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June 7, 2024

By Kristen Perrone, Communications Manager

Building upon the basics of a subject and exploring its layers as students mature is a key element of education at Ethical Culture Fieldston School. For Fieldston Middle 6th Graders, diving beyond their introductory poetry units of elementary school was one of the latest ways they continued developing this comprehension. 

In 6th Grade English, teachers Mollie Glasser and Ron Villanueva aimed to offer a more focused and creative exploration of poetry’s meaning and significance in this year’s poetry unit. In previous years, the 6th Grade poetry curriculum wove fundamentals into the students’ work with Jennifer Roy’s “Yellow Star,” a verse novel where events in Jewish characters’ lives during World War II are illuminated through poetry sequences. To create a more hands-on approach for students in navigating the novel’s use of poetic forms, Glasser and Villanueva also created an expansive anthology of poems ranging from the work of classic poets such as W.H. Auden and Walt Whitman to the more contemporary styles of Maya Angelou and Terrance Hayes.

“Now we’re using the anthology to offer a kind of primer for the vocabulary, concepts, and discussions of form that empowered a deeper look at Jennifer Roy’s storytelling,” Villanueva explains.

Ethical Culture Fieldston School 6th Graders study art and poetry.

Complete with a glossary of poetic forms, techniques, and terms, the anthology not only introduced 6th Graders to different poetic concepts but also served as material used to practice annotation, or marking important or interesting text and reacting to it thoughtfully. When reading the anthology, students were asked to consider whether a poem makes them feel in their head (a scene, image, or phrase that connects with new learning or inspires one to change their mind), heart (something that sparks emotion), or gut (something that leaves an impact on a reader).

Sharing that this year’s poetry studies expanded upon basics explored in the 5th Grade poetry unit, Isaac S. ’30 says, “Annotating is a lot of fun because you can look for more specific emotions and techniques rather than main themes.”

Using annotation to consider how poems made them feel later contributed to students’ exploration of the ekphrastic poetry technique, which is written in response to another work of art. English classes visited the Tate Library’s display of Fieldston Upper students’ artwork for inspiration on writing their own ekphrastic poems. “Students felt real agency with the anthology because we bounced around and it wasn’t linear,” Villanueva adds. “When we taught about forms and approaches to writing poetry, they also made use of things in our community.”

Ethical Culture Fieldston School 6th Graders study art and poetry.

“They had their understanding of what certain poetic techniques were, like metaphors, similes, and description,” Villanueva continues. “They also had this creative challenge to respond to something someone else had done and have fun with it.”

Ethical Culture Fieldston School 6th Graders study art and poetry.

“They had practice reading poems and then writing their own, and then we used that to jump into “Yellow Star,” which is written in verse,” Glasser says. 

With many students encountering concepts such as acrostic poems (in which each line’s first letter spells out a phrase when read vertically) in elementary school, 6th Grade assignments also expanded students’ ideas of what these forms could resemble. To accompany what they read in “Yellow Star” about a Jewish family’s Holocaust experience, the entire grade visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark” exhibit, incorporating the novel’s verse format into the immersive experience.

“Since they had the background on the different poetic forms, they could use that as they learned about this story,” Glasser explains. “Because the museum had staggered entrances, all of the students couldn’t be in the exhibit at once. So they were challenged to use the acrostic form to write about the character in this book and her identity using her name, and then think about their own identities and write acrostic poems with their own names. What are the essential aspects of their own identities?”

The poetry unit followed students studying Lois Lowry’s novel “The Giver.” The shift from analyzing a traditional novel to responding to shorter forms of writing proved to be beneficial for students. “‘The Giver’ is a conventional novel, whereas with poetry, students have all of these assumptions and memories from 5th Grade and earlier,” says Villanueva. “The bridge between the units was a technique of annotating things. These little parcels of intense thought in poetry were appealing to them.” 

Ethical Culture Fieldston School 6th Graders study art and poetry.

Students familiarizing themselves with their identities through the lens of poetry and verse subsequently transitioned into writing identity letters, which asked 6th Graders to consider their own personal stories. Mirroring a capstone project earlier this year where students studied themselves as learners, the identity letter asked them to write to a trusted adult about who they are and what makes them unique.

“They’re writing a letter to someone they care about, a self portrait, and trying to say, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s who I’m becoming, you may not know this about me,’” Villanueva explains. “The last framework is ‘I think this would matter to you because,’ so there’s a hope that this letter becomes a takeaway about their identity as it’s evolving.”

Noting that students have continued reading poems or verse novels during their free reading time, Glasser and Villanueva believe that the lasting effects of their poetry study promise to foster growth as more complex readers and interpreters. 

“I recognized that students were able to more readily and naturally remark on relationships between the architecture of individual poems and the deeper themes, tensions, and ideas,” Villanueva says about 6th Graders’ growth. “I also heard their confidence as readers and performers of poetry growing as a result of them experimenting with many of the techniques that Jennifer Roy used.”