorites to create a bracket starting with the Sweet 16. Students drew titles out of a hat, practiced reading the poems, prepared an explanation of why they thought that poem deserved to win, shared with the class and then we voted. All of my classes did the same activity and I tallied the votes at the end of each day to see which poems moved forward. The next day, we debated the merits of the new matchups and voted again. In the end, William Blake’s “The Tyger” was crowned our champion.