by Madeleine Fuchs Holzer, Ed.D
Grade Level: 9-10
These lessons focus on poems that have appeared in famous films:
O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
To An Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost
Alone by Maya Angelou
Each year the United States obsesses about the awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, otherwise known as the Oscars. Yet, how often do we notice that poems are included in films, award winning or otherwise? The activities in these lesson plans help us look at the often overlooked connection between poetry and film. Your students will watch a clip of the film Dead Poets Society, in which poetry plays a strong role. Then, selecting from poems that have already been included in movies, they will create their own screenplay scene in which poetry is central.
Aligned with the Common Core State Standards in Literacy, these activities specifically relate to Reading Literature, Writing, and Speaking and Listening. They are also designed so you can differentiate for diverse student learners. Feel free to use all or part of the activities, and adjust them, as necessary, to meet your students’ needs.
Literature Common Core Standards Addressed in These Activities
Reading, Key Ideas, and Details:
Writing, Text Types and Purposes:
Speaking and Listening, Comprehension and Collaboration:
Studying the Poems
- Create a synthesis out of multiple perspectives
- Hone their skills in narrative writing
- Create a scene for a screenplay
- Perform their scene for an audience
- Film their scene
- Critique other scenes
For this activity, you will have to get a DVD of Dead Poets Society (1989), a film with Robin Williams that includes the importance of poetry as part of its central narrative.
- Show your students the segment of the film where Robin Williams’ students recite Oh,Captain! My Captain! to him. Make sure to show the scene that leads up to the recitation, as well as what follows. You may find you want to show the whole film, if you have time.
- Have your students turn and talk with a partner about the significance of this recitation in the movie. Why do they think this particular poem was chosen? What does it mean in the film? What does the poem mean to them? Why?
- Conduct a whole class discussion in which you discuss their perspectives, writing key ideas on the board.
Small Group Work
Tell your students they will be writing a scene for their own screenplay. As in Dead Poets Society, they will include poems as central to their story. (If you wish, you can give your students the choice of either writing a screenplay, or creating a storyboard. You can also ask them to do both, if you have the time and feel it is appropriate.) This first activity is to familiarize them with poems from which they can choose. All of these have been in films before.
Divide your class into heterogeneous small groups of no more than four students. Give each group a packet of the five poems listed above (except Oh, Captain! My Captain!) Ask your students to:
- Read through the five poems. Make sure they listen to the poems read aloud in two different voices within their groups.
- Write what jumps out at them in the poems. Why do they think these words, phrases, lines are important to the poem? Give examples.
- Share what they have written with other members of their group.
- Based on what they have shared as important, come to an agreed-upon understanding of each of the poems with other group members.
It is now time for your students to write their scenes. Assemble the same heterogeneous small groups from the collaborative reading above. Each group will write one screenplay that includes one or two of the poems from the five they have just read. Their scene will have a beginning that will engage the audience, use a variety of techniques to sequence events, and provide a conclusion that follows from what has happened previously in the scene. As in the clip from Dead Poets Society that they saw, the poem should be pivotal to the action of the scene, and not an add-on. Each student group should have:
- One person who will act as facilitator to make sure everyone in the group participates, and brings the group to consensus on
- The subject of the scene
- The one or two poems they will include
- The number of characters in the scene
- Who the characters are
- The setting of the action
- The scene’s narrative—with a beginning, middle, and end
- Which poem(s) they will include
- The lines the characters will speak
- One person who will record the group’s decisions
- Another person to actually write down the scene
- (If you are doing storyboards) A person to record the decisions on a storyboard
Each group should hand in their scenes/storyboards for your comments and editing, before they rehearse their performances.
Performance Activities (Speaking and Listening)
Give your students time to rehearse their scenes. One person (not the facilitator) should act as director. Each group rehearsal should include:
- one director
- three actors
- stage blocking
- appropriate gestures
- simple props (if available)
Remind the students that their scenes will be filmed and that their voices need to be loud and clear enough for other students, and the microphone, to record them. They should time their scenes to last no more than 10 minutes each. If you have a theater teacher or teaching artist in your school, you may want to invite her to give some pointers as students rehearse.
Each group performs their scene for their classmates. During each performance, the other students will task is to engage with the performance, as a performance. Make sure there is applause for each scene. After each experience, ask the students who were watching to write down what they noticed and heard in the scene. What do they think were the strengths of the scene and the performance? How do they think it might have been improved?
Make sure the performances are filmed, if you want to proceed with the Critique portion of these lessons.
As a whole class, have your students look at the video of the scenes, one at a time. At the end of each performance, ask the students who performed, if they have anything they saw that would improve the scene if they were to perform it again. Then ask the other students for their critique of the scene.
Applause all around!!!!
As your students read the poems in these activities, they may come across some words that are difficult for them. Ask them to keep a record of these words on the board in the front of the room, so the class can discover their meanings together. These words might include:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Back to School (1986)/ Dangerous Minds (1995)
To An Athlete Dying Young
Out of Africa (1985)
In Her Shoes (2005)
Nothing Gold Can Stay
The Outsiders (1983)
Poetic Justice (1993)
For more information about poems that appeared in films, take a look at the article "Poetry in Movies: A Partial List."