Teacher Inquiry Teaching Writing

Using Digital Media to Enhance Student Experience with Poetry at the Middle Level


Gina Doyle explores the use of digital technologies to support her students in writing and reading poetry.

Originally published on March 25, 2011

You’ve probably heard it before, that collective groan that comes with the mere mention of poetry. By the time I get to work with students at the beginning of 7th grade, many have developed some very definite feelings about poetry.  Since I deal with students for two years, I decided to see if I could get more of my 7th graders excited about this genre. I decided to set up an inquiry to see if incorporating more digital media in our work with poetry would enhance their experience.  After all, my students all have MacBooks at their disposal as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Why not use some of the tools available to us to add to my students’ experience and perhaps their audience to make poetry more meaningful to them.

I formulated a poetry survey to get an idea of what my students’ thoughts were concerning poetry.  I used a Google form to develop the survey and the students took it at the beginning of November.  By then we had read and discussed a few poems as a class, after the usual moans and groans.  The results show the percentage of students who strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement.

I enjoy reading poetry:22%

I read poetry on my own:22%

I usually understand poetry:49%

I often write poetry: 6%

Writing poetry helps me express my feelings:  14%

It’s hard to write poetry:32%

Thirteen students or 18% could name a poet they had read. Most remembered Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein.  I believe they remembered Frost from our reading of “Nothing Gold Can Stay”.

Twelve students, 16% had a favorite poet. Most of those named Shel Silverstein.

I felt I had my work cut out for me. Fortunately I had a few ideas to explore.

Creating and Sharing Poetry

About 5 years ago I began a service project with my students. The project was a modification of a community project presented by Kelly Davis of Lakes region Middle School in Naples, Maine. Students write winter poems, affix them to lunch bags, and decorate the bags. The bags are used to decorate the tables at the Senior Citizen Winter Concert and Luncheon which takes place at our high school every December. We put a few pieces of candy in each bag, and high school students stand them on the tables. Our efforts have been warmly received. The project now includes all 7th and 8th graders in our school.

Each November we talk about winter, various styles of poetry, how to create imagery in our writing, and the importance of giving something to our community to brighten the lives of others. Of course some students take this work more seriously than others. Some poems are thoughtful and expressive while others are quick little ditties. Some poetry bags are works of art while others are obviously slapped together with little thought of design or audience. These are seventh and eighth graders after all.

In the fall of 2010 I thought it was time to add another dimension to our project. My school has a history of supporting our service men and women overseas. As 5th graders, my students made ornaments, wrote letters, etc. to send to various Maine units serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. My son-in-law was serving in Afghanistan at the time, so I was inspired to send some of our poetry bags to his unit and a few others. I wanted to add another element to the project. I thought my students could use GarageBand on their MacBooks to make recordings of the poems. This could be mixed with background music and burned onto a CD. We could include a CD in each of the poetry bags we sent overseas to give our soldiers a taste of home. My students became much more excited about this part of the project. They seemed to feel more strongly about this audience. Some students expressed feeling it was important to support our troops. Others were excited to be allowed to use GarageBand.

Putting It Together

Each student wrote multiple winter themed poems and chose two to decorate poetry bags, one for the senior citizens and one for the troops. Some students created their bags with the specific audience in mind. They knew from the beginning which would go to the troops and which would go to the senior citizens. Students recorded both poems using GargeBand. We had some technical difficulties here as students had to be careful about how they saved their recordings. A number of students had difficulty with this step as they were unable to share their recordings. Some students became frustrated as they made the same error multiple times even after 1-1 instruction. I created a screencast using Screencast-O-Matic to help students record and save properly. This was my first time producing and using this type of instructional technology. Though I shared the screencast in class, most students did not refer to it. Several adults in the building found it helpful as they assisted special education students to complete the project.

Another issue was finding a quiet place to record. Many students opted to record at home and others went to various locations in the building to record. Some recordings have a fair amount of background noise due to this. It was encouraging to me to see some students taking this work seriously. Even some of my struggling students did multiple takes of their recordings until they were satisfied with the results. One of these students proudly pointed out that he had used repetition in his poem. Once they were done, each student’s recording was uploaded to their digital portfolio as well as used for the CD. I used GarageBand to mix the student recordings and added instrumental winter and holiday music from freeplaymusic.com as background. Click this link to hear the poetry recordings and see examples of the poetry bags. [media no longer available]

A little later than anticipated half the poetry bags and all the CDs were packed up and shipped to the 379th Engineers Unit, 1136th Transportation Company (SECFOR), and 94th Military Police Army Reserve. These National Guard units had been in Afghanistan for 8 or 9 months. Each student added a short, handwritten note to his poetry bag and we included candy in the package. We have since received a Certificate of Appreciation from the 1136th TC saying our work, “…has had a significantly positive effect on the unit’s morale and mission.” My son-in-law reported that the members of his squad with the 379th Engineers all enjoyed the poetry bags and CD’s. My students were excited to receive this feedback.


As we reflected back on this project most students had positive feelings. Some enjoyed the artistic aspect of decorating the bags while others felt strongly about helping others. One special needs student said, “I think it’s important to help other people if you get the chance.” A few students shared that having a different audience caused them to give more consideration to their word choice in the poems. They wanted to be sure their poems had a positive message. Most students enjoyed working with GarageBand. When we were burning our CDs to send overseas the majority of students enjoyed listening to the final product and were even more excited to share their work.

Next year, when I am working with my students as eighth graders, I plan to extend this project. I have already spoken with teachers from the younger grades who are interested in taking part. I envision my 8th graders working with 5th and 6th graders to help them write and record poetry.

Enhancing Student Appreciation of Poetry Using iMovie

The second phase of my inquiry was to see if the use of digital media would enhance student experiences with reading poetry. Typically we would spend a few days perusing poetry books which I provided for the students. We read and discussed a few poems as a class which I selected. Then students were expected to read a certain number of poems which they selected. Based on input from the students I set up poetry partners. Students chose several of their self-selected poems to discuss with their partners. I began madly making copies of the poems, so students could make notes on the poems.

This year as a class we read “Season at the Shore” by Phyllis McGinley which gives us a great opportunity to look at imagery and sound devices. We also read “Cracked Glass” by Erin Nishimura, a 7th grade student at Iolani School at the time she wrote the poem. Cracked Glass.pdfThis has examples of simile and metaphor. I used both these poems to demonstrate note taking and the discussion format I wanted them to use.

Once all the discussions had taken place I had students work with their poetry partner(s) to create an iMovie presentation of one of the poems they had discussed. The presentation was to have three components: images that reflect the message of the poem, voiceover reading of the poem, and background music that fits the message of the poem. I created a demonstration project which I shared with them. Some students were ready to jump over the various readings and discussions and get right to iMovie. Some students struggled with finding a suitable poem while others went with more literal interpretations. As I circulated the room during work time I could hear some deep discussions about which images would work best. Many students were fully engaged in the task. One student was very moved by Walt Whitman’s poem “A Man’s Body at Auction” but was frustrated with his image search. He considered switching poems until we spoke about the message of the poem. “Oh,” he said, “I think I can do that one now that I know I don’t need the exact pictures.” When I checked in with him later in the class he was pleased with the images he had collected thus far. He was able to extend his thinking of the poem to include not only auctions, but the conditions under which slaves lived.

For this project we used iMovie ’09. There was some frustration in working with the technical aspects of saving images and transferring them into iMovie. Some students had difficulty because they recorded in GarageBand and had forgotten how to save their work. As I circulated I often had to help students with the technical aspects of making transitions, text frames, and finding music using sources available on iMovie. Students also helped each other as they discovered how to use the program. Students were encouraged to search for images using Creative Commons. Some students needed reminding of all the requirements for the movie. All in all the reaction from students was positive and they were mostly excited to show their work to the class.

As I viewed the final projects I saw the students could have used more direction in choosing poems as a few were too short to do the project justice. They also needed more direction in paying attention to the volume of their voices and music as one sometimes overpowered the other. Some groups would have benefited from further discussion of their poems. They tended to look at the literal message of the poem. For example, one group of boys chose to make their iMovie about “First Deer” by Paul Corrigan, a Maine poet.

First Deer.pdf

They became stuck on the ideas of dressing the deer and missed the father-son connection of the poem. In the future I would have a conversation with each group about the message of their chosen poem before or during their iMovie production. Some groups were very creative in their use of images and sound effects. A few were creative in their use of multiple voices and overall presentation.

As we reflected on this project students said producing the iMovie made them think more deeply about the poem. They had to consider images as well as how they would read the poem. They thought about timing as well as expressions and volume. They enjoyed viewing the iMovie’s created by their peers. Some were most anxious to hear what I thought of their projects. A number of students began to think of revisions which would improve their projects. Overall student reactions were positive, and the quality of the productions have encouraged me to repeat this project in the future.

Next Steps

As of this writing my inquiry is still incomplete.  During the month of April, poetry month, we will be sharing these poetry movies with the entire school during the morning broadcast.   The plan is to show one movie each day.  During that month we will also revisit writing poetry.  This time we will be writing about place.  Using Rural Voices Radio as an example students will write about places which are special to them.  I envision students creating another iMovie to present their writing.  This time they would most likely use their own images.  We, the students and I, may also select the best poems or projects to produce our own “Voices” CD.  In future years I envision opening this up to other grades in the school.  I also will be encouraging my students to choose a favorite poem to share with others on “Poem in Your Pocket Day” which is April 14, 2011. At the end of the year I will have students retake the poetry survey though I will reshuffle the statements.  I look forward to seeing if our work in this area has made a difference.