One of my favorite activities to help students understand and interpret poetry is the graphic representation. I usually do this activity when my students’ energy starts to lag just a little . . . it may be right before a holiday or in the middle of a semester. We’ve already worked together for awhile, so they know what I mean when I use the words “symbol” and “theme.”
Usually, I select a number of poems that are thematically related or that are of high interest. Some of the most effective poems to use in this activity are “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy, “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin, and even “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen.
I divide the students into small groups, asking them to read and interpret the poem they are assigned (each group has a different poem). I don’t give them any more guidance than that–I want the students to engage with the poem in whatever way makes sense to them . . . and generally they do quite well with the activity (as long as I’m careful in my choice of poems).
After they’ve discussed the poems and I feel like they have a pretty good understanding of it, I distribute poster paper (or giant post-its) and I get out the magic markers. I interrupt briefly telling them that each group needs to draw a graphic representation that symbolizes the meaning of the poem. I’m very specific that they SHOULD NOT illustrate the poem, but that they should create something that they believe encapsulates their poem’s meaning. This gives them the opportunity to apply their understanding of symbolism.
In addition to the visual representation of the theme, they must also select three brief passages from their poem, the passages that they believe are most revealing of the theme. They include these passages with the visual, the author’s name, the poem’s title, and the names of the group members.
When their work is done, they display their posters on the wall. We then do a gallery walk where students meander about, looking at the posters, taking notes, and deciding what they think the poem means based on what they see. We then come back together as a class and discuss each graphic representation and the poem. Students often try to guess the meanings of the poems assigned to other groups–and then the original group adds to or revises the responses.
Students really enjoy this activity–it frees them to think about meaning, it allows them to use their creativity, and it exposes them to several poems in a meaningful way. Best of all, it lessens their anxiety about interpreting poetry.